"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.' Jesus said to him, 'When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.'"
--Luke 11: 1-4
A few years ago I drove past a church sign that read: prayer changes things. Is that what prayer is about? Do we pray so that God will change the way things are, whether for us or for someone we love or for the world around us? No doubt that that is a part of why we pray, hoping that our prayers will someone change things. However, the more I thought about that sign the more frustrated I became with it; after all, if prayer changes things then why do children still starve? Why do diseases like cancer and AIDS still exist and take the ones we love way too soon? Why is this country still caught in the clutches of bigotry and intolerance? If prayer changed things, I thought, then surely God would have already fixed these things, and problems like them. We've certainly been praying for things to change for a very, very, very long time, and God knows that. So the more I thought about it, the more I reckoned that, in fact, prayer does not change things, at least not in and of itself. So what is it about? I think Jesus gives us an idea.
When someone asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he responded with a prayer that has become such a part of our identity as Christians that we call it the Lord's Prayer. There are two versions of this prayer in the Gospels--the one at the top of this page from Luke and a longer version in the Gospel of Matthew. We learn a lot about the nature of prayer from the Lord's Prayer, or at least we learn a lot about how Jesus viewed prayer.
First off, we learn that, in all of our prayers, we are meant to address God as we would address a parent figure. In the Lord's Prayer, of course, it's 'Father,' but even if we call God 'Mother' it's still the same thing. God is parent, the ultimate parent, the one who provides for us, teaches us, and loves us beyond belief. So when we come to God in prayer we come as a child coming to a loving parent who delights in simply being in the presence of the child.
Secondly, we see in the Lord Prayer that, before anything is asked for ourselves, God and God's glory are given reverence. "Hallowed be your name." Sacred. Holy. Blessed be your name. As we step into prayer we step into the magnificence, the majesty, and the awesome presence of our hallowed and blessed God. Thus, all prayer must be grounded first and foremost in a sense of reverence for God before we can ever begin to give a petition.
Lastly, the Lord's Prayer, we see, covers all of life. It covers our present need--"give us each day, our daily bread"--it covers our past sin--"forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us"--and it covers future trials and temptations--"and do not bring us to the time of trial. " Everything we are, have been, and will be is wrapped up in this prayer. Maybe that's why it's so easy for us to remember, why folks suffering from severe dementia can still remember it. It is the prayer that sums up all other prayers, the model for how we are to come to God in prayer, with the heart of a child, with reverence, and with a willingness to examine who we are, have been, and will be. What we don't see in the Lord's Prayer, though, is the promise that if we do it enough it will change things for us and make everything ok.
You may be saying to yourself: sure, Father Prime, but didn't Jesus go on to tell the parable about a person who knocks on the door of a friend in the middle of the night and keeps persisting until the friend finally gets up and gives him what he wants? Isn't that a parable about prayer, about how we are never supposed to give up, and how if we keep praying over and over again God will eventually give us what we want? And if God doesn't give us what we want, then doesn't that mean we didn't pray enough? True, There are some who look at that parable and think that it means that we must continue to pester God with our prayers, that if we keep at it God will grant those prayers; after all, Jesus does say (and we often sing), "ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be open unto you." Keep on knocking, right? If we keep knocking God will get so annoyed that God will eventually give us what we want, right? I don't think so. I cannot see Jesus telling us that the point of prayer is to keep at it until God finally gives in; after all, in the Gospel reading he has just given us the Lord's Prayer, which is not particularly persistent in its wording.
As I thought more about the parable of the man at the door and the nature of prayer, I got to thinking about a man named Lawrence, who I met a few years back. He was in a good bit of trouble, having been hit by a car. His medical bills were so high that he lost his apartment, his job, and his vehicle. He came to the church hoping for some help, and we were able to give him some. He managed to get a job, but Sit just wasn't enough to keep him afloat. As a result he was having to live week to week out of motel rooms. I was driving him to get a room one day when he nearly broke down in frustration. He told me he was a good man and that he prayed all the time, without ceasing, and yet God still let all this bad stuff happen to him. Why hadn't God answered his prayers? He finally asked me, "Doesn't it say that if you ask it'll be given to you?" This man was so distraught over the fact that God had ignored his prayers, especially the one for a steady roof over his head. Maybe, I told him, that's not what prayer is about.
Maybe prayer is not about changing things but about changing ourselves. Jesus concludes his parable by noting that even evil people take care of their children. No one would willingly give a child a scorpion if she asked for an egg? Certainly not! If evil people take are of their children, how much more then will God do it? God does not willingly afflict the children whom God loves so much. Does that mean God will always give us what we want? Of course not! Those of you who are parents: are you always capable of giving your children what they want? I know that you're not. Still, I'd be willing to bet that you still try to give them something, whether it be some kind of wisdom or lesson, or just a simple reminder that you love them, even though they're standing there angry at you because they didn't get what you want. I think God is like that, and I think prayer is like that. Prayer isn't about getting what we want, but rather it is about coming to God, listening to God, giving our requests over to God, and then keeping our eyes and ears and hearts open for the ways in which God answers that prayer. It may not look like what we initially asked for, but that doesn't mean God didn't hear it. And it might end up changing us.
There is no such thing as unanswered prayer! Jesus makes that clear. The parable he gives teaches us that, yes, we are never to stop praying, no matter what. However, when we come to God it is not the same as the parable--where a man comes to a friend in the night who is clearly perturbed and only gets up and helps out of a sense of wanting the person to leave him alone. This isn't how God works! When we pray we go to the One who knows our needs better than we know them ourselves, the One whose heart is generous and loving. If we do not get what we ask for in prayer it does not mean God is angry with us. God does not willingly afflict those whom God loves, contrary to what the man I met believed. It could very well be that our prayer is being answered in a form that we have not considered, a form we do not expect, but a form that is nonetheless an agent of God's grace. The man I met could not see that the church had been an agent of God's grace, that the place which had hired him had been an agent of God's grace. He was so consumed with the fact that his own specific prayer had not been answered the way he wanted, that he could not see his prayer had, in some way, been answered, and so, he could not be changed.
So why do we pray? We pray because, while prayer does not change things, it does change people, and people can change thing. Prayer is more than a social contract between us and God, so much more than "I'll do this for you if you do this for me." Prayer is about being in an intentional relationship with God, being vulnerable enough to come to God with everything we are, have been, and will be, in the hope that we may open our hearts, minds, eyes, and ears, to see the agents of God's grace all around us. We can use the Lord's Prayer as our guide, to show us how to come to God our loving parent with reverence and humility, that we may remember that God loves us and never abandons us, even when we don't get what we pray for. Keep praying, brothers and sisters, and you may find agents of God's grace all around you, and you may find yourselves changed for good.