There are some who are encouraged by the words of today’s Gospels. All we have to do is ask and it will be given; knock and doors open. Be persistent, keep knocking. And some folks are able to testify to miraculous cures, a marriage now strengthened, a financial situation turned around, a job offer, and more. In some corners of American Christianity this is the core Gospel, a gospel of prosperity. The good things in life are a reward for their faith, their persistence, their prayers to their personal Lord and Savior. Pray that a child is accepted into a premier university and so it happens. Pray for a parking spot and one will be provided. Sometimes their testimonies about the power of prayer makes me wonder if God is expected to act in the role of valet or concierge in which prayers are the currency by which this divine transaction operates.
Perhaps the concerning thing, is I wonder if there are times there is a little bit of that attitude in my prayer. I hope not. I try to be mindful to be grateful for God’s response to my prayer. That no matter how long the answer is in coming, my waiting was rooted in faith and trust in a loving God.
But I also talk with people whose experience of prayer is very different. Their hearts have hardened and they have deep and serious questions about God because they did all those things – they knocked, they asked, and more, but disease still took the life of a loved one, a relationship fell apart, the family finances got worse, a job was lost, and all around the faithless seem to thrive. When they want to know why, what are we to tell them? You need to pray harder, longer, and with more faith? Or do we tell them, God did answer your prayers; he said no. In some circumstances, you can see their shoulder slump, their chin begins to drop, and their eyes all but say, “What’s the point?”
Think of yourself in such a situation. What would you do? What can we say to their question of why God has not answered their prayer? There is no one-answer-fits-all response. We can be present to them; we can be compassionate – and we can pray with them. Makes you think about your own prayer life, doesn’t it?
What is the habit of your prayer? There is an old adage that says you need 10,000 hours of practice to become truly expert in some endeavor. If that adage is true, then have you spent 10,000 hours in prayer? If you started at age five and prayed 1 hour a day, every day, by the time you hit 33 years old, you will have reached the 10,000 hour mark. Sadly, I know I have spent way more than 10,000 hours swimming, but I am not sure I can say the same for prayer – but I am catching up!
I had a coach for swimming. He taught me, not just how to swim, I already knew how to swim. He taught me to race. And maybe that is part of what is happening in today’s gospel when the disciples ask: “Lord, teach us to pray.” The disciples already knew how to pray. They were not beginners in the shallow end. They were devout Jews steeped in the rhythms and practice of daily prayer, of attending Sabbath services, and lifting their hands upward in worship. They knew how to pray. I don’t think they were looking for better techniques. I suspect they wanted what Jesus had when he prayed. They wanted to experience the intimacy, belong, trust, peace, and closeness in prayer that was transformative and nourishing. They wanted to be taught how to be with God as Jesus was with God in prayer. If that meant unlearning the way they always thought they were to pray, so be it.
How about us? When have we asked Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray.” What will each of us have to unlearn in order that we are able to pray in such a way that it is as intrinsic as breathing, as natural as a mother’s embrace, as warm as the porch light that is always on. What must we unlearn that we may know the intimacy and peace of prayer?
Perhaps we need to unlearn all that we think about the promises of God. For there is only one promise given – only one: “…how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Could it be that the answer to our prayers is not a parking spot or college entrance, but simply the Holy Spirit. That when we persist in prayer, when pray in honesty and openness, God will never fail to give us God’s own, abundant, indwelling and overflowing self as the answer we actually need. God will provide God’s loving, consoling, healing, transforming, and empowering Spirit to us. God’s answer to all of our prayers will always be “Yes.”
…and now the harder question: do we consider the “Yes” of God’s Spirit a sufficient response to our prayers? If God’s guaranteed answer to our petitions is God’s own self, can we live with that? Or do we want God to fix everything or at least some things – more than we want God himself. Do we have the courage to accept the “Yes,” be filled with the Spirit and then do our part in the world and in our lives? Can we rest in God’s “Yes” with courage and patience? Virtues that are gifts of the Holy Spirit. Virtues which are the fruit of prayer itself.
Lots to ponder. Lots to unlearn and then learn anew.
“Lord, teach [me] to pray.” It is what I need most. How about you?