“Teach us to pray.” It seems like a simple request from one of the disciples. They have been journeying with Jesus for months. They have seen Jesus heal people, feed people, raise people from the dead. He has even given the Twelve “power and authority to overcome demons and cure diseases.” (Luke 9:1) You would think that they would know how to pray and understand prayer. But apparently not.
Why don’t the disciples know how to pray? At least some of them are Jewish; prayer is part of the tradition. Why the special lessons? Perhaps this disciple is only used to the prayers of the gathered at the synagogue; maybe personal prayer from the heart is new.
Up until this point, when Luke writes about Jesus praying (and he mentions it four times) Jesus goes off to pray by himself: in a secluded place, (Luke 4:42) on a mountain, (Luke 6:12, 9:28) in a “lonely place.” (9:18) This time it sounds like the disciples are nearby, One day Jesus was praying. Maybe they are even watching.
The disciple has heard that John the Baptist is teaching his disciples to pray and now this disciple of Jesus wants to know how to pray too. “Tell us how to pray, please. John taught his disciples.”Perhaps it is a little friendly competition between cousins, whose disciples can pray better?
The disciples should have been there a few days earlier, maybe they could have learned from Mary. Jesus gives props to Mary for how she sits, listening attentively. In contrast, he gives her sister, Martha, a hard time for being anxious, for worrying about getting everything just right. Jesus teaches that being present and attentive is more important than getting it all right. Could this be a cue to prayer?
But watching an attentive woman is not the answer this disciple wants. This disciple wants a how-to guide for prayer. So Jesus says, “This is what you say.” He gives the basics, an outline. You start with praise, then ask for what you need. Don’t forget to ask for forgiveness and promise that you will do something in return. And ask to be safe from trials and testing.
We who follow Jesus, still use this same prayer, word for word, 2000 years later. Let’s say together the prayer that Jesus taught, and we will use “forgive us our sins.”
Our father, who art in heaven. Hallowed by thy name.
Thy kindom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kindom and the power and the glory forever.
There is comfort in this prayer, in knowing a prayer by heart, in having something to say when we just don’t have any other words. It is a brilliant and beautiful prayer. These few words are so packed with meaning that whole books are written about them.
But Jesus doesn’t stop there. He doesn’t make it that simple; he doesn’t say “if you just recite these particular words you are praying.”
As he so often does, Jesus uses a story to make his point. Say you have an unanticipated house guest and you are not at all prepared. Since there is no all-night grocery, you go to your neighbor – at midnight – and ask if they can help you with food to feed your surprise visitor.
The neighbor has already locked up for the night, all the sheep are in the pen, the chickens are roosting, the kids are all finally asleep – that’s no small feat when you all share the same room, even the same bed. And now here comes a knock at the door, a shout through the window. There is no way the neighbor is going to scurry around and interrupt this peaceful scene, even for a good friend. And yet, Jesus says, persistence pays off. Eventually the neighbor will get up and give you what you need for your guest.
This is not the only time Jesus uses this kind of example. In Luke 18(1-6) a widow comes to a judge to ask for justice. And though the judge does not care about the widow or justice, she is so persistent that the judge gives the widow what she wants, just to get her to leave.
Is this really how prayer works, that our neighbors can’t help but throw us a loaf of bread to shut us up? If we make enough noise and become a nuisance, God can’t help but respond?
There is something powerful about persistence, something that helps the one on the other side of the door know that the knocking will not stop. And sometimes it is not just one neighbor that is knocking, it is the whole neighborhood, the whole town.
Remember the small group that marched in 1930 with Gandhi to protest the British salt tax in India. When the first people got beaten more joined the movement. When people were killed, even more joined. They kept knocking. The non-violent resisters, the satyagrahis, did not stop knocking until India won independence.
Remember the non-violent resisters that knocked during the civil rights movement in this country. They learned persistent knocking from Gandhi and his movement. In the past several decades, those struggling for LGBTQ rights have taken a page from the civil rights community about knocking, and non-violent resistance. Now the environmental movement is learning from those who knock. The environmental group 350.org estimates that there are 70,000 people across the country, a whole new group of satyagrahis, ready to commit non-violent civil disobedience in order to keep the XL pipeline from being built through the US. The arrests have started; fifty five people were arrested this past Friday in downtown DC. Persistent knocking can result in an open door, an answer to prayer.
From this one disciple asking about prayer we all get a prayer, a story and then these additional memorable words: Ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. This sounds less like persistence and more like a simple action. Be aware of what is needed and ask for it, look for it.
I have a friend who at the end of a gathering where people have only just met asks, “Does anyone need anything? A ride to the metro, a job, a place to stay?” Almost without fail someone speaks up with a need and someone else says, “I can help with that.” Ask and it is given. If the rest of us don’t know what is needed, we can’t act on behalf of God.
Jesus describes prayer as an action. It is not passive sitting in silence but knowing ourselves and the situation well enough to ask, seek, knock. And Jesus believes the best about people. He says, “Would a parent give a child a snake when they ask for a fish or a scorpion when they ask for an egg?” Of course not. If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”
Jesus’ teaching makes prayer sound active when what he praises Mary for is sitting attentively. Mary’s posture is more in line with what Jesus would have learned from the Psalms and Isaiah.
from Psalm 27 Wait for God, be strong, and let your heart take courage, wait for God.
From Isaiah 40, Those who wait on God will renew their strength.
Perhaps this is why the disciple says, “Teach us to pray.” Should we act – or listen; is it ask, seek and knock – or are we to wait.
I think Jesus is saying yes; act and listen; ask, seek, knock and wait.
So how do you pray? How did you learn to pray? What are you still learning about prayer?
I have personally found prayer confounding at times, which is perhaps why I return to deep breathing so often. When there are no words, when action seems impossible, breathing deeply – and waiting – is a powerful way to pray. I also experience the gift of prayer in action. I can often better align my spirit with God, that Great Mystery, if I am moving – walking, biking, swimming.
What about prayer with others? We have been learning to pray in silence with each other the past few years after some folks asked whether we could include silence in our worship. We speak our joys and concerns as prayer each week, we read scripture, we confess, we cry, we laugh. I am reminded of a friend long ago who said, “I don’t need to stop and pray, my whole life is a prayer.” Our whole worship is prayer. And yet we keep learning what that means and how we can connect with God as we gather.
I wonder about active prayer as a group. After participating in a prayer walk with 2000 Mennonites through downtown Phoenix the other week, I wonder what it would be like to try this is in our own community. Walking in silence or singing, with intention for peace and healing in homes, schools, businesses, churches… Perhaps part of a prayer walk is asking what is needed and actively seeking out what might be needed so that we can be agents of God for those who are waiting.
This simple request from the disciple – teach us to pray – is not really so simple.
May we, who also journey with Jesus as disciples, continue learning to pray – in silence, with words, waiting with awareness, through movement and action – as we seek the reign of God.