July 25, 2010
Why do you think the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray?
I think it is because he prayed a lot. And they actually probably did too, given their religious culture. But I think they realized prayer meant something different to Jesus than it did to them. When he was praying, he was really praying.
Well I am here this morning to tell you that prayer works. Sometimes. And it is the sometimes that makes the whole issue of prayer as complex as it is. If God always answered prayers, or never answered prayers, this would all be a different story. But sometimes prayers are answered and sometimes they are not. It’s confusing. Sometimes my prayers are answered and sometimes they aren’t.
It is not helpful for me when people respond with something like, “Well, God answers every prayer, but the answers are just different than we were expecting.” It’s a way to try to convince ourselves that prayer works, even when it doesn’t actually seem to be.
I guess it is true that we would be in bad straights if God always answered our prayers the way we wanted them to be answered. One of the things I like about the universe is that God is God and I’m not. So I am willing to trust God’s ways and wisdom and will, because they are better than mine. But that only helps to a point.
The variation on that theme is that God answers all prayers that are in accordance with God’s will. Which, as far as I can tell, means that God’s says yes to the things God was already going to say yes to anyway. That makes prayer a puzzle to figure out. Just ask for the right things, and it will work.
Nor can I go along with the notion that prayer works if your faith is strong enough. If all of my prayers depended on my faith, that would be pretty sad. And if prayer being answered is a matter of our faith, then where does that leave God? Does God just pull out the old faithometer? If it’s in the green zone the prayer is answered? That makes God more of a technician, a meter reader, than the creator of heaven and earth. It makes it all about me rather than about God. But for Jesus prayer was, indeed, about God.
So if someone suggests to you that you should pray more because prayer works, don’t go down that path. Because if you do, you will find it a hard trail littered with rocks and ridges and broken walking sticks. Even if you make the hard slog to the end, it is not worth it.
And notice that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. If the point is that prayer works, it would have made much more sense if they simply asked him to pray for them. Because if it is going to work for anybody, it’s going to work for Jesus.
But the disciples saw something much more profound going on for Jesus than simply that prayer works, even though his prayers were pretty effective.
There is no way around the fact that prayer is a mystery. It’s an invitation to those greater mysteries of God, and faith, and following Jesus, and ourselves. There are a lot of books about prayer in your average Christian bookstore. But they are not going to be of much help other than getting you praying. You just have to pray. There are no formulas that fit everybody. There aren’t right and wrong ways to pray. It’s just you and God and that community of believers you are praying with and for.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he didn’t pull out his power point presentation. I guess back in those days they had to do handouts. He was pretty brief. The Luke version of the Lord’s prayer is even shorter than Matthews.
Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil.”
There is not a whole lot there or there is much more than we will ever grab hold of, depending on what we are looking for.
Then Jesus talks about that person who went to a friend for bread. He was pretty persistent even though it was the middle of the night. But he went and asked because it was his friend, after all. And sometimes you have to be persistent, even with your friends. But friends understand even when it’s the middle of the night, and everybody could have probably lived without bread until the morning.
Whatever happens when we pray, we are going to a friend. Persistence is okay. Pound on that door. Cuss if you have to. Sit quietly, but waiting. Whatever you need to do, this is our friend we are talking about. Even if we embarrass ourselves, it’s okay. And even if the friend doesn’t get out of bed and unlock the door, that’s okay, too. She is still our friend. And it is still worth asking.
Some people have attitudes about prayer that, to be truthful, I don’t always understand. It’s been seven years since that cat bite about did me in. Imagine shuffling off this mortal coil because of a cat bite. How ridiculous would that have been? My own cat. I guess I was a lot closer to that reality than I thought, but thankfully they didn’t tell me that until I was a lot better.
Anyway, when I was recovering lots of people would tell me they were thinking about me, or even sending out good thoughts for me. Well, I appreciate it when people think about me. But, frankly, it is more helpful to have people praying for me. People’s thoughts about me are great, but they can’t do for me what God can do for me. God is the one who laid the foundations of the earth. God is the creator of life. God is in the miracle business. As nice as it is that others are thinking about me,I want God thinking about me and some folk reminding God to think about me.
People were praying for me and thinking about me. And I got better. There were some people in that hospital over those 17 days who didn’t get better, even though people were praying for them. And there it is.
I also talk with people who don’t pray for themselves because they think it’s selfish or something. I mean I pray for myself all the time. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Now if all I did was pray for myself, that would be one thing. But, I try to diversify.
I mean, Jesus prayed for himself. “God if you can take this cup from me, now would be the time.”
The writer Anne Lamott says there are really just two prayers. The first goes, “help, help, help” the second goes “thank you, thank you, thank you.” I agree with that in many ways. And I do wonder if we aren’t asking God for help, help from for ourselves, then what are we thanking God for?
I think people are sometimes reluctant to pray because it is so much of a risk. It raises all those questions about our own faith, it focuses all those struggles we have with what we believe about God, it leaves us open to all kinds of disappointment. You see it so profoundly when you are in a group and ask who wants to pray and most of the eyes go down. Jesus never said that praying is something we can only do when we know what we are doing. Only when we score high on that faithometer I talked about. And I feel like I benefit so much when others pray. It’s a great gift. And we all need gifts.
I think some of us have these great visions of the risks we are willing to take for our faith, but are scared to death to offer a prayer among friends. We feel so vulnerable.
And I think that is what the disciples saw. They saw that vulnerability Jesus brought with him in his life and his prayers. He was willing to lay it all out before God and take the risk. That’s why he could laugh and cry and sweat blood when he prayed. He had touched something real.
Jesus knew God would treat that vulnerability so very gently. What did he say“This is not a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider?” So is God going to mess with us when we pray?
Prayer is a profound mystery. But it fueled Jesus’ life. In prayer, like so many other things, he has much to teach us. All we have to do is ask.