Persistent Prayer

Pentecost 9: 25 July Luke 11:1-13

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.’ 2He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
5 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;6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.”7And 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.” 8I 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.
9 ‘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. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!’

I remember in my youth being challenged by these verses, and being told that they were literally true. If prayer was not being answered, I was not showing enough faithful persistence.  So I kept a prayer diary, and prayed my way through the items in there, and ticked them off as they were answered.  It began to get longer and longer.  I began to suspect that some of the answers were trivial, and were just happening anyway. Answers to the more extreme requests, especially for healing, were much less frequent. It probably made me a more compassionate person, more aware of other people’s troubles, but I concluded there was no real causal link between my praying (or the lack of), and any actual events.

This was a contradiction of other aspects of my experience of church, which were rich and fulfilling and challenging. I searched for resolution.

One hypothesis was that all prayer is answered. We just don’t see the answer, and it may not be what we expect. With the best will in the world… and I wanted to believe it… that just seemed too convenient an answer to hard questions.

Then there was the hypothesis that suggested the words “whatever you ask for in my name” (John 14:13-14) implied that we were to be asking as people who were infused with the spirit of God, and would therefore only ask things that God wanted, and was willing to grant. If there was no answer we obviously did not really ask “in his name,” or persist long enough, or have enough faith.

Or perhaps we had some unrepented hidden sin we needed to deal with before our prayers could be answered.

Or perhaps God was “dealing with us,” teaching us a lesson.

The key thing in all this was a tacit recognition of the fact that prayer is often not answered.  No one was saying, but we all knew that when it really mattered, when prayer was the only hope we had in a situation, it mostly didn’t get answered. We couldn’t be that honest out loud, but the way the issue worried us, and consumed our energy, told the truth of the situation.

The one thing we could not do, was say the problem was with God.  We rejected, almost without thinking about it, the notion that maybe God doesn’t answer prayer in the way we expect. We would never have said what is now a commonplace. In my youth this article would not have appeared in a mainstream daily paper:

We can also reasonably ask why, if God is all-powerful and all-loving, he doesn't prevent plane crashes and balcony falls in the first place?
The response offered up by religion is the baffling claim that God works in mysterious ways, or has a "higher plan", which we are not qualified – or even permitted – to inquire after. I prefer American biology professor and renowned internet blogger P.Z. Myers' recent response that such events can only be interpreted as proof that "God is a capricious bastard" from Not miraculous, just good luck SARAH MCKENZIE

We could not, and do not, think of God this way. The only other alternative I can see, is that we need to completely reimagine our understanding of God. We need to find a way of seeing God that preserves the reality of our experience of love and grace and freedom which we feel to be true. This way of seeing needs to deal  with the huge contradictions around issues like prayer, in a way which is not ad hoc, intellectually dishonest and full of special pleading, and most important of all, psychologically and pastorally destructive. The burden of guilt we place upon people if we are not honest about the efficacy of prayer is unconscionable and abusive, and can lead to pain which lasts for generations.

There will be few people in our congregations as we approach this text, who are not aware of the problem of prayer. There will be many who carry guilt and pain because they are blaming themselves, and not God, or their imaging of God. And most of us are ill prepared to reimagine God; it is not an easy task.

Prayer has always been a problem; Job talked to God constantly. The very insistence on persistence in this week’s passage in Luke, is itself an indicator that his community struggled with the issue. We, however, are in a new situation. The old answers about the “God [who] works in mysterious ways, or has a "higher plan"”, never held water very well.  In our age, the bottom has fallen out of the bucket.  Such arguments hold no persuasive power. The sense of divine glory that overwhelms Job at the end, is a rare experience in a society which is already strongly questioning God’s existence.  So if we do not address the issues that Luke raises this week, or at least honestly acknowledge them, we are adding to the world’s suspicion that we are talking rubbish.

The text has an underlying  theology of God. Bill Loader’s commentary this week is excellent.  I have quoted two paragraphs in full below, for he says it all better than I can.  What Bill highlights for me is how central prayer is to our identity, and our relating to the Divine.  Part of the reason for the difficulties we have with prayer, and the reason that it such an emotionally troubling issue, is that prayer is at the heart of the relationship.  It operates in the very centre of our faith, with all the good and bad potential that centrality has.

As Luke begins his commentary on prayer we hear from Jesus that God is father.  This is such a commonplace, that we miss how radical a statement this is. God is not Lord. God is not God on high, about whom one should be most cautious and afraid; look on his face and you will die.  God is father. Here is a statement of intimacy that cuts across all our fears of the high mighty and capricious God.

