The secret of prayer
Raise your hand if you are confident that you know how to pray. If you know for sure what prayer is and how to do it, put your hand up there.
The disciples want to know how to pray. Teach us how. Tell us why. Show us the what to do. We see you praying to God and you seem to know what you’re doing, we want this too.
And who doesn’t?
We’re supposed to be people of prayer, but who really knows how to pray?
What do we say? What is it ok to pray for?
How do we do it the right way? How do we get God to listen?
Do we have to believe that what we pray for will happen?
Is it selfish to ask for things we want, should we only pray for other people?
Do we ask God to fix situations or to help us accept them as they are?
If we ask God to fix things does that mean we are putting the work on God instead of ourselves?
When should we pray? If we are not praying all the time, regularly, is it ok to pray in a crisis?
What if we really want to pray for something we know can’t happen, what do we do?
Does God listen to some people’s prayers more than others?
What other questions are there about prayer??
A few weeks ago I was with some wonderful, God-fearing, faithful people. When our time came to an end, we went around and shared what we would like prayer for. For many of us, there were people we cared about who were sick, very sick, and we wanted to pray for them. So we prayed, and it was beautiful and I could feel us lifting each other and our worries and hopes and fears up to God, and I was grateful.
But I observed a curious thing. Around this table of life-long Christians, we had learned some skills at praying, some habits we practice when we pray. And one of the things we do, whether we are aware of it or not, is to hedge our bets.
It goes like this, at least for me: I don’t know if God will heal somebody miraculously, that is, and I kind of suspect the answer is usually no. So I am not sure if that is something I can ask for.
Instead I ask for things I think God is willing to do – guide the doctors, bring comfort to my friend who is sick and to those who love her, that sort of thing. Safe prayers.
And that is not to say these are not good prayers- they are really good things to pray for, I would want all of these things if I were sick. But when we long for someone just to be well, we don't just say that. And if we do pray for healing we ask usually add, “if it is your will…” but more often, we don’t even ask at all.
And when we pray we often stay so polite with God – so distant and formal. And while I can call up my sister or a close friend and rage and cry and shout and swear and get mad about cancer, or miscarriages or earthquakes, or car accidents, I don’t usually bring that real emotion to prayer. At least not in words, and not if I can help it. At least not without some censoring.
The disciples watched Jesus pray his whole life – watched prayer take a prominent place in his daily life, guiding who he was, and they wanted that. They were people of prayer, god-fearing Jews; they knew how to pray. They had grown up praying. Their lives, their people, were oriented around prayer. They had their own skills and habits. And they knew that this God they approached was Holy, so holy that you could not speak God’s name, so powerful that you dared not set foot in God’s presence, the holy of holies, but instead trusted the priests to go there, once a year, on everyone’s behalf.
But there was something different about Jesus’ prayer. He seemed to find himself in it. It seemed to sustain him, uphold him. He approached God differently, frequently, openly. God listened to Jesus, they thought.
So they ask him, Teach us to pray!
Jesus answers his disciples, and when he gives his rabbinical instruction to his students, when he has a chance to teach his disciples to pray, what does he say?
He starts by giving them a prayer that has two movements, the first is God inviting us into God’s life (hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your heavenly will be done here on earth!) and the second movement is God desiring to be invited into our lives (give us our food for today, help us forgive and live in your forgiveness, keep us from times of trial).
And this is great, so great, in fact, that all these years later we have turned it into something we can rattle off without thinking about, we can say it in unison and feel confident that at least when we’re quoting that paragraph, we are praying.
And perhaps instead of turning to God who invites us into God’s life and desires to be invited into ours, we turn to the words of the prayer themselves.
As though it is in our own hands.
As though prayer itself is what we’re after.
But that was only part of Jesus’ answer. He goes on, and rather than a method or pattern, a program or process, he tells them a parable, a parable about persistence, or more accurately translated, shamelessness – a story of someone insistently, shamelessly bugging a neighbor until they relent.
And after the parable he tells them to ask, to search, and to knock.
And finally he talks about how we treat our children when they ask us for things.
