How do we pray?
Proper 12, Year C Luke 11:1-13:
How do we pray? This is the question that the disciples ask Christ and it is also one of the most common questions I have received when speaking with individuals. In one sense, it seems like praying should be self-evident. Yet when we try to start a prayer practice somehow it seems strange or foreign. We ask ourselves what are we doing and is it doing any good?
Christ is responding to this question, but he seems to lay it out in an indirect way. If I asked you, “Teach me how to bake?” Would you give me a completed cake? Would you simply give me a recipe? I’d hope not, but in some ways this seems to be how Christ answers the disciples request to learn how to pray. In his answer they are given the Lord’s Prayer. Over the years I have noticed that there are some people who would say that this is a perfect prayer, one that we should use much of the time, and we shouldn’t mess with it. Then there are others who say that this prayer is more like a recipe, giving us the framework or ingredients from which good prayers are formed. They would say that we shouldn’t feel the need to recite it word for word or be bound to this particular prayer.
If the Lord’s Prayer were simply a perfect prayer, than this would be like giving someone a cake when they asked how to bake. If it were simply a recipe than I’m not sure why Christians throughout the world recite this particular prayer in which we continue to find so much comfort. I believe this prayer is more than this. It is a great prayer; possibly like a prize winning cake. And like a culinary expert we can dissect it to find the combination of ingredients which makes it so great. We can then use those ingredients in new ways to come up with something else that is also delicious and satisfying.
This prayer is relatively short and concise. It acknowledges our respect for God and his authority. We petition God for our needs without dwelling on them and at the same time we disclosure our sinfulness and our need for forgiveness. The prayer ends with our hope of eternal life.
Let me continue with this baking analogy, and equate this prayer to a phenomenal cake. If I were to go around this room and ask, “What the best cake you have ever had?” I’d probably receive many different answers. The cakes that were thought of would not only have different recipes, but the type of cake could be quite different. My personal favorite is a Chocolate torte, a “cake” without flour. Others may prefer white cake, or coconut cake. Even if we came together and decided that there was clearly one best cake, I don’t think any one cake could be perfect for all occasions. Again, think of your favorite cake. Think of the flavor. If it has layers or not? What is the frosting like? Does it have decorations? I’d image that your cake could be great for a birthday, but maybe not a wedding; or maybe a wedding, but not for high tea.
Maybe the Lord’s prayer is more like that tried and true recipe you have, where you can whip it out easily and no one is ever disappointed, even though there could be a better option if we had more time and planning. OK, I may have gone a bit far with this analogy, but Jesus doesn’t tell us much about this prayer. And when we look at the passage he obviously doesn’t find this prayer self-explanatory, or maybe he doesn’t find prayer in general self-explanatory, for in both Mathew’s and Luke’s Gospel account he continues on with some additional explanation about prayer.
In today’s text Jesus equates prayer to a friend who wants to borrow something from you at midnight. Your friend keeps pounding on your door and he just won’t leave. No matter how often you roll over in bed or put you head under your pillow, he keeps on knocking at the door. Eventually you have to go down to answer the door else the whole neighborhood may be woken.
There are a few things going on here. One, it seems we have to be persistent when we pray. I’m not saying that quick short prayers, possibly said at the spur of the moment, aren’t helpful. It is just that this should not be the mainstay of our prayer life. It seems that we have to stay knocking at the door so to speak. I think this persistence displays our commitment and our passion about what we are praying for. I wonder if this is why some people find the prayers they say during a crisis more meaningful. During crisis we may have nowhere else to turn, we are less distracted by the outside world. And we pray passionately, from deep down inside us.
In our prayers we can ask for things. We can also search for things. As Christ tells us in this passage, “search and you will find.” When we search, we are exploring, looking for missing answers. This is where I have spent time recently especially with regard to violence. Searching is also where people find themselves in times of crisis. Searching for meaning or answers to why has this happened?
I imagine that we have all prayed, when a loved one is in the hospital or when we are at our wits end about something. We don’t usually ask ourselves, in times like these, if prayer works or if we are doing it right. Our questions about prayer seem to come at other times, usually in more ordinary times. I wonder if it is because our minds aren’t quieting down from the world around us and it is hard to focus on what we are doing. Or maybe we are sitting in a quiet room and this in itself is such an unusual experience that we feel strange and unsettled. We do not have to pray in complete silence, though some people prefer to do so. There are many ways to pray and that is good, for each of us is unique. Some people try to eliminate all distractions of sight and sound so that they can be solely in the presence of God. Others like to have images to look at, where their mind travels into or even beyond the image its self. Yet others like to have soft music or nature sounds which calm and relax the body and mind.
When starting a prayer practice, we can try different methods of prayer to see what suits our needs, what fills that longing to be with God. Even after we have an established practice, some people will change the way they pray; for they have changed along the way. In simple terms, prayer is opening up communication with God. However we do this, it does take time and persistence to find a routine. It can be work even hard work at times. For if it was truly easily wouldn’t we all be praying regularly? Another obstacle can be that we are so wired to evaluate things in our life that we want to evaluate our prayer life, comparing one day to the next. One day you may feel spiritually filled by your prayers and the next day nothing at all. We may feel that we are just wasting time. But this evaluation is not helpful. What we are really doing is making time to be with God. And we have to have enough faith and trust that God is present with us whether we feel it or not. As you take time out of your day, each day, instead of evaluating you prayer, try to think of this as time well spent with a loved one. Because that is who God is. He loves you more than you can know and prayer is a way to offer our love back to him.