Let’s explore prayer. We are going to begin in the proverbial wading pool and launch out into progressively deeper water. Let’s begins with some organizing thoughts: First, I am not to prayer what Billy Graham is to evangelism. When I read the Desert Fathers, the ancient Irish mystics, the prayers of Charles Spurgeon or the sermons of Smith Wigglesworth, I feel a bit like someone with sinus problems going deep sea diving; my head starts to explode when I am about three inches under water. Secondly, prayer is both an art and a science. Even those less spiritually and more practically inclined can learn the disciplines of prayer and be enriched by prayer. Even a short person who can’t jump can learn to be a solid basketball player so just because you don’t naturally have the art does not mean you can’t learn the science. Third, prayer lives grow intentionally. As I prepared for this series something hit me, it had been years since I had forged new ground in my prayer life. My prayer life was comfortable and that comfort turned to complacent and complacency is a dangerous place for the person of faith. Many churches are filled with people on both sides of the pulpit whose prayer lives haven’t really grown in decades. Fourth, studying prayer raises more questions than it provides answers. If you want a quick and easy, lightly whipped and heavily sugared self improvement series on prayer you are going to be highly disappointed. Preparation has been more like rowing a boat against the wind in choppy water than sunning on the deck of a pleasure cruiser. Finally, I am not an expert on prayer. I have always defined as expert as, “One who was a pert but is no longer.” Frankly, I can’t tell if the self proclaimed authorities on prayer are really that close to God or just weird so I will journey with you as a fellow pilgrim.
That all being said, I feel a little like I did when I first climbed the high dive at new the DuQuoin pool as a teenager. I stood on the diving board and thought about how it didn’t look nearly so high from the ground looking up as it did from the board looking down. Then I noticed that a lot of kids were impatiently waiting behind me so I just swallowed my trepidation, jumped as high as I could and took a flying leap! Here we go.
The Gallup Polls tell us that 9 out of 10 USAmericans pray regularly and three out of four pray every day. Encarta Dictionary defines prayer, “To speak to God…in order to give thanks, express regret or ask for help.” There is no Christian discipline more widely practiced and less generally understood than prayer. Sometimes we pray with great faith and sometimes we don’t really believe at all. Sometimes our prayers seem to change the world and sometimes we feel like they don’t get past the ceiling. Sometimes praying makes all the sense in the world to us and sometimes praying makes no sense at all. We believe, we doubt, we love, we hate, we prophecy, we curse, we live, we die but still we pray. The very act of prayer is our witness to the presence of a benevolent God who desires to know us on one hand and has the power to act on our behalf on the other. Harvard sociologist William James said, “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”
For most of us the primary focus of our prayers consists of us telling God what we want Him to do, when we want Him to do it and how we want it done. I know that does not feel good but it is true. Most of our prayers lives are like that friend who never calls unless he needs something or that child in college who never texts except when she wants money. We may throw in a thank you when things go our way but the vast majority of our prayers are petitions; like God is a cover band and we are making requests. I think it safe to say that while most USAmericans pray, our prayers are imbalanced at best. When I was a young Christian, I was taught the ACTS method of prayer and though I am always looking for something flashier or trying to invent something more hip; I have yet to find it. To put it in the most simple of variations, prayer consists of:
Adore Worship of God
Confess Repentance for Sin
Thank Gratitude for Blessings
I think this model is a great Prayer 101 class for it keeps us from the temptation of confusing God; not with Satan but with Santa. The reality is that prayer is a lot more than climbing on God’s lap at the steepled mall, telling him that we have been good boys and girls, asking for everything we have ever wanted, hoping real hard he comes through and saying amen. Our text today comes from the Gospel of Luke and it contains a short version of the Lord’s Prayer then juxtaposes two illustrations around a most familiar text about asking, seeking and knocking. Take a deep breath, we are going under.
LUKE 11: 1-13 (NLT)
1 Once when Jesus had been out praying, one of his disciples came to him as he finished and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” 2 He said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be honored. May your Kingdom come soon. 3 Give us our food day by day. 4 And forgive us our sins — just as we forgive those who have sinned against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation. ” 5 Then, teaching them more about prayer, he used this illustration: “Suppose you went to a friend’s house at midnight, wanting to borrow three loaves of bread. You would say to him, 6 ‘A friend of mine has just arrived for a visit, and I have nothing for him to eat.’ 7 He would call out from his bedroom, ‘Don’t bother me. The door is locked for the night, and we are all in bed. I can’t help you this time.’ 8 But I tell you this — though he won’t do it as a friend, if you keep knocking long enough, he will get up and give you what you want so his reputation won’t be damaged. 9 “And so I tell you, keep on asking, and you will be given what you ask for. Keep on looking, and you will find. Keep on knocking, and the door will be opened. 10 For everyone who asks, receives. Everyone who seeks, finds. And the door is opened to everyone who knocks. 11 “You fathers — if your children ask for a fish, do you give them a snake instead?12 Or if they ask for an egg, do you give them a scorpion? Of course not! 13 If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop is a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church and the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois. The church has grown from 200 to almost 2,000 per under his leadership.
V. 1 As Jesus finished praying a disciple asked, “Teach us to pray.” Jesus prayed regularly and I can imagine him being gone for an especially long time and the disciples sitting around wondering how anyone could pray that long. When Jesus returned to them they asked him to teach them to pray.
