Teach us to pray…

Ask – seek – knock.  The suggestion seems to be that, if you are serious about this prayer stuff, you only need to engage in the conversation – take the first step toward God, and God will not deny your request.  So how is that working out for you?

The Lord’s prayer is one thing – a pattern by which Jesus teaches his disciple to pray; first, honour God – seeking the things of God (on earth as in heaven); then seek what is needed personally (daily bread); then acknowledge our sin and our need to be forgiven AND forgive one another (we don’t always hear that part)  Save us from the time of trial (whatever that might mean), and there you have it: a very sensible pattern for prayer, that we have made a mantra.

We have shared that prayer every Sunday of my time here – and every Sunday before I came – it has been offered in a nearly infinite variety of settings and languages, on every continent (and, one imagines every ocean) for as long as the church has been the church.  How often?  Difficult to say.  To what end?  Well, God’s name is still (occasionally) hallowed, but for the rest of it – not a great result, really.

It is no surprise that prayer is the thing that gets quickly passed over – or, more often, criticized – by faithful and doubter alike.  When we say “my prayers have been answered” we usually mean “I got what I wanted”.  Fair enough – but how often have we, in just the last ten years – prayed for peace and safety in the world’s hot spots, and how often have those prayers been answered?  The failure of our prayers for peace to bring anything like peace in places like Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, – I could go on – must therefore be a failure either of our faithfulness, or a failure of prayer.  Are we asking for the wrong things?  Are we asking in the wrong way?  We always hedge our bets with the “mantra” that is the Lord’s Prayer, just to show we understand the pattern.  What else must we do?

Jesus’ disciples saw something worthy in the act of prayer.  When Jesus prayed, things seemed to happen.  It isn’t hard to argue that they saw some sort of ’cause and effect’ – and they wanted to be a part of that.  Besides, John had taught his disciples to pray (that would be an interesting prayer to learn), so Jesus should do that much for his students.  And the request is granted, but another lesson follows.

It might be about being persistent – ask-seek-knock; it might be an assurance of God’s ability to do good and not harm – but the result at the end is singular.  If you who are evil, know how to give good things to your children, how much more will the heavenly father GIVE THE HOLY SPIRIT to those who ask…

Wait, no one said anything about asking for the holy spirit.  Daily bread, forgiveness, deliverance – where did this come from?  What about the bargain I wanted to make, about a new job, or a cure for my aunt, or relief from my anxiety?  The lesson on prayer moves very quickly from general to the specific – and it appears (according to Luke’s gospel) that the Holy Spirit is (should be) the request that should feature in our persistence.

That persistence – that Jesus claims is a greater motivation than even friendship – has been misunderstood (I think) by the church across the years.  Forgetting, as we do, that elsewhere we are assured that “…your Father knows what you need before you ask…” (Matthew 6:8) we have come to believe that repetition is the key to prayer.  So in the name of persistence, we earnestly and desperately pray for the end of hostilities among the many war torn nations of the world.  And in the name of persistence we seek healing for the sick, and peace for the grieving, and safe repose for those who have died – even though we also believe that God knows the deepest longings of our hearts, grieving with us for the broken and battered world in which we live.  And the one gift we do not find the words to ask for – the thing we understand the least – that is the gift that Jesus says will be offered in abundance to those who ask.

For the Holy Spirit is a mysterious feature of our theology, most obvious only when it is absent.  It is that same spirit that moves one to an act of compassion, another to offer service, still another to reach out in sympathy.  When the Spirit is at work, we often have no words to explain our actions; “it felt like the right thing to do…”, the words most often uttered by those who cannot imagine that God may have given them a gift.  And the Spirit is the gift on offer – every time we pray.  For it is by, through and in the Spirit that God continues to act.  Such activity made visible in anything from bushes that burn without burning up, to cripples who suddenly dance, or the blind granted sight.  In our time, we have seen acts of incredible compassion flow out of great tragedy – all too often, in recent weeks, have we seen communities, bound together by grief, use those experiences to stand together against cruelty, or find tender ways to support those whose pain is deepest.  That hasn’t stopped the madness, the killing or the hurtful rhetoric, but these small, defiant acts of kindness lend hope to what otherwise appear to be hopeless situations – that is the gift of the Holy Spirit, that comes from our earnest prayers.

Whatever else we think we’re doing, in spite of our growing list of desires and demands, our prayers have a way of opening us to and engaging us in the work of the Spirit of God.  It is the only explanation that comforts me.  For whether in the intimacy of personal prayer, or through the broad strokes of public prayer – or even in the well worn words of the Lord’s prayer, what we really seek – and what God is glad to offer – is the gift of the Holy Spirit, in all its mystery and magnificence; for it is the Spirit that can help us navigate our needs, wants and desires.   It is the only gift that matters.  It is the only gift we need.

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