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Thoughts on How to Pray

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July 24, 2016 — Tenth Sunday After Pentecost

Rev. Alison Quin

Today’s Readings:

Hosea 1:2-10
Psalm 85
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

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How to Pray

Luke mentions Jesus going off to a deserted place or up a mountain to pray many times. Prayer was integral to his life.  He prayed before choosing the apostles, he prayed when he fed the five thousand, he prayed the night before he died, he prayed from the cross itself.

In today’s reading, as he finishes his time of prayer, the disciples ask him to teach them how to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.

He responds with a series of teachings on prayer which includes what came to be called the Lord’s prayer.

As a priest, people often tell me that they want to pray and don’t know how.  Sometimes they ask me how to pray.  I am no expert.  I used to think that if I only learned the perfect method of prayer, I would always feel centered and close to God.  I would be kind to my neighbors and enemies alike.

There are so many different ways to pray…the tradition offers many paths.  There is centering prayer, lectio divina, prayer beads, the Jesus prayer, icons, the prayerbook, the psalms, daily devotionals, the serenity prayer.  I’ve probably tried all of them. Some stuck, others didn’t.  Some stuck for a while and then I drifted away from them.  I just couldn’t go on with that particular practice. It just didn’t do it for me anymore.  Some prayer practices have held on for years, and for that I am grateful.  But even so, there are times when I am bored and distracted, times when I wonder if God is listening, times when I wish I were doing something else.

There is a story from the desert fathers, (early monastics who went out into the desert to find God) that comforts me greatly:

The brothers asked Abba Agathon: “Which of all the good actions is the one hardest to do?”. He replied: “With respect, I think it is prayer. Yes, each time you want to pray your enemies want to stop you doing so. Indeed, they know there is only one way of stopping you going to God: to turn you away from prayer. When you begin some good thing, whatever it is, if you go on courageously you will find peace. But with prayer, you have to fight on with your enemies until death.”  [More on Abba Agathon]

The great thing about Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that it is so simple.  First he gives us that great treasure of our tradition, the Lord’s prayer.  If you can’t think of anything to say to God, this is a good place to start.  Our Father—Jesus invites us to call God father, or Abba, which is really more like daddy or papa in Aramaic.  Though calling God father leaves out the feminine divine, and also can raise issues for those who have difficult relationships with their fathers,  it implies a deep, tender, compassionate God, with whom we have an intimate relationship.  Hallowed be your name—may all the world hold sacred what is sacred—may all the world call you holy.

Give us each day our daily bread—we acknowledge our need and vulnerability and ask God to provide for us, in every way.

Forgive us our sin as we forgive everyone who sins against us—help us to be whole, to be at one with God, at one with our neighbor, at one with ourselves.

Do not bring us to the time of trial—please God, don’t put us to the test, knowing our frailty and weakness.

After teaching them this beautiful prayer which has lasted for two millennia, Jesus goes on to give them a few more words of advice about prayer.

Suppose you have a friend and you go to him at midnight and ask him to lend you bread to give to a guest, and he doesn’t want to get up because he is in bed, the door is locked, everyone’s asleep.  Just keep knocking Jesus says.  Even if he won’t give you anything out of friendship, at least he will give you what you need because of your shameless persistence.

In other words, be persistent in prayer.  Be shamelessly persistent.

Is Jesus implying that God is a reluctant friend?   Do we have to wake up a sleeping God and try to convince God to help us?

I don’t think so— but sometimes it feels that way.  Sometimes it feels that we pray and pray and hear only silence.  So, Jesus’ advice is, just keep going, don’t give up.

God wants to give us what we need and want:  Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.

Above all, God wants to give us love.  If even human parents who are imperfect, know how to give their children good gifts, how much more does God know how to give us the greatest gift of all:  the gift of the Holy Spirit, the abiding presence of God in us, the assurance that we are loved?

Trust, Jesus is telling us.  Trust that the God who gave himself for you in Jesus, is there for you and will always be there for you.

God invites us into relationship.  God has begun the conversation by speaking the one Word to us in Jesus Christ.  As one commentator, Cynthia Jarvis, put it, “now we need only muster the good sense to speak back.  If by God’s grace we do, we will find ourselves…in conversation with a friend who knows our every weakness because he himself has cried out in anguish and been met with silence.  How else but in conversation with him, through the words of Scripture and the witness of his church, could we trust that God is a God who will come after us when we are lost, dine with us when we are cast out by all others, welcome us home after we have wasted our lives, and…keep us from falling too far?

All these prayer practices are great—I invite you to try them all.  If one or more sticks, great.  But never give up.  Just keep showing up, day after day, whether you’re inspired or not, whether you sense God’s presence or not, whether your faith is strong or not.  Keep showing up and keep trusting in God’s love.

Because God alone can fill our hearts, make us whole, set us free.

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