"Problematic and Persistent Prayer"
July 24, 2016
Rev. William C. Bills
It may not always seem so, but your prayers are heard.
M. K. Gandhi said that, “Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is the daily admission of one’s weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart.” About prayer, Martin Luther said, “Pray and let God worry.” The contemporary American author, Anne Lamott said that there are three kinds of prayer. The first is, “Help me, help me, help me!” The second is, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” The third is simply, “Wow!”
Luke implies that the disciples of Jesus wanted to pray but didn’t know how to pray. Luke often shows us Jesus at prayer. The disciples see this and infer that prayer is important so they say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray…”
Last week I mentioned that in a course on prayer, a Catholic priest told me that prayer is the art of doing nothing gracefully. That same priest also said that the desire to pray is the greatest prayer of all. We may not know what to pray or how to pray it but if God knows we want to pray, that is most important to God. Prayer was important to Jesus. Prayer should be important to us.
I read this and I find myself wondering, why did Jesus pray? Who was he even praying to? If he is God in the flesh, is he praying to himself? If he is the son of God and not quite God but really a lot like God but only in human form, doesn’t he know everything already? Maybe he doesn’t know everything already and the future is uncertain for him so he prays for things he hopes for. In part of the passage Jesus makes it sound like all one has to do is seek, knock, ask and everything you want will be given. (I have tried that in a casino and it doesn’t work.)
Then on the other hand he tells a parable about needing to pester God even to the point of getting God out of bed in the middle of the night just to do something fairly simple. So which is it -- seek, knock, ask, and get your wish, or pester and badger until you finally wake God up?
This text is a collection of things Jesus probably said about prayer at different times in different places. Luke has gathered them together here as he edits his various materials into a narrative. When the parts are separated each can stand on its own. The passage could provide several sermons on prayer.
First we read that Jesus himself prayed. In reading all of Luke and Acts it becomes apparent that he prayed a lot. As I said, though, I sometimes wonder why.
Then we see that the disciples apparently don’t know how to pray so they have to ask Jesus to teach them how. If they didn’t ask would he have ever taught them?
Then there is a lesson on being persistent in prayer. Apparently we must simply nag God before God will be moved to action.
Then those who follow Jesus are called evil but told that they do know how to do good.
If all of this isn’t confusing enough, get a study Bible and look at the footnotes. Early Christian thinking was not unified when it came to prayer. It shouldn’t be surprising then today to find that people have different understandings and different practices when it comes to prayer.
To pray “Thy kingdom come…” in the first century Roman Empire was to pray one’s politics. At that time the kingdom belonged to Caesar. Praying for God’s kingdom to come was to pray for regime change. If God’s rule is going to come, Caesar’s kingdom has to end.
For many of us, praying for daily bread is problematic. In fact, other than on Sunday morning we probably don’t pray for daily food. We give thanks for the food we have, but we don’t have to pray for food every day. People who pray for food every day don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Day laborers, peasants and subsistence farmers, the very poor and the homeless pray for food every day. The person with the cardboard sign on the roadside prays for food every day. Most of us pray for daily bread as a weekly ritual.
Likewise, we pray for forgiveness as a weekly ritual. We acknowledge that we should forgive others as a weekly ritual. Do you do that every day? Maybe that should be a persistent pattern for our prayers. If you are anything like me you need to be forgiven for something daily. There are people we should forgive most days, too.
Ask and it will be given. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened for you. Jesus said everyone who does this will receive, and doors will open for them. But I have been disappointed when I didn’t receive. Some doors remain closed.
I knew a couple whose adult daughter was diagnosed with cancer. She was on the church prayer list for many months. She was on other church prayer lists for many months. Her father sometimes reminded me how many people all over the country prayed for his daughter every day. He reminded me how he prayed day in and day out month after month after month. She died. So he quit praying. He still doesn’t pray. Prayer became a problem for him. It is hard to persist in prayer when some doors remain closed.
For some, prayer is intensely personal. It can be awkward to pray out loud, when other people are listening. Is the prayer just for God or for others in the room? Do they think my prayer is good? Should I care what they think as long as God hears me?
I was in a hospital once with a church member preparing for heart surgery. There were several beds in the area, separated by curtains. I offered a personal, intimate, heart-felt prayer for my church member. As soon as I said, “amen,” a voice on the other side of the curtain called out and said, “Hey preacher! I need a preacher! I need a preacher to pray for me and my son!” I just about jumped out of my own skin, he scared me so bad!
So I pulled back the curtain to find an older black gentleman in the next bed. I introduced myself and so did he. He explained to me that he was about to receive a kidney transplant and his son was the donor. His son had already gone to the operating room. Their pastor was out of town. He didn’t care what I said. He just wanted to be prayed for.
We seem to pray a lot for medical concerns and for people who travel. We pray a lot for military personnel. There are many things that remain unspoken every week that could be prayed for. But that gets too personal. The concerns that go unnamed every week may be the most important.
Most of us really don’t have to ask God for food each day. We might persist in remembering who sees to our daily needs. We might be more persistent in asking for, and offering, forgiveness. God help us if we withhold forgiveness when it is legitimately deserved. That is worth daily prayer.
Jesus asked who among us, if our child asked for a fish, would give the child a snake? Who among us, if our child asked for an egg would give the child a scorpion? Well, that’s easy, Lord! None of us would do that. None of us would give a child asking for food poison!
He went on to say, “If you who are evil know how to give good things to your children, then doggone it, you know God who is good is going to give you good stuff, too!” So ask!
Something gets a little lost in translation. From Greek to English it becomes “you who are evil.” It might read, “If we, who are only human and therefore far from perfect, treat hungry children with compassion, then trust that God who is more than human will treat you with compassion also.”
I don’t think that means every door will open and every wish will be granted. I just need to remember that God knows me, God hears me and God cares about me, even if I don’t get my way. Jesus just means that God hears your prayers and God cares about what you care about.
Finding answers in prayer is possible. Sometimes it can be problematic. Faith is really about trust, though. Even if prayer becomes a problem, trust that you are being heard. Trust that God is at work in your life. Trust that God knows your needs before you pray.
Finding time for prayer can be a problem. If you can’t find the time to pray, pray about that. If you don’t know what to say be quiet and listen. You might be surprised by what you hear. If you fall asleep while praying accept that as a gift.
If you asked, looked and knocked and got nothing, tell God how you feel about that. Keep telling God that. God is listening. God cares about your disappointment. It is better to pray about your disappointment, even your anger, than it is to simply give up on prayer.
If everything is taken away from you and you feel helpless, powerless or even abandoned, let that become your prayer. It may not always seem so, but your prayers are always heard.