Prayer: Luke 11:1-13

By Erica Farrell

I had been teaching my young son, Matthew, the Lord’s Prayer. For several evenings at bedtime, he would repeat after me the lines from the prayer. Finally, he decided to go solo. I listened with pride as he carefully enunciated each word, right up to the end of the prayer: “Lead us not into temptation,” he prayed, “but deliver us some E-mail. Amen.” Ah a sign of the times!

There are plenty of amusing stories about children and prayer. Here’s a couple more:

The preacher’s 5 year-old daughter noticed that her father always paused and bowed his head for a moment before starting his sermon. One day she asked him why. “Well, Honey,” he began, proud that his daughter was so observant of his messages, “I’m asking the Lord to help me preach a good sermon.” “Well how come He doesn’t do it?” she asked. Ouch. I am glad Max isn’t old enough yet to ask me that!

And one more just for fun: During the minister’s prayer one Sunday, there was a loud whistle from one of the back pews. Gary’s mother was horrified. She pinched him into silence and after church asked, “Gary, whatever made you do such a thing?”  Gary answered soberly, “I asked God to teach me to whistle … and He just then did!” So no one please pray that they learn to whistle this morning please.

You might notice that this morning we have completely departed from the lectionary readings. That is because I have been thinking a lot about prayer recently.  I received a couple of books for Christmas – “The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven” and Heaven is for Real”. It struck me as I was reading them how integral prayer was to the healing in both cases, and I became convinced that prayer and prayer alone was what influenced the final outcomes.  I don’t know about you, but prayer isn’t that easy for me. I have a disturbing tendency to pray in earnest when I am in trouble but find it all to easy to forget when things are going well.


A couple of weeks ago I once again turned to prayer over a family situation and was humbled by the grace of God, so prayer was strongly on my mind when I listened to last week’s presentation from Rising Above. I was sure they were going to ask us for money, and was startled when they said all they wanted from us was prayer.  Another sharp reminder from God to me that prayer is the most important thing.


It is notable that Jesus prayed before every undertaking.  If we learned to pray first and plan afterwards, how different our homes, our churches, our bible studies and whatever we are doing for Christ might be.  Maybe, just maybe we are planning in one direction and God’s will is in another direction.  God might be saying “Hold everything!  Turn around and go this way.  This is my will for you, not that way.  God says: “Look, you only see a tenth of what I have in store for you.  There are nine-tenths that you are not seeing, that you don’t know anything about!”


So today, I needed to talk about prayer. The gospel reading shows Jesus as he often is – at prayer.   When he is finished praying, one of his disciples says to him: “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”


What a strange thing it seems at first – after all, why would the disciples need to learn how to pray?  Surely each one – as good Jews do – had learned to pray at the Sabbath table?  Surely each one – as a child of Israel – would have recited the prayers of Passover and called upon God during Yon Kipper and the Feast of Tabernacles?  And again at home – each day – each meal – surely there was a table blessing, a prayer to God of thanksgiving that the disciples – like most of us, learned to say.


So why?  Why this request to Jesus:   “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples to pray.”?  I think the answer lies in the simple fact that Jesus – like John – but only more so – had the appearance and the substance of God’s power about him.  Who, after all, would you ask to teach you how to pray if it is not a person who is obviously very close to God?  A person who clearly is in touch with the power of God?


Prayers learned by heart, prayers taught to us by our tradition, and prayers used in formal worship events are a good thing – but the prayers that arise from a heart that is connected to God – and which help one to connect with God – are quite another.  This is central to everything that follows – Jesus is the one, the best one – and indeed the only one, who can teach us to pray as we ought to pray.


Jesus answers the request of the disciple, and shows his disciples with a model of prayer, and with a parable and with an exhortation, what their prayers should be like, and with what spirit prayer should be made, and finally, he showed them the faithfulness that God has to us when we pray.


The disciples clearly learned from him. They went on from that learning to have Spirit filled lives, lives in which they shone with God’s presence despite persecution and all manners of tribulation, – and despite too the mistakes they made from time to time  in what they did and in how they did it.


The question is – do we know the way of prayer? Do we pray as we ought?   Or is there something holding us back? I gave you my answer at the beginning of this message, my prayer life is definitely in need of an overhaul.


