BIBLE READINGS: Colossians 2:6-15 Luke 11:1-13
Let us pray,
Our Lord and Master, we desire that you show us how to pray. We ask that you reveal to us through your word what we must do to pray as we ought - AMEN.
As part of my training, I was a student at Gladesville Psychiatric Hospital. In many ways it was a sad experience for me. There was one woman in particular that caught my imagination, and got me thinking about what it means to pray. She had been a resident at the hospital for over 25 years, and was in a ward set apart for those whom the hospital felt that there was little hope for improvement. Unlike most of those around her, this lady was obsessively religious. The marks of her obsession were on her body. She had slabs of callous on her knees from genuflecting. Whenever she saw anything faintly resembling as cross, she would kneel and cross herself and mumble "Mary, Mother of God, forgive my sins."
Her case history was a story of tragedy and grief. Married to a man her violently abused her, she could not seek divorce, as that was against her religious beliefs. She suffered silently, seeking what solace she could in prayer. She had a number of miscarriages, and when she finally gave birth to a daughter, her husband molested and then killed the little girl. At the time of the death of her daughter, the woman had just given birth to another child. She was incapable of looking after the baby, and her relatives put her into psychiatric care.
For the past 25 years she had lived a life of penitence. She believed that God had punished her for her sinfulness, and so to seek release from her guilt, she spends the majority of her time in genuflection and rote prayer. She has forgotten her name, she has forgotten who she is and why she does what she does, and so she wanders the ward, a lonely guilt-ridden shell of a woman.
Her prayer life was unhealthy, to say the least. She prayed but expected no answer, and yet her prayer sought the forgiveness of her sins. She prayed continually, yet her prayer was a meaningless jumble of religious words that made little sense. We can look with pity on this woman, but is our prayer life any better? I ask you - if, and when you pray, do you expect an answer? When you pray, do your words mean anything?
Christians are commanded to pray. Scripture continually urges Christians, individually and collectively - to pray! Yet the church seems to have lost the ability to pray effectively. We busy ourselves doing good works, having committee meetings, and generally filling up our time with lots of activity. How often have we prayed together as a church? How many people feel uncomfortable about praying because they don't know how, or they don't want to look stupid? Yet prayer is the life-blood of the church! In Acts for example, not one church decision was made or acted upon without at least many hours, and usually many days of intensive prayer.
Throughout history, the church has found its strength in its prayer life. When the church prayed, it was strong. When it did not pray it was swallowed up the world around. All the great heroes and heroines of the church have had deep and profound prayer lives, spending many hours in prayer each day with God. When I reflect on my own prayer life, I find it sadly lacking. Compared to people such as Augustine, Francis of Assissi, Mother Tereasa, John Knox, Charles Wesley, Deitrich Bonhoeffer, and other great saints of history, my prayer time does not stack up very favourably. God is lucky to get a small period of my time. I grudge God the few minutes I do give Him. I justify the little prayer time I spend with Him by saying that my life is a prayer, and that I am continually in communion with God. There is some truth in this, but when we look at the model that Jesus offers his disciples, such communion is only a part of a relationship with God founded upon a regular, disciplined time of prayer.
In the passage from Luke, we find some very meaty and valuable advice on prayer. The first thing we realise is that Jesus regards prayer as the outpouring of our needs to God… the cry for help; the desire to confess our sin and find release from guilt; the pleas we make to God when we see the need of others and find ourselves helpless to do anything for them. These are expressions of human needs, needs that arise out of the depths of human experience and despair. Prayer therefore can never be a mere form that we follow, something prescribed for those who want to be religious. Prayer is not a tablet you take 3 times a day, and hope to communicate with God. Prayer comes from within, and shares with God our most intimate needs and desires.
The implications for our prayer life that we find in the parable that Jesus tells, is that we must be both persistent and continuous. The story makes clear our need to continually come before God with our all needs. Yet like the friend in the parable God at times appears to be asleep. One commentator describes this as "the indifference of God to anything less than the best there is for [us] - the determination of heaven not to hear what we are not determined that heaven will hear."
Our prayer needs to be marked by our determination to have our request answered. Like Jacob who, in his wrestling with God, sought his blessing; or Paul in his plea to the Lord to have "thorn in the flesh" removed; we are to put our energies into our prayer. Both Jacob and Paul received answers to their prayers. One received what he sought, the other did not. What is important for us to note is that they communicated with God, and both received an answer - be it positive or negative.
Jesus tells his disciples that if they ask they will receive, seek and they will find, knock and the door will opened to them. English does not adequately describe what Jesus is saying here… the verbs for asking, seeking and knocking in the Greek describe actions that are in the present, continuous and uninterrupted. Jesus is saying that we must be continually asking, seeking and knocking.
We are being called by Jesus to free our prayers of insincerity and half-heartedness. When we seek forgiveness, our prayer needs to come from a sincere desire to repent and turn from old ways. Cheap devotion is no substitute for prayerful worship! If you think God will honour your prayers, when they cost you nothing of your time and effort, you will be badly mistaken. True prayer is not an affair of hasty words mumbled as you sink into sleep at the end of a busy day. Neither is it a ritual observed because it is the thing to do, nor is an easy way to ease your conscience when you feel guilty.
God honours the prayer that is persistent, the prayer that comes from the heart, the prayer places before him our inner most desires and needs. God honours these prayers by answering them. Maybe in ways we did not expect, but still He answers them! God wants to meet our needs and respond to our petitions for help; what we need to do is to take seriously the need for persistent prayer.
King David wrote these words - "Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually!" (1 Chronicles 16:11). If we would grow in our spiritual lives, then we must take those words to heart. Take time to spend with God in prayer. Open up your heart to Him and pour your fears and troubles at his feet. There is no formula for prayer, only the cry of one in need.
Let us pray,
Lord we yearn to come close to you in prayer. Yet we are hindered by our failure to wait for your answers. Help us to pray. Give us the strength and discipline our lives need that we might spend time in regular conversation with you. Help us to make real in our own lives the teaching your Son has given us on prayer, and especially help us to understand the meaning of the prayer he taught us to say. Our Father…
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your Kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as in heaven
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours.
Now and for ever. Amen