Scripture | Luke 11:1-13
‘Teach us to pray,” the disciples asked Jesus. Rabbis often had specific prayers that they taught, and they wanted to know his. So he taught them… and then his disciples taught others, and it was passed down from generation and generation of Jesus’ followers until to this day, when we still say the Lord’s Prayer together every Sunday, the prayer that Jesus taught them that day.
“Teach us to pray…” It implies that prayer is something we learn. It’s “not simply a release of feelings,” as one preacher put it. It’s not inherently obvious what we’re supposed to do, or how we should pray. But we don’t teach it much, at least not the same way we teach things like spelling and grammar and multiplication tables. How do we learn how to pray?
One way is simply by watching others. Maybe that’s the way you learned what to do. Fr. James Wallace remembers learning from his mom and step-dad - who he calls his “second father”:
My mother would say her prayers daily from a small book, crammed with special prayer cards collected over the years. She would refer to “the good Lord who knows best.” My “second father”… worked from a truck checking gas meters for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company and would often eat his lunch sitting in a back pew in church talking to “the Man upstairs”… From them I learned God was good, someone to be turned to on a daily basis.
Where did you learn how to pray?
But maybe nobody taught you… maybe you’re still unsure. Are you supposed to stand or sit a certain way, put your hands together differently than normal? What are you supposed to say? Is it like a child talking to an invisible friend? How is it anything different than talking to yourself?
What is prayer, anyway?
There are 1000 ways to describe it, no doubt. But this morning I want to focus on the answer our passage suggests. Prayer, Jesus says, is expressing a need to someone who cares about you, and can do something to help you. He says it’s like showing up at a friend’s door in the middle of the night, knocking loudly, and shamelessly asking because you know your friend can help. It’s like a child asking her father for something to eat when she’s hungry. It’s based in a relationship that’s already there, it’s based on the belief that the one you’re asking is trustworthy, and it requires vulnerability on the part of the one who asks.
Let’s start with the last part first:
Why do we need to be vulnerable?
If we’re going to pray, we’ve got to admit that we have a need. Theologian Douglas John Hall emphasizes describes it this way:
I don’t know about you, but it’s hard to admit I have needs. One of the ironic gifts of being so sick last year was that I couldn’t pretend I was fine! Being “fine” almost feels like a requirement most of the time, at least here in Granville. I have a running joke with one of my friends – whenever I ask her how she’s doing she gives a forced smile and says through gritted teeth, ‘I’m fine!’ We both know better.
We all have needs, and if we don’t, someone we love surely does. And if our little world happens to be in perfect condition at the moment – like it ever is – the world sure could use some prayers. It is hard to be human.
When we pray, we name our need as clearly as the child who says, “I’m hungry, daddy.” We have to name it with as much urgency as the guy who has the hutzpah to wake a friend from a deep sleep to say, “I need help now!” It means admitting we are vulnerable. And that is never easy to do.
But that leads to the next part of Jesus’ teaching: we have to believe there’s someone there to hear us, someone who cares.
How do you know someone’s there?
This is the hard part: you don’t know, at least not in the way you know there’s someone sitting next to you in the pew right now. And I can’t convince you there’s Someone there. God isn’t tangible or measurable or quantifiable. There is no logic or proof I can offer. All I can do is tell you what I believe and have experienced, and what has been handed down to me, and what Jesus taught: that God is love.
Jesus doesn’t describe a kind of detached “shouting to the stars,” throwing out our needs to the cold universe, hoping there’s something out there that will catch it. “Suppose one of you has a friend,” Jesus says. “Imagine you are a father,” he says. “Our Father…” is how his own prayer begins. The prayer of Jesus is rooted in a relationship with utmost compassion.
Now, I want to acknowledge how hard this can be, how hard it is sometimes to believe there’s anyone or anything out there at all. It’s the hazard of living in a deeply secular world. By “secular” I’m not talking about “Christianity being under attack” or even “science vs. religion.” I’m talking about the simple reality that we live in a post-modern culture. We live in a “disenchanted world,” as one philosopher calls it.
It’s our default mode: to see ourselves as self-sufficient and self-contained. The highest good we can imagine is human flourishing, and it’s our job to try to make it happen. We live as if everything is up to us, that there are no forces out there for good or for evil. That’s not something anyone is foisting upon us, it’s in the air we breathe, and it comes from centuries of change that are too complicated for me to name now.
So if you find it hard to pray because you’re not sure anybody’s listening, you’re not a bad Christian, and you’re not alone. But if it’s hard for you, the best thing I can tell you is simply to pray anyway. Suspend disbelief. Pray as if. Pray as if there is Someone who is listening. Pray as if there is a God who hears you, and knows you, and loves you as God’s own child.
“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus says. “Seek and you will find,” he promises. “Knock and the door will be opened.” Keep knocking, he says. Just keep knocking.
But then that begs the question:
What does prayer do?
Well, it’s not a magic formula, that’s for sure. God isn’t Santa Claus, some kind of cosmic sugar-daddy who gives us everything we want. Even the worst parents know better than that! If we got everything we wanted we’d be in real trouble. But our essential needs – our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, protection – those are the things even Jesus prayed for. “If you who are evil know how to give good gifts to your children,” Jesus says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.”
God gives us the presence of the Holy Spirit… and at the end of the day, that is what we most need. With the Spirit, we have clarity, we have energy, we have wisdom. With God’s presence, we have confidence, we have comfort. In God’s love, we can go forward with strength, trusting our needs and the people we love to God’s gracious care.
Prayer isn’t intuitively obvious, especially in our secular world. It’s something we learn how to do – by watching others, by being taught. It’s something that has to be learned, and practiced. Even the disciples needed to learn how to pray, and Jesus taught them. Be bold to name the needs you have, he said. Go ask the One who can help you. And then trust that your prayers will be answered.
RESPONSE TO THE WORD
For our response to the Word today we’ll take a few minutes to practice praying in this way Jesus taught. I invite you to enter into a time of prayer by closing your eyes and sitting in whatever posture you find most comfortable. Closing your eyes helps you focus, and it may make you feel less self-conscious. I usually sit with my feet firmly on the ground so I feel rooted and grounded, and I usually open my hands as a way of inviting God’s presence, but please sit in whatever way feels prayerful to you.
As we begin, think of some need in your life, or for someone you love. Make it as concrete and specific as you can. Imagine exactly what you hope for. What are you asking God for?
Now pay attention to your breath. You don’t have to change anything, just notice your breath coming in and going out.
As you breathe in, call on God. You might say, “Holy God,” or “Lord Jesus,” or “Holy Spirit.”
As you breathe out, ask for God’s presence. You might say, “be with me.”
Holy Spirit/be with me…
Breathing in, call on God.
Breathing out, invite God in.
Holy Spirit/be with me…
As you feel God’s presence with you, ask for what it is you need. Ask God for what you’ve named. Ask with every ounce of energy you have. Ask God boldly.
“Ask and you will receive,” Jesus said.
“Seek and you will find,” he told us.
“Knock and the door will be opened.”