To pray is to change
July 24, 2016

To pray is to change

Passage: Genesis 18: 20-32; Luke 11: 1-13; Psalm 138


This summer has seen extended scenes of turmoil.  These last few weeks have brought us all up short.  This summer of terrorist bombings and political chaos across the globe has brought faithful, thinking people to their knees over and over in prayer.  And so we ask ourselves, “Why pray?”

What do we think we are doing when we pray?  Moments ago we collected all our supplications in these words:  “O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothings is holy:  Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal….”  This cry from the Collect is familiar.  It is familiar because we ask in a number of ways and quite often, “Give ear to our prayers, O Lord.”  We ask, we cry out to, God to hear us.  We have expectations of God in the midst of all this clamor.   But what do we expect of ourselves?  What do we think we are doing when we pray?

We make direct address to the Lord in prayers of adoration, thanksgiving, confession, intercession, and petition, seemingly expecting those prayers to be heard and answered.  Like Abraham in this morning’s Old Testament lesson, we intercede expecting that God attends our prayers.  With the Psalmist, we testify that God does respond, “When I called, you answered me; you increased my strength within me.”  But what is the substance of our action?  What are we doing when we pray, and how do we know when our prayers have been answered?

We have learned that there are different kinds of answers to prayer.  Where healing is concerned, in particular, we are told that sometimes the answers are physical, sometimes emotional, sometimes spiritual; sometimes the answer to the prayer of healing is not to be found in this life but in the next.  And sometimes, that answer is just not enough.

When we dare to question the answer to prayer, we’re really asking whether or not we know what we’re doing when we pray.  When our hearts cannot agree with the answer to prayer that our heads submit, we question what prayer really is.  When doubts arise, we ponder whether or not we are capable of teaching our children to pray.

We have promised to make known to the Church’s children and our children’s children the faithfulness of God.  We have promised to instruct our children in the commandments of a God who is trustworthy.  We have promised to teach our children to pray to the Lord who is praiseworthy and powerful.  But do we know what we are doing when we pray?

“Teach us to pray,” the disciples ask in this morning’s Gospel reading.  Not an unusual request:  In this passage, Jesus is doing what every teacher of the day was asked by his disciples to do.  He was not the only prophet with a band of followers, and each group of disciples had a distinctive prayer taught to them by their leader.  “How should we approach God?” they asked their teachers; and each leader offered an approach.

The Lord’s Prayer is found in the eleventh chapter of Luke’s gospel [11:2-4] and in the sixth chapter of Matthew’s [6:9-13].  If you compare the two versions, you will find some subtle variations:  For example, where Matthew has “Give us this day our daily bread,” Luke changes the wording just a bit to “Give us EACH day our daily bread.”  Luke is apparently emphasizing the ongoing nature of the Church and the Church’s needs.  The differences in wording demonstrate points of view on the part of the authors of the Gospels.  Scholars believe the version closest to the original words of Jesus is Luke’s.  The version we use at the Eucharist is Matthew’s with “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” added from ancient authorities.

Jesus’ answer to his followers’ request---“Teach us to pray”---is not what to pray, not the content of what we should ask, not the answers we should seek before we even know the questions, but how we go about asking, how we go about seeking, how we turn and pray.

His reply was very brief, very easy to remember.  What he outlined was not so much a method as an attitude of prayer; and the example he gave the disciples represented an outlook of adoration---“hallowed be your name”---thanksgiving---“your kingdom come”---confession---“forgive us our sins”---intercession---“we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us”---and petition---“do not bring us to the time of trial.”  His was not so much a method as an attitude of prayer.

What was not so clear two millennia ago and not so clear in 2016 is how a person arrives at the point of prayer, now one realizes that outlook, how one assumes that attitude of prayer.  If there is no method for asking, no technique for seeking that outlook, no procedure for arriving at that attitude of prayer, then perhaps we must examine what we think people are doing when they pray.

For many of us prayer is a quiet time, a moment to embrace a silent space for ourselves.  At the same time, prayer is often a time of stress, a time of anguish when we acknowledge ourselves as we really are apart from the roles we play.  In identifying all the feelings, needs, ambitions that preoccupy us and fill our days, we confess ourselves to be idol worshippers of those very feelings, needs, and ambitions.  We have not yet discovered the self we were meant to be, the self from which we are meant to pray; and if we are totally honest, we admit that we do not know who God is either.  We find ourselves, as it were, in a cloud of unknowing.  How is it possible to leave this void and approach what we do not know?  How is it possible to pray?

There is an old Hindu legend that illustrates the first obstacle to that journey into encounter with God, only the first.  The legend goes like this:

“There was a time when all humankind were gods, but they so abused their divinity that Brahma, the chief god, decided to take divine power away from humankind and hide it where they would never find it.  Where to hide it became the big question.

