He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
I don’t know about you but I struggle with prayer. When I was doing my ordination training I spent some time looking at the nature and practice of prayer. I found it rather depressing to be constantly confronted by authors who seemed to have prayer all sewn-up and sorted.
That didn’t reflect my experience at all: and then I came upon an author called Barbara Brown Taylor and her book, An Altar in the world. If she’s been physically present in the room I’d have hugged her! She wrote, I know a chapter on prayer belongs in this book, but I dread writing it. I have shelves full of prayer books and books on prayer. I have draws full of notes from courses I have taught and attended on prayer. I have a meditation seat I have used twice, prayer mantras I have intoned for as long as a week, notebooks with column after column of names of people in need of prayer (is writing them down enough?). I have a bowed psaltery - a Biblical stringed instrument mentioned in the book of Psalms - that dates from the year I thought I might be able to sing prayers easier than I could say them. I have invested a small fortune in icons, candles, monastic incense, coals and incense burners.
I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life ... my mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem. I start talking about other things I do that I hope will make me sound like a godly person. I ask the other people to tell me about their prayer lives, hoping they will not notice that I have changed the subject.
That’s me. I am firmly in the camp of Barbara Brown Taylor, although I do not (as yet) own a bowed psaltery!
I also identify strongly with Teresa of Avila, who said there was a time when the set periods of devotion were more than enough for her and almost more than she could stand; that during these times her mind fell out and wandered; that she felt bored, restless, and fidgety, and kept looking again and again at the hourglass - it must be nearly done - and marvelled at how slowly time crawled away.
However, perhaps this is what former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey meant when he talked in a more upbeat assessment of “wasting time with God” and noted that such time is never actually wasted.
I have some neighbours a door or two away who own four yappy little dogs. She’s too lazy to take them for proper walks so lets them into the back garden where almost immediately they stand at the closed back door and yap, and yap, and yap, and yap to be let back in. She has been known to go out and leave them there for long periods of time. Of course dogs aren’t that bright and it never occurs to them that they are wasting their breath and energy because there’s no one there to hear them. So they persist.
Perhaps many of you feel like those dogs. You have prayed and prayed for something and there seems to be no answer - there seems to be no one at home!
Well, we aren’t alone! Throughout Scripture we see instances of followers of God who cried out and did not seem to have their prayers answered. The two biggest examples were Jesus and Paul. Remember, Jesus pleaded for God to take this cup from me, but to no avail. The Apostle Paul begged God to take away the thorn in his flesh, but God never did. Obviously, their prayers were not answered to their satisfaction.
But perhaps you’re thinking, "Hang on, didn't I just hear Jesus telling us that if we ask, seek, and knock, we will receive an answer?" Yes. That’s what he said, and his words are true. But first we must understand what prayer is before we can understand the truth and power of Jesus' words. Prayer is one of the most misunderstood and misused practices of our faith and like the dogs I mentioned earlier, until we understand the nature of prayer and how God answers prayer, all of our barking and praying for an answer will leave us frustrated. The truth is, our wondering about unanswered prayer is often about a misunderstanding of what prayer is. For many, prayer is understood almost as an exercise in magic: people often believe that if they say the right phrases or have the proper technique, they can persuade God to answer their prayers.
But prayer is not rubbing a magic lamp. It is not presenting some Santa Claus in the sky with a list of things we want. We don't often think of prayer as a conversation. Don't we really think of prayer as monologue - as in talking to God, telling God how we feel, what we want, confessing our sins, seeking God's forgiveness, petitioning in behalf of others, reaffirming our praise and devotion? Usually, what we mean by prayer is a monologue. But prayer should be an intimate communication with God which should be as natural as speaking to a friend. Then, more importantly, it’s about being quiet and still and listening to God and being transformed by what he is communicating to us. Prayer is vital, because how can we expect to be in relationship with God if we don't communicate with him?
We can certainly receive comfort from the fact that even Jesus and Paul went through times of fervent praying for God to do something, and God did not complying with their requests. We are not alone.
But Jesus taught us a lesson. As we read through Luke’s gospel we find Jesus praying consistently at every turn in his life. He prays as he senses God's call on his life; he prays before choosing his disciples; he prays as he serves and heals other people; he prays as he feels the demands and pressures of his ministry; he prays as he faces the cross; he prays as he finishes his work on the cross. Jesus was continually praying. You could say that prayer for him was as vital as taking his next breath. He knew that in order to live out the life God called him to live, he needed to be continually connected to God in prayer; God was at the heart of his very being.