And in all of this teaching on prayer, Jesus never does not give them an explanation. Instead he gives them an invitation.
It’s not about how you pray, what you say, or why you pray.
It’s not really about prayer at all, you see.
I’m going to let you in on a secret, prayer doesn’t really work.
Different approaches, patterns or practices may connect or be more comfortable for different people, and that is all well and good, but if we begin think that some approach or method or memorized words or proper attitude or place or position or formula will crack the question once and for all of how to pray, we will inevitably be disappointed. There is no special method or spiritual technique that will guarantee you God’s ear, or get you what you want. Because prayer, Jesus shows the disciples, is not about how, it is about who.
One scholar (David Lose) says, “Jesus invites us into relationship with God through prayer, offering us the opportunity to approach the God whose name is too holy to speak and whose countenance too terrible to behold, with the familiarity, boldness, and trust of a young child running to her parent for both provision and protection.”
Imagine that your dog, whom your young kids loved dearly, dies. And your boy comes to you, to talk about this sad loss, and with a stiff upper lip, he blinks away tears and approaches you formally.
“Mother, Father, my dog is dead.
Thank you for getting me that dog all those years ago.
I understand that dogs die.
It may have been her time, and I just didn’t realize it. I am thankful for the time I had with her. “
And even though your little one is shaking, and wont make eye contact, and even though his voice is breaking
and you can see that he is filled with great pain,
he talk to you in an even tone, properly, distantly,
saying what he thinks you want to hear, saying what he knows is the “right” thing to say.
And then he thanks you for listening to him, and without ever meeting your gaze, just before his eyes spill over, he walks politely away.
What are you feeling when this happens? As a parent? What DO you desire from him in this time of pain? And what does he really need from you?
“Oh Mommy, Daddy!”
The tears fall and he collapses into your arms.
“I am so sad about Sadie! I miss her so much! I wish she could still be alive! Why did she have to die? What am I going to do without her?”
And now you can hold him and comfort him. You can grieve with him,
and he is heard and seen and he feels heard and seen.
And we are just earthly parents who fail our kids all the time. We have no real power to change their circumstances, and often we contribute to them.
But, if we want this from our kids, if we want to give this to our kids, how much more our Heavenly parent?
God’s love for us is more than we can know. And like a parent God is not so concerned that we use the right words or have the right beliefs, or think of God in a certain way. God wants to hear us. God wants us to come shamelessly, urgently, however we are, to come to God and talk to God.
God hears what we need even when we can’t ask for it. And God gives us not an answer, but the Holy Spirit, God’s very presence, in response to our pleading.
So when the disciples ask Jesus how to pray, this is the answer Jesus gives them instead.
You do it, he says, by asking. Just ask. Don’t evaluate the question, don’t give God the answers you think God will give you. What you are really longing for? what you are really wondering and wrestling with? Just ask.
And you do it be searching. Searching means you don’t have it, whatever it is, and you don’t know where to find it. You may not even know what you’re searching for. But you don’t have to know. Just search.
And you do it by knocking. Don’t try out all your keys to unlock it yourself, or linger on the stoop and prepare your pitch for when someone happens to come to the door. Just knock. Shamelessly, persistently, boldly. Knock.
But what if doesn’t happen? we wonder. And what if I don’t believe anything will happen? What if I ask and it isn’t given to me? What if I search and don’t find? What if I knock and the door stays closed? What if, what if? Don’t I need to know how to do it the right way?
It’s not about how you do it. It’s about who you’re coming to. We don’t know what will happen when we pray. Because we cannot put God in a box. We pray because God listens. GOD listens. And that is why we pray.
After a lifetime of prayer, drawing near to God and pouring out his heart, one of the final things Jesus says before he dies, one of his very last prayers, shouted in front of throngs of onlookers, was something that very few of us would ever have the guts to utter, even in the silence of our hearts: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
And in that cry, Jesus, God-with-us, encompasses all the cries we are afraid to say, all the questions we hold back from God, all the pain we think God doesn’t want to hear.
And he shows us that real prayer is a gut-wrenchingly honest affair.
A shameless and bold and painfully simple thing.
You want to pray?
Come to God and say what you can.