V. 2-4 Jesus said, “This is how you should pray.” In ancient Israel, a teacher with disciples was a common thing. John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray and now the folks at Jesus University wanted to move from 3G to 4G in prayer technology. Jesus as a teacher was Socratic in that he often answered question with questions, Lincolnian in that he often answered questions with stories but he was also a reductionist in that he took complex ideas and boiled them to simple statements. Here, Jesus offers an unbelievably concise model for prayer.
Father, may you name be honored and may your Kingdom come soon. Give us food for today. Forgive us as we forgive others and don’t let us yield to temptation.
This model prayer is about worship, prophecy, petition, forgiveness, protection and mutual participation. We have to assume that it contains all the basic ingredients a prayer needs. Let me offer a paraphrase in more common language. “Almighty God, may my participation in the work of your Kingdom bring honor to your name. As I deplete myself in service to you, I trust you to give me what I need to survive. Forgive me as I forgive those who have wronged me and when temptation comes, give me the strength to not embarrass either of us.” Amen.
In verses 5-8 we have what I call the Parable of the Grouchy Neighbor. Most of us today have little concept of radical hospitality extended to family and friends, much less to strangers, but in the Middle East during Roaring B.C.’s such hospitality was expected. The story is simple. Since it is hotter than three kinds of smoke in the Israel most of the year people often traveled from dusk to dawn. An unannounced late night visitor arrived at a home seeking food and shelter and the owner was obliged to offer hospitality but his cupboard was empty. So he goes to his neighbor’s house at midnight to borrow some food as that neighbor had no doubt asked of him in the past. The neighbor initially tells the man to stop bothering him but the man just keeps knocking and finally the grouchy neighbor opens the door and gives him some groceries to get rid of him.
Jesus’ audience must have chuckled at this story for not even the worst neighbor would refuse to help a friend with so slight an imposition as getting out of bed and opening the door of a one room house. Some armchair theologians read this story and offer quick interpretations. They infer that we are doing the knocking, God is telling us to “get lost” and if we bug him long enough we will get whatever we want. Some sputtering theological movements have adopted this position but they are never historically sustained because they are not sustainable. These “name it, claim it” theologies appear and reappear in Christian history like counterfeit money. I want to be most clear here; prayer as a practice to lobby God to our position by nagging is whacked out theology. The point of this story is that God is NOTHING like that cantankerous neighbor. Jesus tells us that if even this three-quarters useless neighbor granted a valid petition for help, how much more quickly will the God who actually loves you grant your valid petition for help? Did I say, “Valid”?
V. 9 Keep asking, looking and knocking for everyone who asks receives, seeks finds, knocks has the door opened. Philip Yancey writes in his book Prayer, “Jesus could have said something like this, ‘I am bestowing the gift of prayer. You must realize, of course, that humans cannot have perfect wisdom, so there are limits to whether your prayers will be answered. Prayer operates like a suggestion box. Spell out your requests clearly to God and I guarantee that all requests will be carefully considered.’ That kind of statement about prayer I can easily live with but as C.S. Lewis said the real problem with prayer lies not in the fact of refusal but in the Bible’s lavish promises.” How do we reconcile this verse with the reality that some people lack faith, some requests are selfish and frivolous, not everything is God’s will and the fact that everybody is going to die of something? The long answer is that we will be exploring this question throughout the summer and the short answer is, “Not easily.” I will tell you this, “Not every prayer you pray is going to be answered in the way you want it to be answered.” Please do not pluck this verse out of its context, apply it to frivolous and selfish things and try to build a theology around it. And don’t listen to people who do! When the storms of life come and they will; this “wearing down God to get your way” stuff just won’t hold up.
Now we move to the final story in verses eleven through thirteen. If God is nothing like the grouchy neighbor then what is God like? God is like an affectionate father who receives a request from a child who is the apple of his eye. I remember when I first got out of seminary in 1992 and received a full-time salary of $24,000 each and every year whether I needed it or not. On rare occasions I would take fifty dollars and the family to Evansville and I would buy Zec and Lydia something really special. Lydia used to gleefully say to anyone within earshot, “Daddy is in a spending mood!” It gave me great joy to do something special for the kids because my capacity to do that in those days was most limited. “If you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?” Good fathers will always find a way to give their children what they need but they also delight in sometimes giving them what they want! Finally, did you note that the gift given here by the affectionate father was the Holy Spirit and not a fast new camel? More on that later.
So what have we learned in this first installment on prayer? Here are five things:
Five Thoughts Concerning Prayer
- 1. Prayer is in our hardwiring The reality is that people have to try really hard not to pray.
- 2. Prayer needs to be developed Some will have greater capacity for prayer than others but we all need to communicate with God and we can all grow in that relationship.
- 3. Prayer needs to be well rounded. Jesus taught us to ask for what we need but there was lots of other stuff in the prayer he gave us as well. Petitions must not monopolize our prayers.
- 4. Some things are always appropriate to pray Jesus taught us in this prayer that prayers of worship, for the coming of the Kingdom, for physical needs, for forgiveness and for deliverance are always properly before God.
- 5. God is crazy about you God does not hate you, want to zap you with his gamma ray or send you to hell for the mistakes you have made. He wants to know you, heal you, forgive you, love you and save you. God is good and God wants good for you.
Next time we are going to wade a bit deeper into the water and I invite you to grab a snorkel and some flippers and take a dive into deeper water with me. If you do I will guarantee you three things; you will emerge better knowing how to pray, better knowing yourself and better knowing God!
PRAYER FOCUS: TEACH US TO PRAY