Just Keep Praying
July 18 2004
Once upon a time, there was a committee meeting at a church. At the beginning, committee member Bob said, “Can we start with prayer?” Everyone agreed this would be a very good idea, so Bob said, “who would like to pray?” No one answered. Everyone looked around nervously, looking everywhere except at other people. After nearly a minute, Bob said, “I’m sorry I asked. I guess I’ll do it, but it won’t be good.”
Once upon a time, Jesus was praying in a certain place. His disciples saw it and thought “wow, I wish I could be like that. Hey, Barnabas, don’t you want to be able to pray like that?” So they mustered their courage, approached Jesus and asked him to teach them to do what he did, to pray.
Have you ever been in one of these stories? I know I have definitely been in the first one. I’ve been the person who looked away (or even who says, “not me!”) when asked to pray at a meeting or at a meal. I’ve been the one who agrees to pray but only with the disclaimer that it won’t be very good. And I freely admit that I have never had the courage to approach the Lord and say “teach me to pray.”
I have sat in pews of churches and listened to preachers and liturgists pray. I’ve been at prayer meetings where people pray beautifully. Let me tell you, after hearing a preacher pray or listening to a televangelist for even a minute, I always feel like there’s no way I could ever pray, especially in public. I am completely intimidated by the idea that someone is going to listen to the words I say and is going to try to use them to pray, and I’m even more intimidated by the idea that, there on the spot I need to come up with words that express to God the prayers we all want to pray for this moment. It’s quite a tall order. Then, when I’m alone, I think I still need all those beautiful phrases and big words, those scriptural references and a mental list of current world events. Soon I’m snoozing away because I can’t keep track of it all and sleep sort of creeps up. And to ask for help from the Lord, or from anyone, would be to admit that I can’t do it. I can’t just pick it up in church, I can’t just come up with wonderful prayers without some sort of help, or at least advance planning. I can’t just do it without practice. It almost feels like admitting I’m not a good Christian somehow.
Interestingly, Jesus doesn’t say any of those things when his disciples, who’ve been following him around, listening to him preach and pray, ask him to teach them. Jesus has no commentary like the usual “how much longer must I be with you” or some version of “I can’t believe you don’t get it yet!” Jesus simply says, “When you pray, say this.” And what he tells them to say isn’t fancy. In fact, it’s not even the beautiful language we learned from the King James version of the prayer recorded in Matthew. The prayer Jesus teaches in Luke’s gospel is five short sentences that kind of fall off your tongue and hit the floor. “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.” That’s it. No “who art in heaven,” no “deliver us from evil” no “thine is the kingdom.” Just “Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, give us each day our daily bread, forgive us our sins, and do not bring us to the time of trial.” No big words, no beautiful phrases, no list of current world events. Compared to the prayers of the people we hear from this pulpit every week, this prayer Jesus teaches is kind of, well, flat and boring. Or, alternatively, compared to this prayer that Jesus teaches, the prayers of the people we hear from this pulpit every week are full of heaps of empty phrases like those of the gentiles.
Well, I don’t know about you, but as much as I love the Lord’s Prayer and think it’s great for gathering up all the prayers of our hearts, it doesn’t feel to me like I’ve really prayed for that sick friend if I just say the Lord’s Prayer for her. If this is the model of prayer for us, how do we appropriate the petitions of this prayer for our own prayers?
First, I think, we have to ask why we pray. Are we praying because we want a specific thing to happen or not happen? Are we praying because we feel like we should? What’s the point of prayer? The Confessions of our church say that in prayer people seek after and are found by the one true God, we listen and wait upon God, we call God by name, remember God’s gracious acts, and offer ourselves to God. We, and all the children of God, are enabled by the Holy Spirit to plead for ourselves and for others and on behalf of the whole world. As the children of God we have the privilege of placing ourselves before God, open and vulnerable, and laying out the desires and anxieties of our hearts, of our community, of our world. And we expect that God listens to us as God’s children and will not neglect our prayers but will show us God’s love, mercy, and grace.
But what about those times when it feels like God isn’t listening, or isn’t answering, or has chosen to answer with a no? What about when we pray for someone to get better and they don’t? What about when we pray for an end to violence in different parts of the world or even on the streets of our own city, and yet it continues? What about when we pray for the safety of our friends and family and accidents happen?
