July 25, 2010
Luke 11: 1-13 (Prayer)
“The Problems with Prayer”
I read recently of someone who says her relationship with God began in earnest one Sunday morning during Sunday School. The Sunday School superintendent had come into her class to pray with them. During the prayer, this little girl ventured to open her eyes just the slightest bit and peek up at the praying man. As she watched him pray, she was struck with the realization that he actually believed in what he was doing. This man was speaking to God as if he really knew God–and as if God really knew him.
You may have heard someone pray like this. It’s hard to describe what exactly it is about a person’s voice or face or body language that gives you that sense that they are connected with the Divine. But there is something there.
It must have been that something that the disciples saw in Jesus while he was “praying in a certain place.” That something that caused them to say to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.”
And Jesus’ response, really, is astounding. I mean, think of the way Jesus typically answers questions. He asks questions. Or he tells stories. Or he says something cryptic like, “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
But here, when one of his disciples says, “Teach us to pray,” Jesus’ first response is simple, straight forward, concise: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
The version of this prayer with which we are most familiar is a bit longer–it is closer to the version taught in Matthew’s Gospel. But all the basics are right here in Luke.
Father–we acknowledge our intimate relationship with God.
Hallowed by your name–we also acknowledge God’s holiness.
Thy kingdom come–We pray for God’s peace and justice to be more and more a part of this world.
Give us each day our daily bread–We pray for what we need.
And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.–This does, by the way, have to do with actual monetary debt. We pray for God’s grace and remind ourselves to be gracious toward others.
And do not bring us to the time of trial–We pray that things won’t get too difficult.
It is a lovely, beautiful, profound prayer.
While the New Testament is written in Koine Greek, Jesus and his disciples spoke Aramaic. Our friend, Susan Miller, has learned the Lord’s prayer in Aramaic and will share with us now the words that Jesus likely spoke when a disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us how to pray.”
. . . . . .
“Lord, teach us how to pray.”
And Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. If that were the totality of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, we could all sit back and relax. But Jesus goes on with his teaching and the idea of prayer becomes less and less clear, less and less comfortable.
This morning’s reading presents, at least for me, three fairly significant theological problems with prayer. We don’t have time to look at them all in depth, but I would like to touch on each one. Briefly. Which basically means I’ll do a good job of pointing out the problems but not much in the way of providing solutions. Sounds like fun, right?
So, immediately after the Lord’s Prayer, we have the parable of the friend at midnight.
If you had unexpected guests come in the middle of the night, and you were out of food, you could go to your friend’s house and ask for some bread. Your friend would be understandably upset to have you banging on the door that late at night. But eventually, if you kept banging, your friend would get up and give you some bread just to get rid of you.
The most obvious reading of this parable is that God gives us what we ask for only because we are really irritating–because we are, as the Greek most accurately translates, shameless.
This is a problem. I don’t want to be a problem child. I don’t want to think that the whiniest people always get their way. I don’t want to think that God listens to my prayers with foot tapping, eyes constantly glancing at the clock.
Surely, though, the point of this parable is not that God finds us annoying. The entirety of scripture contradicts this idea. So what is the point of the parable?
One point could be that God is our friend. One point might be that we are free to be shameless in our requests to God. We can go to God any time, with any request. We can pound and yell and demand. And God remains in relationship with us through it all.
And I wonder if this parable can work the other way around. What if we are not the friend who comes at midnight? What if we are the friend who is settled comfortably in bed . . . and God is the friend pounding on the door, demanding we share our bread?
Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
Give us our daily bread, for we give bread to those who need it. Maybe.
The second problem? I invite you to turn in your hymnal and sing number 324. . . . .
It sounds nice and comforting, doesn’t it? Ask and it shall be given to you. Seek and you shall find. Knock and the door shall be opened to you.
It sounds comforting, until you think about it. Then it is troubling.
What if we ask for the wrong thing? My Dad says that back when he played baseball he would always pray for the games not to get rained out, but then he started thinking about the farmers who probably needed rain. If God really would give us whatever we asked for . . . who really wants that kind of responsibility?
Of course, this idea of “ask and it will be given to you” is most troubling because it just doesn’t ring true. Sure we’ve all prayed for things that we have received. We have also prayed and prayed for things that never came. We’ve prayed for the rain–or the sunshine, the parking space, the new job, the negative test results, the recovery of a loved one.
And when we do not receive what we ask for, what do we do with this verse?
We might deal with this problem by saying God is a liar.
We might deal with this problem by saying we just didn’t pray right or have enough faith.
A reasonable way, I think, to deal with this problem is to hold Jesus’ promise here close to his command to “Seek first God’s kingdom.” Surely if what we are seeking is God’s kingdom then we will find it.
So maybe we are only allowed to pray for Sudanese refugees and peace in the Middle East and other such noble causes.
Often, in my experience, we deal with this problem by restricting our prayers to vague and holy requests; those kinds of prayers that we can never say for sure whether or not God did answer: May the best outcome prevail; May we know your peace; God bless us every one.
To ask God for specific things, for personal things, is to risk not getting what we asked for and then having to deal with all of the problems that creates.
Still, I believe that God welcomes us as our complete selves, with all of our noble and petty desires. While prayer should certainly be about more than just asking God for things, it seems that asking God for things must be part of prayer.
New Testament professor David Lose claims that asking is central to prayer “because,” he writes, “it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. . . . When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God’s goodness.”
So, with problem number two hanging over our heads, let’s move on to problem number three.
The final part of today’s scripture passage highlights a metaphor that is more of a problem for some people than for others: “Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
God as Father. It is there at the beginning of the Lord’s prayer. It is here at the end of this passage.
We do need to search the scriptures, to appreciate and use a broad range of metaphors for God. And the metaphor of God as Father must be among those metaphors we use. Because it is a metaphor used repeatedly by Jesus.
Like any metaphor, this one is not perfect and can be applied in ways that are not faithful or helpful. God as Father does not mean that God is exclusively male or masculine. God as Father does not mean that God is authoritative or abusive or absent or has any of the other failings that your earthly father may have had.
In the context of Jesus’ teaching on prayer, God as Abba means that God desires an intimate relationship with us. God as Abba means that God loves us deeply. God as Abba means that God longs to give good gifts to all of us.
This metaphor of God as Father highlights the relationship that is at the heart of all prayer. It is this relationship that Jesus is most concerned about–not all of the theological complexities in which we get tangled up.
A grown woman remembers a prayer she heard as a child in Sunday School. She does not remember the words that were spoken or the theology that was represented. She just remembers peeking over her folded hands and seeing someone who was really talking with God. Someone who had a deep and honest relationship with our Creator.
Our earnest desire for this relationship can free us of all of our preconceived notions of prayer, can move us past all of the problems and complexities of prayer. Even the slightest sense of the intimacy God desires can turn us toward Christ with the words on our lips, “Jesus, teach us to pray.”