By the time I graduated from seminary, I thought I knew how to pray. I had learned about leading prayer in worship, and I had learned about styles of personal prayer and devotion, from walking a labyrinth to lectio divina (the practice of letting God speak to you through the meditative reading of scripture). I had learned about other traditions of prayer, Christian and non- Christian: praying with icons, praying with rosary beads, the Muslim practice of praying five times a day. I had a theology of prayer: I believed that God is always at work in the world, and I believed that God doesn’t wait for us to ask before giving us what we need, and so, I believed, prayer allowed our own minds and hearts to be aligned with the divine will. My thoughts about prayer were best summed up by a quote attributed to the theologian Kierkegaard: “Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes us.”
But then I started CPE, the hospital chaplaincy internship program that candidates for ordination undertake. And I found that none of my learnings or theologies were very impressive to people in the hospital.
My assigned wards included post-operative recovery for people recovering from spinal surgery, hip replacements, and knee replacements. These people were often in excruciating pain, despite their large doses of medication. I would walk in, talk with them, and offer to pray. It only took a few times before I realized that, despite everything I’d learned in seminary, I didn’t really know how to pray. Or maybe I did, but I wasn’t willing to. Holding hands with people in agonizing pain, I offered bland prayers for acceptance, for patience, for alignment with the divine will. No one in unbearable pain wants a prayer for alignment with God’s will. That kind of prayer does not change us, except insofar as it makes us annoyed at the person who is praying this terribly unhelpful prayer. And so I set about learning to pray again.
This week’s Gospel passage gives us a glimpse into Jesus’s understanding of prayer. “Teach us how to pray,” the disciples ask Jesus. Jesus replies with the words that have become familiar to Christians the world over - although the version we memorize and recite in church comes from the Gospel of Matthew, so the wording of this version of what we know as the Lord’s Prayer is slightly different. Still, the sentiments remain the same: Jesus teaches to address God with the intimate, familial title of “father,” to praise God with words like “hallowed [holy] be your name.” He teaches them to pray for God’s reign to come, which the version in Matthew fleshes out with a petition that the God’s will would be done on earth as in heaven. The rest of the prayer is, in many ways, focused inward, on the needs of the one praying: Jesus teaches the disciples to pray for their “daily bread” - that their physical needs would be met, for forgiveness from sin, and for protection from temptation. Although Jesus famously prayed before his crucifixion “let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want,” that’s not what he teaches the disciples to pray. Instead, he teaches them that it is good and acceptable to ask for what they need and want: daily bread, forgiveness, guidance, protection.
He then amplifies this teaching with a brief parable: someone needs to feed a visiting guest, and having no food, goes to their friend’s house to borrow some bread. The friend replies, “The door is locked, I am already in bed, and my children are with me. I can’t give you anything.” That response may sound odd to us, but in the time of Jesus, people lived in spaces smaller than Manhattan apartments. Some years ago, traveling in Israel, I toured a reproduction of a first- century village, and our tour guide talked about this very passage. He told us that typically the whole family would sleep in one room, often rather crowded, so once everyone was asleep, getting up to answer the door would rouse the rest of the family. Eventually, Jesus says, because of the knocker’s persistence, the friend will get up and give him what he needs. So, he continues, “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
This is very different from the “not my will but yours” kind of prayer I had thought more theologically sound! Jesus teaches the disciples to bang down the doors of heaven, demanding that their needs be met. In some ways, this is liberating: we are freed from worrying about whether our prayers are appropriate, whether we’re asking God for too much, whether we’re supposed to be letting God change us rather than petitioning for our desired outcome. We are given permission to come to God authentically, with our real needs, hopes, desires. In other ways, it is troubling – surely many of us know people, or know of people, who prayed fervently and earnestly for healing from cancer, for relief from depression, for a new job, for reconciliation with a family member – and who never received what they prayed for. In some ways, asking God for what we want is risky, because we may not get what we asked for, and if we don’t, we will have to face the possibility that God has let us down. We will have to consider that we have asked for an egg and received a scorpion, that we have banged down the door, but God is asleep.
The question, then, is whether we are willing to risk that kind of vulnerability with God? When I meet with couples for premarital counseling, we spend a lot of time practicing assertiveness and active listening. Our culture tells us that, if you’ve really found “the one,” they should know what you want without you having to say it. But the reality is that, no matter how compatible a couple is, it’s impossible to read one another’s minds. Learning to voice your thoughts, feelings, and needs to your partner, rather than assuming that they just know what you’re thinking, is an essential part of human relationship. In Psalm 139, the psalmist proclaims that God discerns our inmost thoughts, and knows the words we are about to speak before they’re even on our lips. And yet, there is value in learning to be our authentic selves in prayer, to bring to God what we really want, need, hope, and fear, rather than mouthing the words we think we’re supposed to say. In doing that, we learn that God loves us just as we are, just as we were created, human and imperfect. And we gain some valuable perspective, and perhaps sometimes some humility, when we give voice to what we want, instead of what we think we’re supposed to want.
The good news that Jesus promises, hard as it may be to believe, is that God answers prayer. I don’t always feel like that is true. When cancer takes loved ones far too young, when people longing for children wait and wait and wait, when peace on earth and justice for the oppressed seem a distant dream, it often feels to me like I am knocking and the door is locked, I am seeking what can’t be found, like I’m asking and not receiving. But perhaps all we need is a change of perspective.
At a conference I recently attended, Rev. Traci Blackmon, leads the UCC’s Justice and Witness Ministries, spoke about her faith journey, her work in Ferguson where she was a local church pastor at the time of Mike Brown’s death, and about the spiritual practices that sustain her. She told us about the prayer journal she keeps: she writes her prayer at the top of a page, and she leaves the bottom of the page blank. She revisits her prayer journal regularly, and when she thinks she has gotten an answer to a prayer, she goes back and writes it down. Sometimes it was not the answer she was expecting, she said; sometimes it is not the answer she was hoping for; sometimes it does not come on her schedule; but as she turns the pages back, she sees where God has been at work in her life and in the world.
What if we approached prayer with certainty that if we knock, a door will open? What if we were unafraid to bring to God our needs and our wants, our hopes and our fears? What if we banged down the door of heaven, like that relentless host in the story, and what if we didn’t stop until we saw something holy happen, whether it was spectacular or mundane, big or small, expected or surprising? Maybe prayer would change things. Maybe prayer would simply change us. Either way, God would be opening the door.