Are You There God? It’s Me, Beth*
In my years of pastoring, I have witnessed people put to use so many different gifts that God has given them. I’ve seen people develop and implement Sunday School programs, lead people on mission trips near and far, preach sermons, conduct or sing in or play in great works of worshipful music. I’ve seen dinners coordinated that feed hundreds of people. I’ve seen capital campaigns undertaken that have raised thousands of dollars for church projects. I’ve been blessed by seeing parishioners in my congregations step forward to do some truly amazing things with God’s help. But there’s one area in our spiritual life together where I’ve sometimes experienced deafening silence. And that’s when I say, “Would anyone like to close us in prayer?” Not everyone, of course, is hesitant to offer prayer. But I would say that of all the things that make people react with that kind of look students get when they don’t know the answer and the teacher is looking for someone to call on? Offering a prayer tops the list.
I’m not sure exactly why this is, but in part, I think we must have this collective belief that prayer involves finding just the right combination of words in order to be acceptable to God and the gathered community of faith. Maybe this is because pastors too easily slip into the role of professional pray-ers, and we pastors spend too much of our time in churches and church meetings and church books, so that church-y phrases just roll of our tongues with ease, and everyone else starts thinking they have to pray in just the same way.
I can tell you that you’re not alone. When I was first guest preaching, and in seminary, and in my first years of ministry, leading congregational prayer and other prayer times was on the list of things that made me most nervous. Only habit – doing it over and over and over again – eased me of my anxiety. Prayers in my childhood came a bit easier, though. When I was in elementary school, and I was having a hard time with questions about God, my mother told me that I should pray by telling God about my day. I took her at her word, and did exactly that, in a very literal way. “Dear God” – always ‘Dear God’ as if I was writing God a letter – “Dear God, today I got up and had cereal and went to school and at lunch and had recess and came home and did my homework and played outside and . . .” If I made it through this recitation, I would then do my “God blesses” – “God bless my mom and dad and Jim and TJ and Todd, God bless Grandma and Grandpa and Uncle Bill and Aunt Shari and cousin Becky and Ben” – and then, if I made it through all of that, I would end with the Lord’s Prayer, because, well, we always say the Lord’s Prayer! Usually, though, I fell asleep somewhere between telling God about my day at school and telling God about my evening. But it was a daily routine that I stuck to faithfully for a long time. My personal prayers have always retained this form though – something like a diary entry, or a letter to a friend, only directed to God. How about you? How do you pray? Is prayer easy for you? Challenging? Nerve-wracking? As easy as when you were a child?
We’re not alone in wondering about how we should pray. Even those in Jesus’ innermost circle sought direction about the best way to speak to God. Today, our gospel lesson opens with Jesus praying. He does that a lot in the gospels, often seeking out time and space for conversation with God. When he’s done, his disciples ask him to teach them to pray like “John taught his disciples.” We don’t know how John – who we know as John the Baptist – taught his disciples. But we do have Jesus’s teaching on pray. Jesus responds with what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer,” although Luke’s recording of it is a bit more simple than the way most of us have memorized it: “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.” Simple. God, you are holy. Bring your reign to earth. Give us what we need for each day. Forgive us our sins – and we are forgiving those who have sinned against us. Keep us safe from harm. Boiled down, this prayer captures the heart, the essence of many of our prayers, doesn’t it?
Then Jesus continues with a story: Imagine that you needed some bread immediately because company has come unexpectedly and you have nothing to serve, and all the stores are closed. So you go to your friend at midnight, asking for some bread. Even a friend might be likely to respond: Hey, It’s midnight, we’re all asleep already, leave us alone! But, Jesus says, not because of your friendship with this person, but rather because your friend JUST WANTS YOU TO GO AWAY AND LEAVE THEM ALONE, your friend might give you what you ask for! Because of your “persistence,” says Jesus, your friend will respond to your need. Jesus tells us, “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.” Finally, Jesus says, if we humans, who are sinful and faulty and imperfect, can still give good things to our loved ones, imagine how much more God, who is Love, who is goodness, desires to give to those who ask!
