During seminary, one of the requirements for becoming a priest is to serve for eight weeks in a hospital setting as a chaplain. Now one might think that there is a hospital chaplaincy course or that the hospital gives chaplains training on how to be a chaplain. But the truth is, we received two day of “training,” half of which was about just being in hospital, not about how to be a chaplain. Needless to say, on day three, when the supervisor told us to go to our floors and to get to work, I was almost stunned into inaction. What would I say? What was I supposed to do?
Of course, only hours into the job, I realized how much I had underestimated the challenges. Not only did I have no idea how to enter a room and strike up a conversation that was not like the ones they were having with every doctor and nurse, I also had no idea how to pray appropriately for the Roman Catholic, the Pentecostal, the Jew, the United Methodist, the Episcopalian, and the uncertain person who was not sure about God but was still willing to let me pray. I remember sharing my anxiety with a fellow Episcopalian and he simply said, “Oh, I always just pray prayers using the same format as the collects in the Book of Common Prayer.” Despite my love for the collects in our Prayerbook, an entire childhood of praying like a Methodist meant that his advice offered little encouragement.
The truth is I am not sure most of us are ever really taught how to pray. We know a good prayer when we hear one, and we may even write down a prayer we like, but very few of us volunteer to lead prayer at the opening of a meeting or over a meal. Part of the problem is that most of us think there is a right way to pray. We imagine there is some magical formula like my friend from seminary suggested, or we worry that our extemporaneous prayer will not be smooth enough or use holy enough words. We worry that the way that we pray somehow suggests the quality of Christian we are. Prayer, like biblical literacy, is one of those areas that we get completely anxious about when pressed in public.
The good news is that we are in good company. We hear in our gospel lesson today one of the disciples say to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The disciples at this point have seen Jesus pray many times. They see how good he is and they see how important prayer is in his life. In fact, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is regularly found in prayer.[i] They watch Jesus enter into prayer with God for months, and they long to be able to do that too. And so they come to Jesus, and they vulnerably submit their request: teach us to pray.
Their question is full of implications. First is the admission that they do not have the first idea about what they are doing. Maybe they learned some prayers in temple, or maybe their parents prayed with them. But they realize in watching Jesus that they do not actually know how to pray themselves. Not really. Second, they see a real connection between Jesus and God that somehow is revealed in Jesus’ prayer life. Perhaps they see how prayer strengthens him in his weakness and how he is more vulnerable with God than even with them. They long for that kind of connection with God too, but still, they are not sure how the whole thing works. Finally, a deeper implication is at hand in the disciples’ question. Perhaps they are not only asking Jesus how to pray, but also wanting to know what is actually happening in prayer. Perhaps they have tried praying on their own – for an illness, for a new job, for a broken relationship – but the prayer did not work. They want Jesus to teach them the right way to pray so that the results they desire are fulfilled.
In some ways, Jesus does that. First, Jesus gives them a simple prayer. When you pray, pray this. The prayer is one that countless Christians have etched into their minds for over two thousand years. Many of us have distinctive memories of learning the Lord’s Prayer, while others of us just simply know the prayer without remembering how the prayer became ingrained into our conscience. The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the only part of a funeral that everyone – even those who never go to church – seem to know and can recite. This is the same prayer that we say every Sunday, that we teach our children, that we say near death, that we pray when we cannot muster up any other words. In this way, Jesus teaches the disciples and all of us to pray.
But then, Jesus goes on to really teach the disciples about prayer. He tells this funny parable about a man who awakens his friend in the dead of the night because another friend has come to his house and he has no food to feed him. The man in bed refuses at first, but after much persistence, he caves and gives his friend what he needs. At the end of the parable, Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Yes, Jesus gives the disciples the words they can use to pray. But Jesus is also trying to teach them about what prayer really is. Jesus presents this parable of two friends in a relationship that involves give and take. Jesus is trying to teach the disciples that prayer is about relationship. The prayer relationship with God is one in which the disciples will be coming in the middle of the night asking for very inconvenient things. The prayer relationship is active, deeply personal, and will involve asking for what they really need.[ii] In fact, Jesus says of the man in the parable, “because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” Another translation of the word “persistence,” is “shamelessness.”[iii] In other words, Jesus teaches the disciples that this prayerful relationship holds nothing back, cannot be embarrassed, and certainly does not worry about pretenses.
Unfortunately, we may hear those words about asking, searching, and knocking and remember every time that our prayers have not been answered, when we have not found, and the door has not been opened. But Jesus is inviting us today to reframe prayer not as something we do with the expectation of an exchange: I ask for healing, or a job, or a romantic partner, and God gives that to me. We are still to come to God with those pains: the longing for healing, the desire for vocational fulfillment, and the hope for partner who makes us happy and whole. But instead of bringing those things to God because we want them solved, Jesus suggests that we bring those things to God so that all of ourselves is nakedly before God. Only then can we have the intimacy with God that we desire and the realness of relationship we long to have.
Now where this gets messy is when we start trying to understand why things happen – when we are not healed and people tell us, “It was God’s will,” or “Everything happens for a reason.” But those answers hold little weight when a child dies or when someone loses their home. I cannot believe in a God who wills those things to happen. In fact, when a teen asks me why their parents are still getting divorced even though they prayed for the divorce not to happen, or when a mom loses a pregnancy and wants to know why God would let that happen, my answer has most often been, “I don’t know.” I do not know why our physical ailments are not healed and why horrible or disappointing things happen to us. All I do know is that God longs for us to bring all of that to God in prayer.
So when I am angry, God wants me to let God have it. When I am sad, God wants me to pour out my heart. When I am lost, God wants me to share my wandering self. And when I am not even sure God is with me or loves me, God wants me to just come and sit, even if I do not have words or if I do not feel like I can really trust God anymore. When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus gives them a simple, straightforward prayer, teaching them and us that we do not need holy words or even our own words – especially when we cannot find our own words. But Jesus teaches us all so much more. Jesus teaches us to be shamelessly honest about what we need whenever we are in need. And Jesus teaches us that prayer is based on trust – not a trust that everything works out for the best or that we will get exactly what we want – but a trust that God is listening and God loves us and all the world.[iv] Jesus’ teaching is not tidy – but Jesus’ teaching invites us in, encourages us, and holds us in this wonderful journey with God – the one who we come to know through prayer. Amen.
[i] James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 289.