The Gospel text for this Sunday is on prayer. Where one of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” The students will tell you that when the candy dish moves to the desk, it’s not a good sign. You see, I’m struggling with what I’ll say about prayer.
The first part of the text is teaching them the prayer that we repeat every Sunday, the Lord’s Prayer, reminiscent of Matthew 6. Luke’s version of the prayer is shorter than the more familiar one from Matthew 6, containing only five petitions instead of the seven in Matthew. But the included five are all key petitions: “hallowed be your name,” “your kingdom come,” for daily bread, for forgiveness of sins and being spared the “time of trial.” So whether we pray Matthew or Luke’s version, we’re covering important theological ground and all the basics.
This is placed before a parable and explanation of the merits of persistent prayer. All we have to do is ask and it will be given.
I was at a water park this summer, when the topic of prayer came up. The guy was uneasy with prayer and how it works and he was questioning why God answers some prayers and not others. He got this from a conversation he had listened to on the JOY FM (local Christian radio station) saying that God answers all prayer. I listened.
A student came up to me after worship a couple weeks ago, questioning prayer too. She said both of her roommates were Catholic and one of them had been raised by her aunt because her parents had passed away. Anyway, she said that the aunt had been injured in a car accident and the roommate said she would pray for her. But the Wesley student was uneasy with such a flippant response. Like the conversation was over because she was going to pray for her. She asked me why would a loving God allow someone who already lost her parents to experience the accident of her aunt? I listened.
Both the students were well aware of my medical situation and it almost seemed that made me more approachable.
I cited Anne Lamott’s book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow” in both conversations. She says all prayer can be summed up in these words. In a recent interview, she said about Help, “Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation. And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.”
She says about Thanks, “Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks. It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.”
She says about Wow, “Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we’re finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. … When I don’t know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, ‘Wow.’ … You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, ‘Wow. This is great.’ Wow is the prayer of wonder.”
On the way she sees prayer, “Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. It’s sort of like blinking your eyes open. It’s sort of like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ ”
I think of prayer as a turning towards God. Or being in tune with God. Does that mean we’re always in tune with God as we pray? Nope. It’s a turning towards God out of desperation, out of gratitude, at the awesomeness grandeur of God. When we have no options left.
Praying is not easy for me. That’s why I rejoice in the verses from Romans 8:26-27. “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
I don’t know why God answers some prayers and seemingly doesn’t answer others.
I’ve always been uneasy when people say they’re praying for me. I don’t question that they’re sincere but prayer gives you a stake in the outcome. Intercessory prayer certainly gives you a stake in the outcome. I can’t control the outcome and that’s where the uneasiness lies.
But I don’t need to control the outcome.
And that’s hard for me. To trust. And not control.
It’s a mystery why God answers some prayers and not others. It reminds me of the scene from “Bruce Almighty” when he’s acting like God and answering yes to everyone’s prayers.
But I know that God is with us. I feel that to the very core of my being. God journeys with us through the good times and bad.
There’s no concluding paragraph. It’s left unresolved. Because it’s a continuing conversation.
I’ll leave you with Matt Maher’s, “Lord, I Need You.”
I’m pushing the prayer sermon back to next week.