Rev’d. Tanya Stormo Rasmussen
Congregational Church of Hollis, U.C.C.
28 July 2019
Sometimes, as those of you who are on church boards or committees know, I’ll teasingly remind folks that I’m not the ONLY person in our community who’s qualified to pray. Still, in every church I’ve served in three different countries, the prevailing sense by most lay folk has been that prayer is best left to “the professionals”—especially if it’s in a group setting.
Jesus made it clear that prayer is absolutely critical to a meaningful relationship with God. He was constantly at his practice of prayer. Withdrawing to deserted places to pray. Praying before he ate with people—whether masses of 5,000 on a hillside, or an intimate dinner party with his friends in an upstairs room. He prayed before he healed folks. He prayed before he selected his apostles, and then again when he sent those apostles out in pairs to practice and share what he’d taught them. He prayed the night before he died, and he prayed from the cross itself: prayer was absolutely central to his life, even to his dying breath.
So, if we have the spirit of Christ Jesus in us, and we know how important it is, why do so many of us find it difficult to pray? (Because, believe it or not, even those of us who are “professionals” find it difficult to pray at times.)
The lectionary’s gospel text for this Sunday reveals that Jesus’ disciples, from the very beginning, knew they needed help and asked for instruction in how to pray. They observed him at prayer, Luke reports, and then, “after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’”
According to Luke’s account, Jesus makes it sound so simple. Just ask for what you want. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” It seems pretty straightforward.
But is that our experience of prayer??
How many of us have prayed fervently for something we haven’t received? How often have you felt yourself searching, but not finding—sometimes, feeling the void, the ache of something missing, but not knowing what it is you’re looking for? How many of you have felt like you’ve knocked on heaven’s door, and your experience has been similar to the desperate man Jesus described, in the middle of the night begging his friend for some bread and the friend effectively says, “Leave me alone; I’m sleeping!”
I can tell you stories about people who’ve asked, and asked, and pleaded with God for a child . . . but remained childless. Or, about the woman in the last church I served who prayed since she was in her 20s for someone to share life and build a family with but who, now into her 80s, remains single.
I could tell you about the boy who prayed desperately, tearfully, for years to not feel attracted to other boys; who asked God instead make him fall in love with a girl. He’s the man I know who eventually realized, “God wouldn’t and couldn’t ‘take my gay away’, because it’s how I’m designed to be. I finally understand that at least one world-changing thing God wants me to do with my life is to show that LGBTQ+ couples are just as capable of healthy, meaningful, loving relationships as heterosexuals.” Now, he’s just continuing to praying for his family to accept him as God created him to be.
There’s also the story about my friend—the one who first helped me embrace my calling to ordained ministry—who told me she had an incurable form of cancer and the only thing she was praying for, and the only thing she wanted me to pray for, was for her to be cured. Because she had four children who needed her. She died a year ago.
What I’m trying to say is, I could tell you lots of stories about prayer that don’t seem to reinforce what Jesus said in Luke’s gospel. What I can’t tell you is what that means, except that Jesus was clearly not trying to convey that God is some sort of cosmic vending machine in this teaching. What I especially can’t explain, in any sort of way that feels terribly helpful, is how to make simple sense of unanswered prayer.
Because I don’t think any of these stories mean that God doesn’t listen. I wholeheartedly believe that God DOES listen when we pray—a lot more closely than we listen to God. A lot more closely and attentively than we tend to listen to other people, or they listen to us.
And I don’t accept the idea that God doesn’t care. I am convinced by what Jesus, God’s flesh-and-blood presence with humankind, went through first-hand that there is nothing we can go through, that Christ hasn’t already experienced. And—although it can be hard to feel or believe it at the time—I believe God is with us through every second of the deepest, darkest, scariest, angriest, loneliest, most agonizing and paralyzing moments of our life. There is nothing we can do or have done to us that God cannot somehow redeem and transform with the power of divine love. But I’ve only come to that unshakable conclusion through my own practice of prayer.
