How do we pray?
It is a question the disciples of Jesus asked and one that we still ask today. What is prayer, what does it look like, sound like, feel like in our lives? We can read books, search the internet, go on retreats, and try it out for ourselves if we want to explore prayer. The disciples in Jesus’ day went straight to the source:
“Rabbi, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
It is not surprising to hear the disciples asking this of Jesus. Spiritual leaders are often expected to also be spiritual teachers. They are not simply living examples of their wisdom and experience, but also springs of education and empowerment – passing their wisdom on to the community around them so that everyone can be equipped and empowered to live out life to the fullest.
And for Jesus, that is exactly what prayer is about: it is about the fullness of life possible when one opens oneself up to relationship with God.
Jesus said to them, “When you pray, say, ‘Abba God,
For Jesus, prayer begins with relationship – and the naming of that relationship through the naming of God as Abba – a word that refers to a parent figure – it’s a title that invites the Creator of the Universe into a space of personal connection. Perhaps in that framing, prayer feels daunting. Henri Nouwen, in his book about prayer entitled: With Open Hands, would agree. He says: “Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow the other to enter into the very center of your person.” [Pg 12]
And so it is with an awareness of vulnerability that we enter into prayer.
Almost as quickly as God has been brought close by the naming of relationship through the use of the term Abba, Jesus names that relationship holy:
hallowed be your Name!
It’s tempting to hear this phrase as something that reinforces a sense of separateness between us and God – it says hallowed – holy/revered/honored be God’s name – this can make God seem inaccessible, almost untouchable. And yet the name Jesus is declaring holy is: Abba God. The God of connection and relationship. It is in and through relationship that the innate holiness of God thrives.
In light of that, Jesus then instructs us to make space for and invite that holiness into the world:
May your reign come.
Perhaps we might hear that as: may love be pervasive in this time and space. In the interactions of your people and creation – in all things. A reign of love is radical and transformative and it impacts every aspect of living – from holy moments to mundane tasks. Prayer, as an act of relationship with that pervasive love, is ever present as well. To quote Henri Nouwen again: “Prayer is in the midst of our lives and is interwoven with everything else which busies our day.” [With Open Hands, 76] Prayer is not only interwoven with all aspects of our living, it interweaves us with each other.
The final lines of Jesus’ taught prayer acknowledge that:
Give us today tomorrow’s bread.
Forgive us our sins, for we too forgive everyone who sins against us; and don’t let us be subjected to the Test.
In these phrases we see that the relationship of prayer is not only between ourselves and God, it also about our relationship with ourselves, with our mental need for assurance and our body’s physical need of sustenance – give us today tomorrow’s bread. And then the relationship of prayer extends even further – connecting us with each other as we work to live in right relationship together forgiving and being forgiven for our less than love filled moments – which are a very real part of being in relationship.
Now Jesus, being Jesus, doesn’t just give us this quite lovely recipe for prayer and then move on. He also offers commentary on it in the form of a story:
Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, a neighbor, and you go to your neighbor at midnight and say, ‘Lend me three loaves of bread, because friends of mine on a journey have come to me, and I have nothing to set before them.’
Talk about asking for tomorrow’s bread today…this interaction is taking place in the middle of the night – and let’s think about the context of the times for just a moment. There are no 7-11s down the road, no Amazon Prime offering same day delivery to your doorstep and guests show up unexpectedly to your home – at a time when you are not equipped to offer the hospitality that would be expected or deserved. It’s not that you don’t want to extend hospitality, it’s that your friends on their journey didn’t have a cell phone to text you, or even a payphone to stop at, and let you know they would be arriving that evening and so the need shows up in an unexpected moment.
Who are we kidding – even in this age of technology and convenience, needs arise at unexpected moments. And what is there to do but reach out for help. To seek assistance from a friend or a neighbor, sometimes even a stranger.
So it is in this story, the friend reaches out for help – not even waiting till morning has come – they go in the middle of the night. It is a sign of how highly hospitality is regarded in the culture. There is a desperate urgency to have the bread on hand before breakfast arrives so that you can serve your guests and provide for their needs.
And as much of an inconvenient moment it is for you – it also creates one for your neighbor. The story goes on:
“Then your neighbor says, ‘Leave me alone. The door is already locked and the children and I are in bed. I can’t get up to look after your needs.’
How familiar is this response? Someone is in need and perhaps we have the resources to help, but do we have the energy? Are we willing to extend assistance in inopportune moments? In moments that require us to set aside, or delay, our own plans and expectations for the sake of another?
Jesus goes on:
I tell you, though your neighbor will not get up to give you the bread out of friendship, your persistence will make your neighbor get up and give you as much as you need.