I am struck by the word “persistence” in this text. Is getting God to answer our prayers really just a matter of asking enough times? Can that possibly be the case? God will answers our prayers if we ask enough times that God gets sick of us asking and gives in? That word that we read as persistence – this is the only place it appears in our scriptures. And I’m afraid “persistence” is a kind of softened-up translation. It actually means something more like shamelessness or unembarrassed boldness. Those words actually help me understand better what Jesus is saying.
When I think of people who are shameless or unembarrassed in their boldness when it comes to asking for what they want, I think of the way very young children ask for things. Did you fix yourself a nice plate of something to eat? Most children will not be afraid to ask you to give them something off your plate. And they might not just ask for one bite. They’ll boldly ask for and accept as much as you’ll give. Did you just buy a child a pile of gifts for their birthday or Christmas? They won’t hesitate to ask for the thing you didn’t buy! Most children aren’t afraid to tell you what’s on their wish list. When I think of unembarrassed boldness, that’s what I think of. No fear. No hesitation. No tentative, “maybe, if it isn’t too much trouble, might you consider listening to my request?” Sure, we learn to temper our requests as we get older, or if we get in trouble for our shameless requests, or when we learn about things like what’s rude and what’s polite. But I don’t think we start out that way.
And the crazy thing is: Jesus tells us that when it comes to talking to God, we don’t have to be afraid to be shameless. We can be unembarrassedly bold. We can ask for exactly what is on our heart. Because prayer is our conversation with God. It’s building a relationship with God. And what God desirpes is that we will lay our hearts bare, with no fear, no hesitation. What God desires is that we’ll show to God everything about ourselves, every hope and dream, every longing. If what we’re seeking isn’t what God hopes for us, God can work that out with us. If God wants to shape us and mold us and form our hearts so that we long after the things that will bring us abundance and joy, so that we’ll long for the things that make for peace and wholeness, God can do that with us. But it starts with us knowing, trusting that God so wants us to be shamelessly honest when we open our hearts to God.
I think Jesus teaches us to be persistent, shameless, bold with God not because our repeated prayers are simply a way to change God’s mind, as if God, who is goodness itself, doesn’t already desire to give us good things. Instead, I believe that one of the purposes of prayer is to change us, to change our hearts, as through prayer, through conversation with God, we draw closer to God. We build our relationship with God. And because of that, we’re changed. One of my favorite preachers, David Lose, writes this:
What if prayer isn’t simply a petition I send to God but rather is part of a more active and full relationship with God. Prayer, from this point of view, is less like putting a message in a bottle – or, for that matter, in an envelope or email – and setting it adrift in the sea and more like the regular conversation we have with others with whom we are in relationship … [Imagine] our whole lives – our thinking and acting and very being – offered to God as a prayer … How would we act if our prayers were offered to God confidently, trusting that God will respond so much more generously than any earthly parent? Perhaps I wouldn’t just sit back and wait for God to answer but would start moving, get to work, actually start living into the reality of what I’ve prayed for. So rather than pray for someone who is lonely, maybe I’d go visit. … At times prayer is words we say alone in moments of thanksgiving or desperation. At times prayer is words we share with others, gathered in the sanctuary or around a hospital bed. And at other times prayer is action and work as we try to live into and even bring about those things we’ve prayed for. All of this can be praying shameless, praying, that is, confident that the God who came in Jesus understands our hurts and disappointments because that God took them on. (1)
I know this: my best relationships, the ones I can count on, the ones that last – they’re the ones where I’ve been able to be the most honest. I’ve been able to share my griefs, and ask for help, and share my celebrations, and share the dreams that I’ve barely let myself hope would come true. God’s desire is that our very best relationship would be with God, that we would know that we can knock on God’s door at midnight, and always find God ready to let us in. As I read through the scriptures, I’m struck by the frank conversations between God and God’s people. From Abraham and Sarah to Moses, and the psalmists, through Jesus’s prayers on the night before he was crucified – the scriptures are a testimony to people shamelessly, boldly bearing heart and soul to God. And then, friends, we find those same people, trusting in God and God’s goodness, getting to work, ready to work with God to bring about the world for which they prayed. Jesus describes a pray-er who is taking action: asking, searching, knocking. How much more, how much more does God want to give us? Ask – and be ready to find out! Amen.
(1) David Lose, In the Meantime, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/07/pentecost-10-c-shameless-prayer/
* - A nod, of course, to Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. Although the content of my prayers were different than Margaret's at that age, my prayer style was similar!