Gospel: 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. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5And 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 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!”
Made by Prayer
There is a monumental head shift which we 21st century people face when we read this text. In a world where the very notion of God is up for argument— it is simply part of the landscape of our consciousness that God is an unlikely reality, and the church often seems to live out a functional atheism— in this environment, prayer seems an even more bizarre notion. The charge that we have an imaginary friend is not, first of all, meant to be insulting; it is an altogether sensible incredulity. But in Luke's world, the idea that there is not a God is almost inconceivable. In that consciousness, the point of incredulity is more likely that there could be people who do not pray! In that world the only question is how to pray.
One of the reasons my younger self privately agonised over prayer as a useful spiritual discipline and part of my discipleship, and the reason the Prayers of Intercession were always a challenge to write, is that I learned to pray in the wrong way. The how and why of praying was tied up with the proving of God. Good fundamentalist that I was, I wrote out my prayers in a book, and crossed them off as they were answered. That was how I was taught to pray.
Take time to laugh or cry, draw a deep breath, or whatever it is you need to do here. I am still not quite ready to let myself weep about this because... how would I stop? I'm not being over-dramatic here; prayer is our unbidden response to the presence of God. If we sense someone is there— here with us— we either talk and relate, or we flee. Silence is not neutral; it is rejection or flight. So although perhaps you are not as snarled up as I am, our position is excruciating. For in our world, and in our consciousness, prayer is a terrible conundrum.
Our being longs for connection. We need to pray, but we are properly revolted when, everywhere we turn, we see prayer being used as a weapon of culture wars; when we see religion used as a political tool to cloak oppressive ideology; when we realise prayer is too often a self-serving greed for more material things which is dressed up as faith; when prayer is used to protect the privilege of the rich. Ministers like me use prayer as a teachable moment. On Facebook, a young person from a colleague's congregation wrote: I like Auntie Amel as our minister because she has short prayers!
The text is a massive corrective in how to pray. Mark D Davis writes of the text this week
that the request for [bread] was rooted in a need that arose because the pray-er needed to serve another...
But prayer is not just for others; it is also for ourselves. The problem I have had is not being able to see that prayer (in my environment) was inextricably wrapped up in praying for privilege. Although almost all those prayers I wrote down were ostensibly for other people— and genuinely so, I was still wrapped up in my own privilege. I was praying for an existential proof in an arena where the 'proof' of my scientific training is simply a category mistake. It meant I may as well have been praying for all the glitter of prosperity theology. For what I was really looking for in all my praying was to have prayers answered so that I would know God was there.
I remember someone looking at a bill and crying, "It's gone up 82 cents; that can't be right." They were full of despair. For that person, praying for money is as natural, and as spiritually healthy, as my longing for survival of despair had been. Both of us simply wanted to live— needed to live.
I began to pray, privately, by pouring out my heart to whatever it was that might be listening. I told myself it was therapeutic even if God was not there to listen. But even in that, me being evil, (11:12) how do I pray? What is it that stops me perverting the relationship, turning God to my advantage, and imagining or, dreaming up, a reality that serves my own purpose and privilege; a reality which lets me not be neighbour to you even as I pray for you?
When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.
One result of constant, mindful, praying of this prayer is to orient us towards God in a world which thinks, at best, that God is an option, or that God is an ally for privilege.
Father: despite all the limitations of the word, it is used by Jesus as a subversive corrective to our self-centred-ness. To pray Father is to place myself under authority: to use this word and the imperatives which follow— hallowed be your name, your kingdom come— is to say no to Empire, and all the things and glitter of Empire. It is to accept my contingency and dependence as a created being. It holds the seeds of an entirely new way of living in the world. The real holiness, the real thing which matters in our existence, is not us, not money, not power, but the Being which loves us, and which is full of love for us. And Calling God Father, also reminds us that God is benevolent.
Of course, we may experience the word father as irredeemable because of abuse we have suffered. It is pointless to direct someone here to pray Father, anyway, because it will be healing for them; indeed, that is an abuse. Sometimes it is simply necessary, and entirely appropriate, to pray: God who loves me and who will make the whole world again so that I can this time live unharmed, hallowed by your name... In other words, sometimes God who is not like my Father might be the long term mantra of our souls which begins to reshape our lives.
Your kingdom come: Perhaps this is the epitome of the cry of protest which underlies any praying for need. Here we are saying that the world is not right, but will be put to rights, by God. The purposeful, conscious, mindful saying and resaying of these words can become a part of the reshaping of our being and reality. They can change our praying from insecure whistling in the dark, and from, essentially, a denial of reality, into living in a new reality which begins to have moments of substance. What I am getting at here is that the reality, the sense that God and God's kingdom is 'really real,' ceases to be a pretence, or a hope. We can actually begin to feel like we are standing on solid ground because... we find we are, for we find we can speak of God and the things of God with the equanimity of experience rather than the fearful faux certainty of fundamentalism, or the repetition of someone else's words while, in our private hearts, we wonder if any of it is real.
This is not self-indoctrination. If we really pray and live for daily bread, we begin to live a life shaped around dependence and trust upon God; a life which is seeking to develop that dependence, rather than a life which trusts only our own devices. To forgive; that is, to let go of our debtors, and to do that knowing that we too are debtors, privileged, complicit in injustice, is to change again from being self-sufficient and self-righteous. And to pray not to be led into temptation is to constantly examine oneself using the rule of the prayer he taught us.
What I am implying here is that prayer is more than words; the words are the intent of the prayers we live. Mindfully and constantly saying these words is only bearable if we begin to live them. Otherwise they stand as a judgement against us, and the saying of them is a self-mocking. But if we begin to live them, then we are changed by them. Their consequence is that for we who are privileged, our growing impulse will be to pray for those who are in need, rather than for our privilege. And this will change us and our reality as we begin to live out our prayers.
This is why there is a promise of a holy spirit given to us. I grew up in a spirit of torment and uncertainty. I have been given a spirit of some peace and rest. In my unknowing— my a-gnosticism— I am secure rather than full of anxiety. This surely is a sign of the Holy Spirit which NRSV intuits to be Luke's meaning, even though the the is missing in his text.
Andrew Prior (2019)
Also on One Man's Web
Luke 11:1-13 - Persistent Prayer (2010)
Luke 11:1-13 - Science and Prayer (2013)
Luke 11:1-13 - The Scientist Prays (2013)
Luke 11:1-13 - Praying with God (2013)
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