He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray… And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, 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. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” [from Luke 11]
Our questions about prayer are real and difficult.
Here we have both a parable and images about prayer—maybe Jesus’ response to some of those ancient questions.
The parable is a story of contrasts; the images are more direct and endearing.
The parable tells of an unlikable guy. His help is needed and he initially refuses. Finally, he reluctantly relents, granting the request of the neighbor. He is not a blindingly beautiful model of God’s love, but that is exactly the point. If even a grumpy neighbor who doesn’t want to help you is moved by your repeated request, how much more is the God of love ready to hear when you pray?
Jesus next turns to his hearers, asking them to imagine their responses to the pleas of their own children. These are not kids asking for ice cream cones or bicycles; these are pleas for eggs and fish, basic food staples. If your children were hungry, would you not move heaven and earth to feed them? How much more is God listening when you pray?
The mystery that surrounds prayer does not go away with Jesus’ teachings on the subject; in some ways they confuse us even more. Is he saying that we ought to bug God until we get what we want? If that’s true, why are those things still sometimes (often?) denied us? And if God wants to give us good things, then why are our prayers for health and wholeness not always answered? Does that mean God is not powerful over certain things at certain times? Or that God doesn’t care?
Jesus doesn’t give us the answers that all faithful people want to know about prayer, but he does provide us with a footing, elementary in its way, to give us a place to stand and contemplate the mystery. The example, parable, and images all point us to a God who listens. So, we begin there.
We begin with the mystery of a listening God.
Jesus simply points us to God and encourages us to pray, because God is there. So we lean into the mystery of prayer. Some who have explored the mystery find they do well in the quiet moments of being alone and contemplating God. Some try to still all their thoughts so they will be receptive to God’s heart. Others find the mystery best explored in the company of others. And even when they’re not in the physical presence of others, many find strength through the knowledge that friends are praying for the same decent cause. How many times did Jesus pray together with the disciples? And at the end, in the garden, when his hard fought prayers go unanswered, he chides them for not being able to stay awake and pray with him. He deeply desires their company, their community, their support, he wants them to be praying alongside him.
Every Sunday, at the time our congregation calls “Joys and Concerns,” the congregation raises up the names of those who are sick, grieving, or troubled, those who have something to celebrate, or events of our community and world. As these situations are named by various persons, their voices sometimes crack with emotion. Together the congregation reacts with sympathy or joy, and the mystery of communal prayer is, at least for a moment, a bit clearer.
We lean on each other, listen to each other, listen together for God. I don’t mean to make light of the questions about prayer. None of us can explain it, but on our good days we remember that Jesus also trusted in the mystery, and pointed us to a God who listens.
© Melissa Bane Sevier, 2013