Sometimes in the early twilight of morning, when I’m half asleep and half awake, thoughts come to me unbidden. Sometimes these thoughts are in the form of prayers. I’ve learned over the years that if I want to remember them I need to wake up enough to write them down. As we begin this time of reflection I offer you one of these prayers. Let us pray:
Gracious God, You sometimes come to us
as an unexpected visitor, a stranger or friend that we meet,
a child whose eyes fill with wonder at the simplest pleasures.
In this season, open our hearts to your persistent love
which weaves its way into our lives slowly and surely,
moment by moment and day by day.
Today’s scripture reading from Luke’s Gospel is both simple and yet complex. The focus of the reading is on prayer and the importance of persistence and perseverance in faith and hope and in the nurturing our relationship with God. God is depicted as invitational, open to receiving visitors at any time of the day or night, generous in response and always present, offering unconditional love to everyone. God is especially recognized and acknowledged in those who persistently seek to find God in all the experiences of their lives.
The beginning of the lesson from the Gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
Luke’s Gospel cites many instances where Jesus sets himself apart to commune with God in prayer. The biblical commentary Feasting on the Word, notes that,
“Prayer was an integral part of [Jesus’] life. Luke’s Gospel points out that Jesus ‘would withdraw to deserted places to pray’ (5:16) and at other times ‘he went out to the mountain to pray”; and he spent the night in prayer to God’ (6:12; also 9:18). Jesus prayed before he chose his apostles (6:13-16) and when he fed the five thousand (9:16); he prayed the night before he died (22:39-44) and from the cross itself (23:34,46). Prayer was a part of his life, even unto death. So, when Jesus responded to the request of his followers that he teach them how to pray, what he taught them became important – and has remained important – for the life of the church.” (Year C, Volume 3, pg. 289, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010)
Jesus’ followers knew that prayer was important to him. The journey of faith for which he was called and that he invited others to join was sometimes arduous and required persistence, courage and tenacity as well as great love and commitment. His disciples witnessed how prayer helped to strengthen and renew Jesus for the challenges of his life and ministry. They wanted him to teach them how to pray so they too would be strengthened and encouraged in the ministry they shared with him.
We don’t know everything that Jesus said to his disciples about prayer and about nurturing a close relationship with God. We do know that Jesus called God, Abba, which is an endearing form of the Aramaic word for father – closer to “daddy” in meaning. Jesus sought guidance from God the way one might seek the wisdom, unconditional love and guidance from a loving parent.
We also have the gift of a specific prayer that Jesus taught his disciples. This prayer is known as the “Lord’s Prayer”, or “Jesus’ Prayer”, by Protestants and the “Our Father” by Roman Catholics. It is a prayer that is found in several forms in ancient manuscripts. The shortest version of this prayer is from the Gospel of Luke and is thought to be the earliest recorded version of this prayer. Matthew’s Gospel contains a slightly longer version of the prayer and the Didachē, a teaching manual for early Christian communities of faith, is the longest of the three adding a doxology (praise and thanksgiving to God) at the end. The Roman Catholic Church adopted Matthew’s form of the prayer while most Protestant churches utilize a variation of the longer version contained in the Didachē. Whichever version is commonly used is not critical as each version contains the same essential themes even with the variations of translation such as using the word “trespasses”, “debts” or “sins”.
I don’t personally believe that Jesus meant for this prayer to be the only prayer that his followers ought to pray but that it was one important way to pray that unified his first followers and early Christian communities. In the Didachē, which was recorded in either the late 1st century or very early 2nd century, the line that immediately follows the prayer that Jesus taught recommends praying this prayer three times a day. (Didachē 8:3)
With all the changes in Christian worship over the centuries, this prayer has remained a constant connection with our ancestors in faith. It is one element in worship that we consistently share every time we worship together. It connects us, not only with our past, but also currently with our brothers and sisters in Christ around the world.