It was out of his own consistent prayer life that Jesus gives us this teaching in our reading for today. The disciples notice Jesus praying all the time, and they finally ask, "Teach us to pray." They understood that prayer is a vital practice for Jesus, and they wanted to learn how to do it. And in response to their request, Jesus did two things. First of all, he gave them an actual model that they could begin to emulate directly. He said, "When you pray, here is how to do it," and what follows is a shortened form of what we call The Lord's Prayer. This is simply a basic outline of the kind of concerns that make up authentic prayer. This is just like a piano teacher giving a set of scales to a new pupil and saying, "If you will follow this directly, it will increase your capacity to become a musician." And I would suggest that one of the finest ways to deepen our capacity for prayer is to take the famous words of the prayer that Jesus gave us and make them our own. In other words, we can begin to learn to pray by letting Jesus direct us into how this should be done.
Jesus’ prayer template is not a lesson in right technique. It’s not a lesson in right phrasing. It’s not a lesson in how to persuade God. It’s a lesson in persistence. Through the story of the man banging on the door all night, and the repeated words, ask, seek, and knock, Jesus is telling us that effective prayer is consistent prayer. Effective prayer is a continual connection to God. And if we look closely at today's reading we’ll also notice Jesus telling us that effective prayer is not about what we can get from God, but what we receive from God. There is a big difference because too often what we want from God and what we receive from God are two different things. We need to bear in mind that what is implied in Jesus' words for us today is that God always answers prayer. Now, God may not give us the answer we want or answer us at the time we want, but God always answers us.
Many of us here are parents or grandparents and as such we can remember times when our children or grandchildren bothered us – harassed us, even – about wanting something. Did we always acquiesce? Of course not. Sometimes we did but more often than not we didn’t: we said a clear “no”, or a “not yet” and sometimes even a “you must be joking!” Why? Because we had an overview based on our own experience, our knowledge of the children and the balance between their wants and needs.
Do we expect God to be different?
When my children were younger one of their favourite films was Bruce Almighty. In it God gave someone the chance to take on his role for the day - and he made a complete mess of it, answering people’s prayers without regard for the consequences. It was funny – if you were nine – but it made an important point about prayer: what we ask for is not always right for us and God will always answer us with our best interest at heart. Remember, Jesus said: "If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?" This is a great promise that should encourage us to pray more. I believe this is what Jesus is getting at in our Scripture reading for today. When we ask long enough, seek hard enough, knock loud enough, and pray persistent enough, something happens to us. The discipline of prayer begins to connect us more and more to the Holy Spirit, and our motives and desires begin to change in line with the will of God.
Well, that’s fine then as far as our personal intercessions are concerned, but surely there are prayers for those in need where the desired outcome is obvious. When we pray for the poor and needy; for the sick; for war-torn countries; for victims of natural disasters we are surely asking God to do what must be within his will and desire for those people.
Pope Francis has commented on this sort of prayer: You pray for the hungry. Then you feed them. That’s how it works. He also said, Persevering in prayer is the expression of faith in a God who calls us to fight with him every day and at every moment in order to conquer evil with good.
For Pope Francis, prayer becomes a risky strategy because in praying for the needs of others we aren’t informing God of events and situations he’s not already aware of, we’re telling God that we have an understanding of the needs of others. How many times have we been involved in conversations where the conclusion is that “someone needs to do something about it”? When we pray for the needs of others God is surely saying to us, “Who do you think that someone is? You recognise the need. You do something about it.” As the Pope says, “That’s how prayer works.” Otherwise we abrogate any responsibility by turning God into the eternal Santa in the sky who we expect to solve all the world’s problems, many of which are of our making.
I pray for the sick: am I a doctor? No. Do I have a car? Yes.
I pray for the homeless. Do I have a spare room? No. Do I have a wardrobe full of clothes I no longer wear and could give to OXFAM? Yes.
I pray for the victims of natural disasters. Am I able to rebuild homes? No. Can I give money to a credible charity? Yes.
I pray for war-torn countries. Am I a peacemaker? No. Can I lobby my MP about the ethics of the arms trade and our dealings with dodgy regimes abroad? Yes.
As Pope Francis has said, “That’s how prayer works.” I am aware of the situation and I’ve told God so, so what’s my excuse for doing nothing while expecting him to act?
So, this is what persistent prayer does: it pulls us closer to God and as we move closer to God, we find that we don’t get what we want from God, we get what we need and we get what God wants. We find that as we move closer to him, we begin to desire what he desires, so that what we ask for, knock for, and seek after becomes what God so desperately wants us to have and to do. Then the truth of Jesus' words come to life so that what we pray for we truly receive.