THORNY PRAYER ISSUES
Luke 11: 1-13
Two Fridays ago, my class of doctoral students joinedProfessor Taylor in visiting a Masjid in Atlanta. Often called a Mosque inEnglish, it is the place where, five times a day, Muslims and interested otherpeople gather to offer prayers to Allah, their Arabic name for God. Why do Itell you about this? For just this reason: men, women: what are you usuallydoing on Friday at 1:00 p.m.? Are you taking a lunch hour as I usually am? Areyou at work and can’t leave, or at home watching TV or starting a nap? InAtlanta, we observed what many Muslims were doing: they came for an hour ofprayer. This was just one of five prescribed prayer times daily. As theyarrived, they respectfully took off their shoes and placed them in wooden nooksin the walls of their vestibule; the only other time I had seen so many shoesin such nooks was at a bowling alley! But the wood was beautiful there, and theshoes carefully placed. There was no chit chat, just purposeful movement. Menand women went into separate locations, in part because arms and feet actuallytouch your brothers or sisters in faith.We witnessed men, blue collar, white collar, and boys, going into aspecial purification room where they washed their legs and feet, arms and hands,and face. They then went in to a huge carpeted room where we observed themstanding and kneeling together with other men of the faith. They actuallyprostrate themselves with their face to the ground, their head touching thefeet of the man in front of them, and their feet touching the head of the manin back of them; their elbows touched the man’s elbows on either side of them.How many were there on a Friday at 1:00 p.m.? We counted 700, besides women andgirls in another room! Men prayed together, physically and fervently; women prayedtogether as well. We were moved by the reverence of their prayers.
Just three weeks ago I learned about prayer from aRabbi. Rabbi Amy Mayer of Temple Israel just up the street reminded me of twothings that Jews do and don’t do: First she said almost no one asks a rabbi topray for them! She says Jews believe they should bring their own prayers toGod, so synagogue services become a cacophony of a hundred people praying toGod at their own speed and for their own purposes. The second thing I learnedwas that Jews never cut God out of their spiritual life even when a prayerseems to go unanswered. I know some individuals and even some professors whocut God out of their lives when they prayed and believed God did not hear orrespond to them. “A Jew would never cut out God,” said Rabbi Amy. “We go backto God, crying out, getting angry, pleading, and asking, until we find theanswer God wants us to find. And most often, it is not the answer we arelooking for!” From Muslims I watched the power of reverent, corporate prayer.From Jews I learned to never stop knocking on God’s door! Now from Christians,we learn some things as well. Let’s listen to what Jesus tells his closestfollowers about prayer, paying special attention today to the eleventh chapterof the Gospel according to Luke.
First, Jesus sets the example of constant prayer. He prayed each morning, he prayed during hisjourneys, he prayed in the garden, and he prayed on the cross. Jesus prayedconstantly, sometimes with petitions, sometimes just talking with his Father,sometimes to give thanks and sometimes just to listen! Such reasons for prayershould be ours as well. Prayer is to give glory to God, as well as praise;prayer is to acknowledge God and to keep us from falling into a philosophy oflife that even some founding fathers had. Thomas Jefferson, it has been noted,was something of a Deist: that is, one who believes that God set the universein motion and created the laws of physics, now does not interfere with orchange any of it. Some Americans believe that, especially when they don’t thinktheir prayer has been answered. But as I showed the children, we’ll need to getbeyond the idea that prayer is like a gumball machine: put in your money andget out the result you want. People do that, of course, because of a line Jesusonce said and it is in our text today too: “Ask and it will be given to you;seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” This week inthe news an Agricultural Department employee who was accused of racism a weekago has received calls of apology because the quote on which the charge wasbased was taken out of context. Christians have a bad habit of taking one lineout of the Bible and making it the galvanized truth. But when you do that witha verse like: “Ask and it will be given unto you,” it turns God into awonderful gumball machine, or an overindulgent grandfather who gives youwhatever you ask, or a spineless parent who creates a child who has no means tomature because she was never told “no” as a teenager. God is not any of thosethings. Prayer with God is about relationship; about listening, not just aboutasking. Remember that strange part of our text in verses eleven throughthirteen; that part about scorpions and snakes and fish and eggs? InterpreterRaymond Bailey explains: “Luke draws on familiar images to make his point onparental care [concerning God.] There was an eel-like type of unclean fish inthe Sea of Galilee. A loving parent would not give to a child anything thatwould be harmful, even if it fit the category of the request. A baby cries forfood, but some food is harmful. A scorpion may draw itself into a ball andassume the appearance of an egg. The eel or scorpion might appeal to the child,but the parent would exercise caution on [their] behalf. A parent must be wiseenough not to be fooled, and our heavenly parent is wisdom itself.” So Jesusprayed constantly, but not about getting what he wanted; he prayed ultimatelyto know and do his Father’s will. Prayer is intended to be more aboutrelationship more than petition.
Second, we are in this world together. When Jesus gave the example that we now call the“Lord’s Prayer,” there was no first person singular pronoun in the wholeprayer. While we are most accustomed to asking God to grant one of ourrequests, the Lord’s Prayer is plural throughout: like with Muslims, it’s areminder to pray corporately, with one another, perhaps even touching shouldersor holding hands once in awhile. It invites us to find times to pray in thesame room now and then, but when we’re away, we remember how many others are inprayer with God at the same time.
Third, be persistent in prayer. InBiblical times families would usually bed down on the family floor, perhapsnear a fire, for homes were usually just one room. Usually the father laid downnext to the door, and almost like the men I saw praying two weeks ago, or like arctictravelers with huskies, the father would have his children nuzzle close to himfor safety, and most often the mother was at the other end of the line; thechildren were in the middle. With a knock on the door, not only would thefather have to move, the children would have to be awakened to move as well, sothe first response to a request for bread at midnight is no. But if the neighborwas persistent, the man might give in a) to be hospitable, or b) to get thepersistent man to go away so the father could go back to sleep! Persistence inprayer makes a difference with God.
Fourth, read one verse in light of other verses. If you stop with “Ask and it shall be given untoyou,” people miss the shading that the next line adds: “seek and ye shall find”implies persistence; and the next part “knock and the door will be opened” alsosays that your request is not fulfilled right away, nor is it always fulfilledgladly, but there is a response because of the relationship the neighbor hadalready built with his neighbor. If a stranger pounds on a man’s door atmidnight it will first be assumed he is a thief.
So the fifth and final thing Jesus teaches us aboutprayer is this: “Do not be a strangerat the door of your Father.” Godwants to hear from you; God wants to know you, not just as you were created,but as you have become; God want to hear your preferences, your choices andyour beliefs. Certainly Christians believe in prayer; but do we practice prayer to make it a sacred conversation, inviting God into our spaceand for a few focused moments, making it holy? Instead of just throw away words, I witnessed others whobelieve in God make a time, place, and a posture for prayer. Today I havelistened to Jesus words and heard that he often sets himself apart for prayerwith his Heavenly Father. Today our text commends to us regular and perseveringprayer. Let prayer be constant, corporate, persistent, Scriptural, andfamiliar. Today let us reclaim holytime- once, twice, five times a day, or even more: when we can we praise,wrestle with, talk with, or even question God, who will be as involved in ourlives as we wish. Like Jesus in our facet glass window, God is knocking on thedoor of our hearts today.
Jeffrey A. SumnerJuly 24, 2010