I feel very fortunate to have been raised in a household that taught the importance and centrality of prayer. “Pray without ceasing” was a teaching I heard regularly, both at home and in church. My parents made sure that before and after every meal, and before we went to bed, every one of us would say a prayer. When we were young, it was a rote prayer, but by age eight or nine, we were expected to come up with our own words. Dinner sometimes got cold as we worked our way through all eight children and our individual expressions of thanks and petition for that day. But dinner getting cold was less important than cementing the understanding that, while attentiveness to God is possible anytime during the day, it’s a life-centering habit to take time to pray when we’re feeling hungry or tired—at those moments when we need reminding that God is the ultimate Provider of our daily bread, and our ability to rest.
A fellow preacher suggests that petitioning God, asking for what we long to receive, is central to prayer. Certainly, it’s at the heart of what Jesus was teaching his disciples to do according to Luke 11. Why is asking so central to prayer? “Because it affirms our fundamental dependence on God. God has given us many, many gifts, yet we never stray far from our original condition of ultimate dependence on God’s mercy, goodness, and provision. When we ask God for something in prayer, we acknowledge both our need and God’s goodness.”
But what to make of the times when we ask and don’t receive? When we knock, and the door’s not opened? When we’re looking but not finding?
Like most people, I’ve had periods of my life when I’ve struggled to feel God’s presence—which can simultaneously make it easy to overlook God’s goodness. Times when God felt silent, hidden, or altogether absent. When it felt like my prayers were going unanswered, and it was therefore easy to entertain doubts about whether God is real, or whether God cared about my situation. Those are painful, lonely moments. But what I can tell you as someone who’s been through more than a couple such stretches, my commitment to finding someway to pray even when God feels absent is what’s enabled me to see, in retrospect, how God was present with me—even if hidden—the entire time. And that’s deepened my faith and strengthened my ability to trust in God.
In the same way that Joel and I have periodic patches on the winding journey of our married life, or in our different relationships with our sons—when it feels like we’re not connecting, when we wonder where the other one is emotionally, spiritually, personally—our mutual, cardinal commitment to keep working at the relationship through talking and really listening to the other is akin to the practice of prayer in relationship with God. Consistent prayer is as fundamental to our healthy relationship with God as regular communication and connection is in maintaining a healthy relationship with our most dearly-beloved ones. That’s what Jesus was teaching his disciples by his example of making time, taking time, every day and in a variety of different ways, to reconnect with his life-source and Guide.
Sometimes Jesus’ prayers were silent and introspective, just paying attention to the presence and power of God within him. Other times, he used words and a pattern, as in the prayer in Luke 11 we now refer to as “The Lord’s Prayer”. Most of the time, he was praying with his life: staying focused on his connection with God by sharing divine love and transformation with everyone, especially the poor, the vulnerable, and those whom the rest of the world deemed unlovely or unlovable.
Fundamentally, prayer is about being attentive to our relationship with God. If the Bible makes anything clear, it’s that there is nothing more important to God than being in relationship with us. The entire point of Jesus’ life was to show us that God is willing to suffer even unto death in order for us to understand how much we are loved—how reliably we are accompanied by the One who gives us life and wants to share life and love with us, as we share it with others. The way we come to a deepened understanding and appreciation of this is through prayer. Prayer in community, and individual, personal prayer.
The more we dedicate ourselves to prayer—whether it’s quietly paying attention to the power and presence of God within us and all around us; or silently and patiently listening for the still, small voice of God directing and reassuring us; or whether it’s chattering away at God with appeals for help, or expressions of gratitude, or utterances of awe and amazement—the more we devote ourselves to prayer, the closer we’ll feel to God. The more we’ll be able to trust that God is really for us, and with us, loving us more absolutely than any parent possibly could, no matter what happens.
Will you pray with me?
God who longs for a more intimate relationship with each of us, teach us how to pray. By the spirit of Christ Jesus within us, prompt us to spend time paying attention to our relationship with you. Help us to ask for what we want, to acknowledge our reliance on you, and to experience the joy of gratitude as we recognize your extraordinary goodness to us, as your own Son and our Savior Jesus Christ did. Amen.
“Shameless”, by David Lose, Working Preacher: http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=1570