notes from a small curate
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK
Teach us how to pray
St Christopher's Norris Green 25/7/2004 (Communion Service)
Genesis 18.20-32, Luke 11.1-13
Today's gospel reading shows Jesus' disciples in a better light than usual. Often we see them bickering with each other about who is the greatest, who'll be sat next to Jesus in heaven, or falling asleep or running away just when Jesus needed them most. The disciples were good at letting themselves down, a lot of the time. They were good at letting Jesus down. Sound familiar to you? It does to me.
But here they are, hanging around while Jesus went off to pray, and taking an interest in what he's doing. One of them, unnamed, perhaps put up to it by the others, gives Jesus what has since become an immortal request: "Lord, teach us to pray."
It's one of the best things any disciple ever said. Because not only did Jesus's answer take the form of a prayer which has endured throughout all the centuries and sustained so many people in our faith; but the disciple's question means that it's ok for us to ask the same: Lord, we don't know how to pray, we want to learn but we're not sure how to do it, please teach us to pray.
If you feel your prayer life is no good - weak, sporadic, lacking faith, then you are in good company. The disciples obviously felt that way. I know many many church leaders who feel that way too. I know I do, very often.
But I think we can be encouraged by this thought, for starters: everybody prays, sometime. Whether we think of it as prayer or not.
Those cries for help when we're in some sort of trouble. Those silences we fall into when something beautiful is happening, or something very good or very bad. The sounds we make when we see a new-born baby for the first time, or when we see fantastic goals being scored at football. These are all prayers in their own way.
They all come from deep inside us and they reach somewhere deep outside us, familiar and yet also strange.
According to Jesus, by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it. Because the more you pray the stronger you get.
That's why, after sharing with his disciples the words we now know as the Our Father, he told the story of the man who came to his friend at midnight asking for bread: "Because of his persistence he [gave] him what he needed."
Keep on praying. On this point, at least, all the religions of the world agree.
Some people of course, have doubts about prayer, not being sure there's anyone listening. But whatever else it may or may not be, prayer is at the very least talking to yourself, and even that, in itself, is not a bad idea.
If you can't believe God is listening, you can still talk to yourself about your own life, about what you've done and what you've failed to do, and about who you are and who you wish you were and who the people you love are and the people you don't love too.
Talk to yourself about what matters most to you, because if you don't, you may forget what matters most to you. Even if you don't believe anybody's listening, at least you'll be listening.
But Jesus wants us to believe somebody is listening. I remember my first attempt at prayer, as a youngster many years ago, which went something like this: "God, I'm not sure if you're there, but if you are, let me know, I want to know." And, over time, God has let me know. Still is letting me know that he's there.
Jesus wanted his disciples to believe somebody is listening. He wanted them to believe in miracles. He wanted them to believe in a generous, gracious, kindly God.
That's what he meant by asking the question about a father who, if his child asks for a fish, would gave him a snake instead, or if his child asks for an egg, would gave him 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 ... to those who ask him!"
No - everyone who asks receives from God, everyone who seeks finds. Even those who find it hard believing in the power of prayer.
In Mark's gospel we read about the father who asked Jesus if he could heal his epileptic son. Jesus said, "All things are possible to him who believes." And the father spoke for all of us when he answered, "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9.14-29).
What about when the boy isn't healed? When, listened to or not listened to, the prayer goes unanswered? Who knows? Just keep praying, Jesus says.
Even if the boy dies, keep on knocking on God's door, because the one thing you can be sure of is that from behind that door you knock on with even your most awkward and halting prayer, God will finally come, and even if he doesn't bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself.
Maybe at the secret heart of all our prayers that is what we are really praying for. For God to come to us. When all our words run out, we can still listen.
When all our ideas come to nothing, there is still silence. And in the silence, if we tune our ears, we can hear God. "Be still, and know that I am God" it says in Psalm 46.
And prayer is not just us talking to God.
It's us listening for God.
Prayer is God talking to us.
Prayer is us looking out for God.
Prayer is God showing himself to us.
I think we understand all this at some deep level of our lives.
Not only do we pray, "Our Father," we also feel, from time to time, loved from heaven in ways we can't describe in words.
Not only do we pray, "Your kingdom come," we sometimes notice changes in the world around us that have God's hand in them - people behaving better towards each other, an act of kindness, a tree growing on wasteland, a conflict coming to an end.
Not only do we pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," we also occasionally, wonderfully, realise that God is indeed, providing for us.
Not only do we pray, "Forgive us," our hearts sometimes light up when we realise we have been forgiven.
Not only do we pray, "Lead us not into temptation," or "Do not bring us to the time of trial," we do from time to time feel God giving us strength to face our difficulties and overcome our weaknesses.
Prayer is what we say, but it is also how God responds, gently, quietly, when we're not especially expecting any reply. I think we all understand this, deep, deep down.
So if you feel you're no good at praying, if you think you don't pray very often or even at all, I'm not so sure. You might consider stopping to think again.
Parts of this sermon are based on:
Prayer in Frederick Buechner: Wishful Thinking, a Seeker's ABC
A Blue Coat School talk on Prayer and Meditation, 5th March 2003