On the surface this might be familiar too – ugh – I will do what I have to do to get you to go away!
Yet there is a deeper layer being referred to here – the relationship layer – you see, that word persistence, which seems to be the foundational motivation for action, isn’t a good translation. The Greek word is Anaideia – which in this verse is it most often translated as persistence, but it actually means shameless – as in: an action taken without attention to what is culturally appropriate.
To come to your friend’s house at midnight and ask for bread to serve to your guests is a shameless act – it is a bold act. It is an act that says, I know it isn’t proper for me to be on your doorstep asking for help at this hour, but it would be worse for my guests to sit at an empty table tomorrow morning than for me to vulnerably come knocking on your door at this time.
And the power of relationship is this: when one party is suffering, all parties suffer. The shameless act of the asker induces action on the part of the one being asked – because if they do not extend hospitality to the one who is asking it of them, it will be known that they too did not carry out the standards of hospitality expected in the community. Self preservation is motivating. It might even be reason enough to get up and offer bread to one in need, yet the calling and hope is this: to seek to act in relationship in ways that serve each other for the sake of love and compassion. Relationship is reciprocal, it binds us together, inviting us into giving and receiving, holding us accountable to each other, and making us familiar to each other in all our complexities.
Now remember, we are still learning about prayer through this story – and so this reality of relationship is not just about how we relate to each other in community; it is also about how we are invited into relationship with God. We are invited to boldness and familiarity with God.
The vulnerability that we experience when we open ourselves up to God in prayer, is also offered by God to us. We are not held to social expectations of appropriateness in our relationship with God. We are invited into honest interactions that call forth the truth, complexities, and need of any given moment.
Jesus goes on to affirm this bold and shameless approach to relationship with God through prayer saying:
That’s why I tell you keep asking and you’ll receive; keep looking and you’ll find; keep knocking and the door will be opened to you. For whoever asks, receives; whoever seeks, finds; whoever knocks, is admitted.
This is not a gospel of pestering – God does not need us to be repetitive in our prayers. It is also not a gospel of prosperity or even a promise that we will receive specifically what we ask for. This is a gospel of participation. It is an invitation for us to show up and join in the work of naming, seeking, finding, and making space for the love and Spirit of God to move in the world.
It is just that, the presence of the Spirit, that is being offered in response to all prayer:
What parents among you will give a snake to their child when the child asks for a fish, or a scorpion when the child asks for an egg? If you, with all your sins, know how to give your children good things, how much more will our heavenly Abba give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?
Scripture Spotting made a return appearance on our church Facebook page this week. [For those who may not know, we have been collecting photos of things we see in the world around us that refer to scripture either literally or in allusion for over 5 years now – 2 books of those images are available for you to peruse in the foyer if you are curious.] This week I took a picture of a truck on the highway from a company called Big G Express – that in and of itself could be a scripture spotting for many moments – The Big G – God…but what I saw this time when I passed the truck was their tag line: going the extra mile. I snapped a picture of it and posted it with the scripture reference of Matthew 5:41 – If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.
The more I think about it, the more I think we could also use that as a scripture spotting for this passage too. In this relationship of prayer we are asked to go the extra mile – to actively ask for, look for, and knock about in the spaces in need of God’s love and presence in the world. We can all participate in that act in our own ways – art historian Sister Wendy Beckett says in her book A Child’s Book of Prayer in Art: “There is no right way to look. Different people will see and understand different things.”[pg 6] And so we are all integral in the communal act of prayer – we are all playing a role in naming, seeking, and finding the spaces in need of the movement of the Spirit.
Last week, if we hadn’t had a technical snafu [you can now see the whole segment on the church Facebook page], I was going to show a video of storyteller, activist, and freedom song singer/teacher Wendi Moore-O’Neal leading a Pink Menno song circle at the MCUSA convention. As she taught us one song she said to the gathered group:
“I don’t care if you sound pretty. I want you to charge the air.”
Prayer charges the air. Prayer makes space for the life-giving movement of the Spirit, which works in and through us, to enter and be about its work of presence, hope, and transformation.
In this relationship of prayer it is not just us who are called to go the extra mile – God too is committed to responding to our prayers – giving not so much what we are specifically hoping and asking for; instead, God goes the extra mile by offering the Holy Spirit as an immediate presence in all things. The presence of the Spirit – ushers in the kin-dom – the reign of God, that presence of pervasive love, which we ourselves have just learned to pray for.
Prayer is not an end result. Prayer is relationship, it is an opening that makes space for God’s spirit to be present and move in life-giving ways. Prayer is a choice to name, see, and experience God in our midst, in ourselves, and in each other. It is a practice that connects us to the presence of God and to each other. That is kin-dom living.