Learning to pray is both much more difficult than we can ever imagine and much simpler than we can ever imagine.
I learned this truth through one of my first failures as the Campus Ministries Coordinator at the college where I taught 30+ years ago. I had invited David Jacobsen to be our speaker for college hour and for a seminar series. He wrote a book called, Clarity in Prayer: Telling the small t truth. I had read excerpts and some of his writings. He seemed to have a lot to teach. He was really practical. There was so much one could take home and do. He came – and his presentations were a total flop! The students refused to pay any attention to him. He was too simple!, they complained.
I guess for college students, to teach about prayer you have to make it hard!
I and maybe a half dozen other students attended the seminars and I found his take on prayer to be completely refreshing. So, I decided to try it out at our upcoming church youth retreat. We all want to learn to pray – right? Failure number 2! The adult sponsors wouldn’t even let me finish my short presentation before I was shouted down – literally! I was completely drowned out by their attacks. If the students had wanted to hear any of what I had learned, there was no opportunity for it.
What made them angry? I remember that very well. One of the most profound things I had learned from Jacobsen was to be honest in prayer. In other words, if you want a gold Cadillac, pray for a gold Cadillac! Why? First, because God knows your heart and knows that you want it, so don’t try to deceive God. Second, because if we believe we must have all our desires in the right place before we can pray, we will never pray. But third – and this one is the most profound for me – if we honestly ask someone for something, we are giving them permission to answer however they want. We are ceding our power to the other. They may answer however they choose. True asking is to let go of our demands for the world to be our way. And when in prayer we ask honestly, God has a chance to do miracles in our hearts and in the world. True asking is letting go.
I guess for all of us, it is hard to learn about prayer.
Rob Voyle had a reflection on this passage last week. This is how he summed it up: “[Jesus] teaches the disciples what to say when they pray, and then gives a discourse on God as a loving parent who will respond favorably to people who pray. And the answer to our prayers is the Spirit.”
Succinct. I received a particular insight from this observation. That the answer to all our prayers is the Spirit. So, if I pray for a gold Cadillac, honestly, in a letting-go sort of way, I may or may not get the car, but I will receive the Spirit as the answer to my prayer.
Is that enough? Not enough to end the world’s tragedies, not enough to solve cancer or global warming, or the ancient warring ways of human beings. When we look at our world today, or our own pain today, we are not so likely to feel as confident as Jesus seems to be here, that God will give what we ask. We may instead wonder: Does God answer prayer? If so, why are some of my prayers not answered? Even if God does, can I really pray for anything – healing, wealth, relationship – and expect God to answer? And if God doesn’t seem to answer, does that mean I prayed wrong?
It is no wonder the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray. They lived in times very much like ours. Occupation, oppression, the early stages of a crumbling Roman empire. Somehow Jesus prayed in a way which drew them in. He prayed in a way which energized his confident healing, preaching and even raising the dead. How could he pray like that?
Because, as he explains, God will never fail to give the Holy Spirit to those who pray. But the Holy Spirit isn’t what we are asking for most of the time. Maybe that little hint is the piece we miss when we pray. Maybe, “Come Holy Spirit,” is all the prayer we need. Maybe the whole point of prayer is not to get stuff, or change other people, or even to change ourselves, but to live, breathe and move in the Holy Spirit.
And this does take learning. And this does take practice.
A wise friend once talked to me about the Lord’s Prayer. I won’t remember her exact words, but she had this to say: The Lord’s Prayer is so well known to us that it is no longer about words. It is no longer the mind thinking something. Instead, the prayer has taken up residence in our hearts, almost wordless, it is so full of memory. The Lord’s Prayer has become the cry of the heart. Not with its words, but with its deep, rich familiarity.
Perhaps the Lord’s Prayer has become words which open a door in our hearts, through which the Spirit may enter. And that’s about it.
Of course, the Spirit is still living, active, powerful and miraculous. And at the same time, most of what the Spirit does goes unnoticed – quiet, simple and always loving. For the answer to our prayer is what happens in our own hearts. When the Spirit takes up residence, it is enough. It doesn’t answer the why questions. But I wonder if our cries of “Why?!” are another way of saying, “please love me! This situation doesn’t feel like love!”
Then, since God is love, the giving of the Spirit is the answer to our prayers. God the Father will
always give the Sprit to those who ask.
Now, what about verse 8?! “… but because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need” (TNIV). Shameless audacity! That is pretty striking! But it doesn’t sound very holy. It doesn’t sound very churchy. Or even pious. What if we changed our Presbyterian motto from “decently and in order,” to “shameless audacity?”
Harry Chapin would like that. He wrote a song in the 70’s which became his epitaph: “I Wonder What Would Happen to this World.” His tombstone extracts one verse:
Oh if a man tried
To take his time on Earth
And prove before he died
What one man’s life could be worth
I wonder what would happen
to this world.
(“I Wonder What Would Happen to this World,” Album: Living Room Suite, 1978)
That is shameless audacity. And if you know the rest of his life and music, he seemed to live that way. In his brief 38 years, his work for the end of world hunger earned him a posthumous congressional gold medal.
You have favorite heroes too. How many of them could be described by the term, “shameless audacity?” What about our prayers? One commentator bemoaned the frequency of language in our prayers like, “if it be your will,” “may,” “just.” How can we pray boldly? Luke’s short, clipped version of the Lord’s prayer might be a beginning. Get on with it! Say what you want to say, and then be quiet, listen. Be quiet…. Listen….
Like Job, in the end, for chapter after chapter he complains and challenges God. Then God speaks and Job covers his mouth and listens. Job’s reply is simple:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted….
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know….
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees you;
therefore I reject my own ways,
and repent in dust and ashes.”(Job 42:2-6)
If we want to see what could happen to this world, pray! Speak our minds. And then, close our mouths and listen. In the end, Job didn’t have any more answers to his why questions than he had in the beginning. But he had beheld God. He had heard God’s voice. And that was his answer. Like Jesus taught, God will surely not withhold the Holy Spirit from his beloved children any more than we humans would withhold food.
Lord, teach us to pray. And, …oh, I wonder what will happen to this world!