Teach Me To Pray
Author: Deacon Dave Larrabee
Reflect a moment on who taught you how to pray?
Was it a parent,--- a teacher, ---a pastor, ---a friend? Verena, one of our former Lamb Center guests turned volunteer, who was raised as a Baptist in the Deep South, always says that Vic, our former 90 year-old volunteer barber taught her that she can come to God like a friend. Learning to pray is not like learning how to drive a car or to play an instrument. It is most likely not something, you can learn from a YouTube video. Learning to pray is something you do by watching others and practicing. Perhaps it’s like learning how to kiss.
Everything about a prayer reveals something about what the pray-er thinks God is like. Is God merciful? Forgetful? Too busy? Ready to order the entire universe to make you happy? Perhaps along your journey, Jesus taught you how to pray. Maybe you thought you were learning a spiritual practice, but really Jesus has been teaching you about the One to whom you have been praying. What you are learning from Jesus is a theology.
When we open the Lamb Center doors, our guests file in, looking for a reprieve from the weather, a warm breakfast, clean clothes, a shower, a dose of encouragement. At 9:30 am, I ring these chimes to beckon those desiring prayer to the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Some guests come needing our prayers and others come teaching us how to pray. Quite often, the heartfelt prayers of our guests blow me away. As the weather turned cold prior to the start of the hypothermia prevention season about ten years ago, Mary was living in her vehicle. To conserve precious gasoline, she would briefly run her engine for heat at nighttime.
How can we remain grateful when life is so difficult?
What would our prayers be under such conditions?
One day, Mary was blessed with a sleeping bag to stay warm at night. Mary’s prayer the following morning praised God’s goodness. “Thank you God for my cuddly sleeping bag. Now I stay warm at night and wake up seeing the sun shining through the trees.” Mary came to God, whose name is too holy speak, with the boldness of a young child to a loving parent.
Jesus’ disciples had often observed Jesus praying. In today’s Gospel reading in Luke, an unnamed disciple asks Jesus to teach them to pray. I doubt if this disciple was asking for a formula or technique for prayer. Most likely, he asked Jesus to show them his heart for God or tell them what it is like to be in communion with God.
Jesus starts with the Lord’s Prayer, although a shorter version than what is written in the Gospel of Matthew. Jesus then shifts to the parable of the persistent or shameless friend. Jesus knew all about travelling, from the time he was in his mother’s womb going to visit Elizabeth in the Judean hill country until he set his face toward Jerusalem. He also understood the importance of hospitality while traveling, as was the case when he ate at Peter’s house after healing his mother-in law and at Martha’s house on his way to Jerusalem. Traveling in the evening hours allowed one to avoid being out in the heat of the afternoon. Traveling in the evening meant possibly arriving after sunset. With no electricity, villagers would go to bed early and families would sleep in one room. Any traveler arriving late would awaken a sleeping family. Hospitality and a code of honor were important. These were important not only for the individual, but for the entire village. When the traveler arrives in Jesus’ parable and the host has no bread to offer, the host goes to his neighbor’s house for bread, even though it is midnight. He does so as not to be dishonored. Naturally, the friend and his family are already in bed asleep.
Two questions arise in verse eight. The neighbor gets up, not because of their friendship, but because of “his persistence,” First, while the NRSV uses the word “persistence” a better translation from the Greek would be “shamelessness” or a lack of sensitivity to what is proper, a willful lack of concern about acquiring public shame. The second question is to whom the word “his” refers, the host or the neighbor. In the culture of the biblical world, the host displays no shame since his honor is at stake but the awakened neighbor will incur dishonor or shame if he fails to help his friend. Jesus implies in this parable that if it is so among friends with their mixed motives and self-interest, how much more so with God who wants to give us what is good and life giving, and who is invested in keeping God’s name holy. The follow on to the parable about giving good gifts would have been understood by those listening to Jesus. When fishermen cast their nets, water snakes would often be caught along with the fish.
Scorpions, when rolled up, resemble an egg. Any parent would know which of these would be good gifts. My son, however, would love snakes and scorpions as presents. We trust that God wants to give us what is good and life giving. We know that sometimes when we ask, we do not receive.
We sometimes seek and we do not find.
We sometimes knock and the door is not open.
We sometimes pray for safety and healing, and cancer returns.
We sometimes pray for harmony and peace and we get discord and violence.
If God is like a good and loving parent, why do some prayers seem to go unanswered? There are no simple answers and many unhelpful ones. We can only say that we know God is good all the time and that we can only pray for a sense of gratitude in the midst of the worst the world has to offer when things seem out of control. More than a year ago, I went to my urologist for my year checkup for bladder cancer.
Friends were praying before I left for a clean bill of health. The Spirit led to pray before being scopped out for a sense of gratitude regardless of the outcome. The urologist found two tumors, and because of this prayer, I had a sense of God’s presence despite the results. With new medication, I’m again one year out and the journey continues.
Jesus’ prayer along with the parable and sayings in Luke 11 provides us with a sketch to imagine who God is and how God operates.
God expects us to be generous to one another.
God does not answer all of our prayers the way me might like, but Jesus says in verse 13 that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who ask. St. Mother Teresa wrote about what it is like to be in communion with God. She states, “I used to pray that God would feed the hungry, or do this or that, but now I pray that God will guide me to do whatever I’m supposed to do. I used to pray for answers, but now I’m praying for strength. I used to believe that prayer changes things, but now I know that prayer changes us and we change things.”
Earlier this month, 70 Catholics were arrested at the Russel Senate Office Building as they protested our immigration policy as part of the Catholic’s Day of Action. The protester laying on the floor could read the Lord’s Prayer engraved on the marble dome. Sister Marge Clark, of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary stated, “It’s important to go beyond words, to put your body where your words are, where your beliefs are.”
The neighbor got out of bed at midnight to give bread to his friend out of a sense of honor. The Holy Spirit moves us not only to pray for each other when in need but to comfort each other when we are sick, feed each other when we are hungry, welcome each other when we are strangers or refugee, cloth each other when we are naked and visit each other when we are prisoners. This makes holy God’s name and brings God’s kingdom into our lives.
Sometime after Mary’s prayer in the chapel, after she found employment and secured housing, she again joined us in the chapel for Morning Prayer. Her prayer this time was: “God, thank you that everything was taken away from me because now I have you!”
How much more will the heavenly father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?