And like everything it has its limitations. Quoting Bill:

Jesus would have known about abusive fathers, just as he knew about abusive rulers. He used the ambiguous images of king and father because they were part of the tradition in which he was nourished. He engaged that tradition critically, subverting its violence and asserting its love. The ambiguity of the traditional images of king and father has been reflected in the very diverse consequences which they have spawned throughout history. Interpreters of the tradition in every generation have a responsibility to engage these images critically, helping people perceive where they bring life and where they bring death. This ambiguity needs to be named, not least because among our hearers are many, both women and men, for whom the image of father is almost irrecoverably destructive…

We see Bill take the same approach to the prayer phrase ‘Your kingdom come.’

‘Your kingdom come’ remains in the realm of the same ambiguity and has been equally a source of life and death. Our eucharist remembers the image of that kingdom as a great feast where all are included, from east and west and north and south, where swords become ploughs, spears become pruning hooks. It is also a feast focused on a life broken and poured out in compassion. This is one of the central images and actions which has the capacity to control the ambiguity, if we make the connections. But even it is capable of subversion until it becomes a feast of exclusion and a trivialised appendage for people claiming privilege.

The Lord’s Prayer is not simply something Jesus said, to be read quickly, or skipped over because we know that bit by heart.  It is profound theological reflection on God and our relationship with God.

The prayer is no mere asking, which is the hugely impoverished popular view of prayer. Hallowed be your name means a reverence for the ultimate reality we call God and our place in it. We are not independent agents over against the world, but seeking to live in harmony and balance with it, and with God.  We are neighbour to the whole world, and this demands our hospitality. We commit to this each time we say the prayer, even if we do not mean it.  And while we ask for the kingdom to come, and our daily bread, and forgiveness, we are also committing to forgiveness of debts. We are committing to the radical kingdom of God, over against the powers of the society we live in, where debts are not forgiven but held over the poor until the last cent is paid.

I struggle to talk with people about prayer, which means, of course, that I am struggling personally! I see prayer as relationship with the Divine. For me that entails less and less talking.  I am more inclined to watch, or contemplate, and be grateful. I seek to respond by following the way of Jesus.

Mostly, I don’t ask for things in prayer because I do not expect to be answered.  The very act, if one seriously expects an answer, implies to me that God is a monster. If God is God, surely God will answer and heal cancer or heart disease. But God often does not, even in hugely worthy cases.  It’s not good enough for an allegedly loving God to be like that. I can only conclude that petitionary prayer that expects to be answered is, ultimately, operating out of a misunderstanding of how reality, and God, is. Or else, God is as PZ Myers says.

On the other hand, as a human being I want answers. I want to be considered, to be valued, to count. The parable of the friend says “If even a sluggard friend like that will look after you in the end, imagine how much more God will look after you.” (John Petty gives me that wonderful word sluggard.) And so we would ask, and keep asking and searching, because that’s what God is like; ask-able and searchable. God is not the kind of God who will smack us down for importunity, or for being irritating and maddening in our persistence.

God is also the one we should ask.  Last week we saw Martha instigating a fine line of triangulation.  Her real problem was with Mary (and probably her own attitudes and priorities) but she tried to deal with the whole problem by talking at Jesus, instead of with Mary. Jesus fairly bluntly redirected things.

There is a lot in life which we take out on others. Rather than kicking the dog, and abusing the doctor, and making life even more miserable for the rest of the family when we are ill, God is the one who is responsible. Tell God. Complain to God. Ask God. Don’t tip it where it shouldn’t be.

One last illustration.

I frequently attend a radio interview as I push my bike to work. It’s all in my head.  I talk through the issues, asking and keeping on asking, searching for better ways to explain and make sense of things for the announcer and his audience. He, and they, are me, of course. Slowly we are working through the issues. I am easier to live with for the real people who have to live with me, and I am gaining insight and satisfaction.

Call me crazy, but this works.  This active imagining has a plausible reality about it, which weird as it may seem, is slowly transforming me.  I think the announcer is also God, and that actually, I’m praying. But it is prayer that works for me.  In some way it is more imaginable and plausible than my old image of God in heaven. Trying to have the same conversation with God or Jesus doesn’t have the same cachet, for some reason.

It is not avoiding God. As with all prayer, I seek to imagine and maintain a good image of God.  God is an announcer who lets me talk, and who is tolerant and indulgent and intimate. If I pray to an all powerful God who won’t answer my prayer for healing, harking back to my earlier comments, or who only works miracles for some people, as in the newspaper article if linked to at the beginning, I am imagining a capricious and arbitrary God.

Prayer is a persistent searching and asking of God as we seek our way through the world.  For some people, the vision of kneeling at the bedside and talking directly to God, just works.  Lucky them.  My image of God is different.

Jesus’ image of God was of the good father.  I can learn from that without adopting his model in its entirety. So can others of us. We don’t need to feel guilty if the traditional way of asking, with which I grew up, does not hold reality for us.

The final issue is not getting cause and effect answers. It is in persistently maintaining the search and the relationship and the attention to God. It is there that I find the deeper answer, which is a slow growing of life.  I no longer have to feel guilty when an individual prayer is not answered.

Andrew Prior

Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!



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