So my question is how many of us pray each day with a sense of freedom and intimacy? How many go beyond muttering a few words here and there, now and then (like me) – and actually sit, or kneel, or prostrate ourselves before God and call upon his name with deep and persistent yearning until he answers?


It is so easy to talk to God in the way so many people talk to their wives or husbands.  You know how I mean don’t you?   You rush home from a busy day – say hello – ask what is for dinner – confirm your plans for the evening activities – and then rush out again, only to repeat the process at bedtime – albeit with a slightly different destination in mind and a slightly different set of words. It is an easy habit to fall into.


Just as it is easy to miss being in the kind of conversation with our wives or husbands that brings energy, joy, and life to the relationship, so it is easy to miss really connecting with God, to miss receiving the help we need to face the pain and the struggle that each day brings, and the joy that expressing appreciation for our blessings grants us.


Abraham Lincoln said this about his prayer life:


   “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”


The way of prayer is not always practised upon the knees, but it is practised best with the conviction that we have nowhere else to go but to God – and that God is sure to answer.


I believe that I am not entirely alone in my hang ups about prayer.  Totally aside from the time that is required to prayer, we have feelings and thoughts that keep us from praying as Jesus taught us, – feelings that keep us from asking God about the things that Jesus told us to ask about,  – and thoughts that keep us too from asking in the way that he showed us.


So why is praying diligently so difficult for me and possibly for you too?  I thought of five common hang ups in the life of prayer that help keep us from making the connection that Jesus wants us to have with God.  Bear in mind that in all of these hang ups I will speak more about our talking to God – than about God talking to us.  But if we overcome our hang-ups about talking to God we will discover the listening side comes naturally – much as it comes to a child who sits on our laps and chatters to us for a long while, and then asks – What do you think Mommy?


The first way I believe people hang up on God is by thinking that they are not good enough to call on God.  And so they don’t.  I call it the NOT GOOD ENOUGH HANG UP. This, my friends is answered once and for all by the cross of Jesus – he died for us while we were yet sinners so that we might be put right with God – his sacrifice for us makes us good enough in God’s eyes. Jesus has given to each one of us a calling card by which we can call upon God – all communications with our Lord are placed on his unlimited account.


God has made us be his children. To be like him.  That is why he put his image in us – male and female – and that is why Jesus teaches us in his model of prayer to call God “Father” or “Daddy”.  God, like any good parent, wants all his children to come to him and to learn from him and be blessed by him.  And perhaps most especially, he wants those children who have strayed from his side to return to it.  He wants the prodigal to return and to be made whole.  He wants to shower us with forgiveness and help us to live as he created us to live.  God wants us all to come to him.


The second hang up some people have about prayer is the BUT GOD IS TOO BUSY WITH MORE IMPORTANT THINGS HANG UP.  Like the first hang up – this one too is based on a kind of respect for God -a misguided respect. The problem here is that the view these people have of God is not big enough.  Can not the creator of heaven and earth do more than a few things at a time?  Isn’t the one who has counted the hairs on our heads – and noted that some of them are disappearing – able and willing to deal with all things?


In today’s reading, with a certain sense of humour – Jesus teaches his disciples that even if God is busy doing something else – even if he, like a friend of ours, is in bed after midnight with all his children safely tucked in, he will get up and answer the door if we continue to bang on it – if only to get us to stop bothering him. My friends – even the Government gets around to answering the phone when we stay on the line long enough…  I kind of think God is up to government standards – don’t you?


The third hang up that helps disconnect people from a entering into full life of prayer, and of learning from and receiving from God, is the GIMME HANG UP. Clearly some people’s whole prayer life consists of asking God for things for themselves.   I am not speaking about them or to them.  Rather I am speaking about – and to – those people who are often diligent in the practice of prayer.  They intercede for others.  They pray often and with deep conviction.  But they almost never pray for themselves.


This may arise because they feel that they are not good enough to deserve God’s attention – or it may arise because they feel that it is selfish and uncaring to think of one’s’ own needs when so many people have far greater needs.  What then should we say to Jesus when he instructs his disciples to pray saying things like – “Give us this day our daily bread”  “Forgive our sins”  “Lead us not into the time of trial – but deliver us from evil?” What is good to ask of God for others – is good to ask for ourselves.