How do we reconcile that experience with these words of Jesus? Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. I would be willing to bet that everyone here has at some point asked and not received, knocked and only seen closed door after closed door. It’s hard to take Jesus’ words seriously. We all know that God isn’t in the business of simply giving us what we want. No matter how nicely we ask, no matter how much bargaining we do, no matter how lovely our phrases and how big our words, sometimes it seems that we just can’t have it.
Maybe it feels like God is the neighbor in Jesus’ parable. The one who says, “no, I won’t get out of bed and give you bread. It’s midnight, for goodness sake! You’re going to wake the children. I’m asleep. Go away!”
If so, though, Jesus says what to do. He says that the man who knocked and asked for help was persistent. The man kept knocking and shouting, possibly rousing the whole neighborhood. He was annoying, like a small child that continuously asks for a Popsicle. “mommy, I want a Popsicle. mommy, I want a Popsicle. mommy, can I have a Popsicle? mooommmm…….?” Jesus says that the neighbor would indeed get up and give his friend whatever he needs, if for no other reason than to get him to go away. Just keep knocking. Just keep shouting. Just keep asking. Just keep praying.
Now, I’m not saying that God wants us to go away and will answer our prayers in an attempt to shut us up. But I’m also not saying that the answer will necessarily be what we want. Jesus says that the neighbor will give the man whatever he needs. The man asked for three loaves of bread. Perhaps the neighbor gave him one. Or perhaps the man gave him some hummus and a cucumber. Or a loaf of bread and some figs. We have no way of knowing what the answer really was. Perhaps we ought to remember the same thing about our prayers. We may ask and ask and ask, pray and pray and pray, knock and shout and beg, but what we get isn’t necessarily what we asked for. We get sugar-free grape juice instead of a Popsicle. Or we think our prayers have gone unanswered, or worse—that the answer is no—when perhaps we’re looking in the wrong place for our answer. Do we want to have God’s answer, or are we only willing to accept the answer we started out looking for?
Many churches around the country have adopted a motto and a program of prayer. It’s called “Pray Until Something Happens”, with the acronym PUSH. No one says what that “something” will be. Often I think it’s probably a surprise. What I think is so intriguing about this, though, is the acronym. PUSH suggests that it’s not an easy task. “Push” is what you say when there are two of you trying to move a big car with a dead battery. “Push” is what you say to a soon-to-be-mother as she strives mightily to give birth. Pushing is hard work, something you have to do more than once to get where you need to be. Just keep knocking. Just keep shouting. Just keep asking. Just keep praying.
The psalms show us bunches of prayers that aren’t easy. They record a prayer life of sorrow and anguish, anger and bitterness, begging and pleading, and yet through it all gratitude and praise. That’s what the Lord’s Prayer shows us too. Beginning with praise, praying first for the coming of God’s kingdom, and asking for those things we need. When we pray, we should pray as Jesus taught. When we pray, we should pray until something happens, even if we don’t know what that something will be, because, as children of God, we trust that something will happen. If nothing else, God listens to us and loves us as God’s own people, and we may be changed by our prayer more than we know.
Most of us have seen the movie “Finding Nemo.” Dorie, the blue fish who helps Nemo’s dad find him, sings a little song with the words “just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” These two little fish manage to swim all the way to Sydney from wherever it is that they started. Once they find Nemo, they meet some fish who are about to get pulled into a boat and eaten for dinner. Nemo, with his new-found confidence and the creativity sparked in him by his tank-mates at the dentist’s office, knows how to help them. He tells the fish that they have to swim down all together, and keep swimming as hard as they can, pushing on the net they are trapped in. Dorie sings her little song again, “just keep swimming,” and the fish manage to literally break free. They pushed and pushed. They just kept swimming until something happened.
The Holy Spirit is kind of like Dorie for us. The Spirit gives us courage to pray without ceasing. When we don’t know how to pray, or are speechless with gratitude or with grief or with anxiety, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. When we’re sure that our prayers can’t possibly be any good, the Spirit can and will inspire us. The Spirit gives us the words, the desire, and the persistence to speak with God, and in this holy conversation we learn to pray for any and all.
So…why not ask the Lord to teach us to pray? His words aren’t fancy, his tone is conversational, and there is nothing about it that is complicated or even particularly good from a literary point of view. That alone should convince us that it isn’t about the words we use. And why not go ahead and pray? Pray in meetings, pray at home, pray unabashedly without apology. All prayers are good enough for God, who will indeed get up and give us whatever we need. Look in strange, unexpected places for surprising ways something might happen. Push hard and pray until something happens. Just keep knocking. Just keep asking. Just keep shouting. Just keep praying.