“When the lesser gods were called in council to consider this question, they said, ‘We will bury humankind’s divinity deep in the earth.’  But Brahma said, ‘No, that will not do, for humankind will dig deep down into the earth and find it.’  Then they said, ‘Well, we will sink humanity’s divinity into the deepest ocean.’  But again Brahma replied, ‘No, for humankind will eventually explore the depths of every ocean and will be sure some day to find it and take it up again for themselves.’  Then the lesser gods concluded, ‘We do not know where to hide it, for it seems there is no place on earth or in the sea that humankind will not eventually reach.’

“Then Brahma said, ‘Here is what we will do with humankind’s divinity.  We will hide it deep down in humans themselves, for they will never think to look for it there.’  Ever since then, the legend concludes, humankind has been going up and down the earth, climbing, digging, diving, exploring, searching for something that is already in themselves.”

Jesus deepens our understanding of that same truth, the search for the attitude of encounter, by teaching his disciples always to pray and not lose heart.  Most often, he did so by means of a parable.  One such parable begins, “In the middle of the night a friend of mine…on a journey…has turned up at my house and I have nothing to offer him….”  It is not a stranger who has arrived in the middle of the night.  It is a friend.  We know that the laws of hospitality in the Middle East require that any stranger who presents himself at your door be fed.  To do less is murder in the desert.  But Jesus is pressing a deeper point in this parable:  It is not just anyone who has arrived It is someone he calls a friend.  What friend would be traveling at this hour?  Who would be journeying in the darkness?

Think for a moment of your own sleepless nights spent tossing and turning, working and reworking in your mind an endless stream of problems that will not go away, casting in your mind for solutions to the issues in your own life.  And then consider, who is this wanderer searching for comfort?  Who is this “friend” who has arrived at midnight on a journey?  It is yourself…in need.  You who are on a quest have journeyed into the depths of night.  You have sought a discovery within your soul.  And at the darkest hour you have arrived unto yourself and found that there is nothing.

Each of us deals with his or her experiences in a unique way.  Each of us has some organizational pattern or framework for dealing with the data with which we are constantly bombarded.  Each of us has some means of integrating fragments of insight into a unified theme.  Our frame of reference has many dimensions:  instincts, personal values, facets of self-control, adherence to conventional standards.  Because of these horizons of understanding, we possess the bases for interaction with other individuals.  Nevertheless, our maximum field of vision is from a determinate point of view; and that conceptual model determines our expectations of life and our expectations of ourselves.

We go up and down the earth, climbing, digging, diving, exploring, searching for something we believe to be meaningful.  We have embarked on a journey toward what we consider to be wholeness.  Then one day we discover, instead of our goal, that we are unequal to the task.  We are confronted by our own inadequacy, with the fact that the things we would do we cannot, and the things we would not, we do.  We have arrived at our cross, the symbol of the journey of self coming to oneself, the moment of death to all our dreams of being, the moment of emptiness and abandonment.

In whatever words or sounds you use for sighing, you grasp your despair over your own life and cry out.  And in that moment you meet the symbol of abandonment, the Christ.

What are people doing when they pray?  They are changing.  Not because God has given them the answer to their dilemma.  God does not give answers.  He gives Himself.  The attitude of encounter, the attitude of prayer is willingness to be changed.  To pray is to change.  We’re changing because in our own need and lostness, we meet the Christ.  He meets us where we are when we are ready to be met there.  Living in the assurance of His presence with us changes our frame of reference and brings us into a wider context, a greater perspective than our existent present.  That greater perspective gives us to power to live in unaccustomed joy with the polarities of life.

In Doctor Zhivago, Boris Pasternak describes that greater perspective in this way:  “I think that if the beast who sleeps in man could be held down by threats—any kind of threat, whether of jail or of retribution after death---then the highest emblem of humanity would be the lion tamer in the circus with his whip, not the prophet who sacrificed himself.  But don’t you see,” he continues, “this is just the point:  What has for centuries raised man above the beast is not the cudgel but an inward music.”

Prayer is an expression of the inward music, the inner vision, trust, and commitment by which a person of faith may more fully live.  We approach that vision because of the conviction that somehow life is more than animal instincts, more than personal values, more than self-control, more than conventional standards, more than a constant tension between what we would be and what we would do.    And we experience the mystery of God’s giving us back ourselves: renewed, strengthened, changed.

“I tell you, ask and it will be given you; seek, and you will find’ knock, and it will be opened to you.  For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened.  If you 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?”


(The Rev.) Judith M. McDaniel, Ph.D.