 Remember the garden of Gethsemane?  Remember all the trips that Jesus made to the quiet spots away from his disciples?  The master prayed for himself – and he has taught us to pray for ourselves.  To pray for our daily needs – to pray for forgiveness and a forgiving spirit – to pray even for an easier life – a life in which we are not tested as severely as we might be, a life in fact in which we are delivered from.


We can and should pray for others – as many of us do – that comes to us quite naturally.   But we can and should pray for ourselves and our needs and our desires as well.  It pleases God to answer us – much as it pleases us to answer our children and to give them not only what they need – but, at times, to give them what they want.


The fourth hang up in prayer is the “ONCE SHOULD BE ENOUGH” hang up. People with this hang up often have made the assumption that once a person asks God for something that it displays lack of faith to continue to bother God about it.


Harry Emerson Fosdick, the great preacher, writes: “Some things God cannot give to a man until the man has prepared and proven his spirit by persistent prayer.  Such a prayer cleans the house, sets the table, opens the door, until God says, “Lo, the house is ready.  Now may thy guest come in.”


We pray for the Kingdom of God to come.  For justice and mercy in every nation.  For daily bread for ourselves and the hungry around the  world.  For healing for the sick.   For peace.  For the oppressed. For our children to be whole and happy.  For our work to be pleasing to God and to us.  As the Lord’s prayer and the parable that follows it shows us – these prayers are not meant to a be once and for all request that we make to God – but a dynamic part of our daily relationship with him.


 “Make it happen Lord!  We are here again.  We are not letting go till you give us an answer!”


Which of you if you had a child who asked for something from you that you wanted to give them, but were not yet ready to give them – would be impressed if the child asked only once?  I think very few.  So, with God, our repeated requests are not scorned as a sign of our lack of faith, but rather welcomed as an expression of what we really want.  Keep on coming before God for the things that keep on coming before us – persist in prayer and God will persist with us and give to us that which we want – or explain to us why something else might be better.


Which leads to the fifth hang up in many people’s practice of prayer is the “I MIGHT ASK FOR THE WRONG THING HANG UP.”


 Often we do not know what to pray for.  We are confused and frightened or we do not have the knowledge we think we need.  Do not fear this.  God is not like a genie in a bottle – who upon being released grants his saviour three wishes – not matter what they are – and then leaves the person to deal with the consequences..  “I wish it would stop raining – I wish my neighbour would get lost – or whatever.”


Think of what Jesus says in verses 11 through 13 of today’s gospel:


 “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?”


Turn it around for a minute – “Is there anyone among you, if your child asks for a snake will give it to him?  Or if the child asks for a scorpion will deliver it? 


Not sure what to pray for in a particular situation?  Just pray, “O Lord, bring healing, bring hope, bring what is right, help me help the one I am praying for.”  Groan to God in the midst of your anguish – or in the midst of the anguish of others – and keep doing it till the answer comes.  God will not pour oil on the fires that afflict you or your loved ones – nor will he send curses when you seek blessings.


The magic of prayer – if we can call it that – is not in the particular words we use in our prayer – nor even the particular things we pray about – but the relationship into which we enter when we pray to God in all things and about all things.


When we present everything that concerns us and everything that delights us to God – we are sharing with God who we are and what we are – and that builds between God and ourselves the intimacy that allows the new life that God wants to give us and our world to come about.  In fact, it is part of that new life – just as spending time together in a marriage speaking and listening – expressing our fears and our hopes – our desires and our wants – helps make the marriage a true marriage.  Our partners help us where help is needed – rejoice when we rejoice – and weep when we weep – and share with us all that they are as well. 


And as in human relationships sorrows shared are sorrows divided – and joys shared are joys multiplied, and so it is in the divine-human relationship – but far more so – for our God is greater than we are – and is fully able to help those who call upon him – and ready and willing to lift us up when we are cast down – and to bless us when we hold forth our hands in trust and in thanksgiving.


So, speak often with God – about those things upon your hearts – and God will speak with you and answer you.   And that is the power and the gift that is prayer.