The second part of our reading from the Gospel of Luke is somewhat more puzzling. Immediately following Jesus’ teaching of a prayer to his disciples, Luke records a story that Jesus told. Like all of Jesus’ stories, there are elements in this story that would have been shocking to a 1st century Mediterranean audience. Firstly, the subject of hospitality is raised. Anyone in need, whether friend or stranger, who knocked on another person’s door asking for assistance could not be refused. To refuse would bring shame on the household and would not be considered an option. In Jesus’ story, a person needed to provide hospitality to a friend that arrived unexpectantly but did not have enough bread to fulfill that obligation so he went at a late hour to the house of a friend. The friend inside the house had already gone to bed and stubbornly refused to get up and help. The man at the door was desperate and persistent and kept knocking and insisting that he be given assistance in fulfilling his own obligation to extend hospitality to another. His persistence paid off and he was given everything he needed.
The explanation of the story that follows is memorable:
“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.” (Luke 11:9-10)
How many of you have found this always to be true in your lives?
Have you always gotten whatever you’ve wanted even when you have persistently sought it?
The connection with prayer, that Luke poses by placing this story directly following the teaching by Jesus about prayer, does raise some difficult questions about the efficacy of prayer and how prayer is heard and answered by God. The explanation given in Luke’s account is that God is more generous and loving that the best human parent. The lesson sounds somewhat bizarre to our modern sensibilities and goes something like this, Daddy, can I have a piece of fish? No, have this plate of snakes. Mommy, can I have an egg for breakfast? No, eat this bowl of scorpions. The explanation further suggests that if human parents, imperfect as we are, know what is good for our children then God who is the ultimate parent will give the good gifts of the spirit to those who ask.
We all know that bad things happen to good people. I do not believe that is because they do not have enough faith or they haven’t been persistent and faithful enough in prayer and action. This particular teaching can be problematic if we take it to literally mean that God will dispense good things only to good people. A person that has done a lot of thinking and writing about why bad things happen to good people is Rabbi Harold Kushner. Rabbi Kushner had a son with progeria (premature aging disease) who died at the age of fourteen. For Rabbi Kushner and his wife, seeing their son age rapidly and knowing that he would die at a young age, was the most difficult experience of their lives. I remember hearing an interview with Rabbi Kushner who said that if you had asked him if that was something he could bear and survive he would say that he could not. But, looking back on the situation he found that when facing the challenges of life that it was his faith in God’s constant and loving presence that sustained him. In the years of his ministry Kushner witnessed and experienced much suffering and adversity in the world. In his book, Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Harold Kushner says that he believes that,
“Prayer is one of the most familiar ways of alleviating the sense of helplessness.” (pg. 16) “When I pray”, he says, “I don’t think of myself as asking God to intervene and change things. I pray because invoking God’s presence helps me to feel less alone. … We invite God into our lives, so that the actions we take will be guided by a sense of God’s presence”.(pg. 17)
In the case of medical challenges, Kushner maintains that, “God’s job is not to make sick people healthy. That’s the doctor’s job. God’s job is to make sick people brave.” (pg. 18) (Conquering Fear: Living Boldly in an Uncertain World, Anchor Books, New York, 2009)
I realize that the short time we have today to reflect on the Gospel lesson, and the subject of prayer, can, at best, only begin multi-faceted discussions in more informal settings. This past year, Barbara Langton and I hosted a six week Lenten Study on “Nurturing our Faith with Prayer”. During these sessions I was reminded that people have a variety of experiences and opinions about prayer and what prayer is and does in our lives. There are many ways to pray and no one way is the only correct way. Prayer is not a magic spell that protects us, and our loved ones, from harm. Prayer is not always answered in ways that we expect or hope for. I believe that what is important is to be open to the experience of the divine presence in our lives and to nurture our relationship with God. To do this we must listen carefully to discern God’s guidance for us as individuals and as a community of faith. We can be assured that God accompanies us on this journey, nudging us forward, helping us to discover what gives meaning and purpose to our lives and what we are called to be and do in the world.
I look forward to having more informal conversations about today’s scripture passage and the subject of prayer in general with you in the coming days and weeks. For now, I’ll close with a prayerful poem by Nicholas Hutchinson entitled, “The Living Heritage of our Faith”:
if we could trace back through the last two thousand years,
marking out routes from Jesus himself and then through people whose faith has touched others and so reached us,
we would be astounded by the individuals we would encounter.
We give thanks, Holy One, for all those people
over two thousand years who have inspired others
and played their part in passing on to generation after generation the living heritage of their faith.
Especially we give thanks for those who lived their faith
through difficulties and hardship and persecution.
We pray, O God, that we may grow in your faith and love
through good times and bad.
We pray in the name of Christ. Amen