Sunday, July 28, 2019
First Congregational Church of Cheshire
© the Rev. Dr. James Campbell
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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 him!’
Walter was a member of my church in Manhattan – a very colorful member. And Walter had lived a very colorful life. As a young man, he had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then spent the better part of his adulthood traveling the world, learning languages and cultures that he then taught to others. Of all those cultures, Walter was especially proud of his own African American culture. And he was quick to tell you, despite his impressive life and resume, that his Christian faith was really nothing more than slave religion. In other words, Walter connected most powerfully to the divine through the stories and music of his people and their search for freedom and dignity.
Walter helped me to understand that we all do that. We all connect to God through our experiences, through the people who raised us and the communities that formed us. And if Walter was right about that, then my religion is mountain religion. And part of that religious tradition is a dedication to a life of prayer.
As a child, prayer was all around me. My paternal great grandmother used to spend hours on her knees in prayer every day – this despite her severe arthritis. Her daughter, my grandmother, was also a person of prayer – sometimes very dramatic prayers. When grandma felt she needed to repent of her sins, she would sometimes take on the air of an Old Testament prophet: dressing in tattered clothes, letting her hair fall down around her face, and throwing dust and ashes in the air. My parents are a little tamer than that, but they pray for me and Marcos and this church every day – sometimes more than once a day. And when my people pray, they actually believe that God hears each word they utter; and that God answers prayers in ways that are observable and verifiable.
Earlier in my adult life, I too prayed often and earnestly. I used to carry around a list of people - dozens of names – that I prayed for every day. But over time, I found that these intense daily prayers often seemed to be more of a burden than a blessing. And over time, I began to wonder if my endless shopping list which I called daily prayer, was really the kind of communication God desired to have with me. It seemed to me that at least some of my prayers were an attempt to convince God to do what Ithought best. And I started to wonder if perhaps the great Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard wasn’t on to something when he said: “Prayer does not change God, but it changes (the one) who prays.”
One day Jesus was praying, as he often did. His disciples must have been eavesdropping because when he finished, they asked him to teach them how to pray. And here we should pause for just a moment. There is in modern American piety this notion that one should automatically know how to pray. “It’s just like having a conversation with a friend,” people say. Well, not quite. Most of our friends aren’t invisible. And most of our friends say something to us in return. So, prayer is notjust like having a conversation with a friend. Prayer is something that even the disciples of Jesus needed to be taught how to do.
And so, Jesus taught them, using words we now call the Lord’s Prayer. And while it is a beautiful prayer to recite, what we should also see in it is a pattern forprayer. It contains certain elements that are building blocks of prayer: praise, petition, confession. And notice that our beloved ending: “For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory forever” is missing from this version, because it’s missing from the most ancient and reliable manuscripts of the Gospels. It’s probably a later addition because a scribe didn’t like the abrupt ending.
So Jesus gave his disciples a model upon which to hang their words. And then he told them a parable about being persistent in prayer. And Jesus ends that parable with these memorable words: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
And that, it seems at first glance, is an invitation to ask for whatever we want, as if God is some sort of Santa Claus, dispensing wishes to those who haven’t been too naughty. And that, I suspect, is how many folks think of prayer. It’s asking God for what we think we need and then waiting to see if God will grant our wish.
But if that is your approach to prayer, then when you are in real need, when illness or loneliness or unemployment come to call, and you don’t get what you pray for, then the logical conclusion is that God is capricious and temperamental… or maybe even cruel.
Some of my biggest struggles with prayer have been the uneven ways in which they seem to be answered. Some people get well, many don’t. Some poverty is relieved, most isn’t. God seems to favor one part of the world or one religion over another. And that process of asking and waiting and hoping and being disappointed has disillusioned a good many people and helped to swell the ranks of the atheism.
But a closer examination of this passage leads us to another conclusion about the aim and purpose of prayer. These verses don’t end with a promise that if you are good, then God will give you whatever you ask for. Instead, Jesus said, “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!” What you are promised when you pray is not everything you ask for. But it is everything you need. The answer to every prayer is more of God – deeper understanding, further revelation, intimacy, belonging, trust, peace. It doesn’t mean that we cannot ask God for what we think we need or others need. After all, the Lord’s Prayer teaches us to ask for our daily bread. But the measure of an answered prayer is a deeper communion with God.
And one more thing about prayer: I no longer think of it only as verbal. I also think of it as an intention. Prayer is an attitude. Prayer can manifest as words spoken, but prayer can also manifest as a fond wish or a heart’s desire. Prayer can be as simple as our breath.
A few weeks ago, I was at the Chautauqua Institution for some continuing education. I listened all week to Father Richard Rohr, a man whose work I have read and admired for years. Rohr is a Franciscan Catholic priest whose life work has been the integrated spiritual life. Rohr is all about breaking down the divisions of dualism and trying to get us to see God at work in everything and everyone. He said lots of very interesting things, but the most profound for me was the way he ended his final lecture of the week.
Rohr spoke about the practices of prayer and contemplation, and many people’s struggle with them. And then he told us this story that he had learned from a rabbi. The rabbi said that the Jewish name for God – Yahweh – is not spoken, but rather breathed. “Its correct pronunciation is an attempt to imitate the sound of inhalation and exhalation.” (Yah – weh, Yah –weh…) And if that is true, Rohr continued, then with every breath, we are saying the divine name. And with every breath, we are praying, as St. Paul put it, “without ceasing.” That means that we actually pray as we emerge from our mother’s wombs. And as we die, our very last act will be a prayer.
Well, when he said that, I cried like a child in spite of myself. I cried because I long to have communion with God. But sometimes I don’t have the words. But I don’t need the words. You don’t need words. All you need is intention and love and hope and good will and breath.
“Lord, teach us to pray.” Amen.