Do you ever wonder about prayer? Well … duh! I’ve never met anybody who didn’t wonder about prayer. I mean, just what does it do? Sure, sometimes good things happen for people who pray, but so do bad things. And the same goes for people who don’t pray. And when somebody says, “I’m praying for you,” don’t you at least sometimes find yourself thinking sarcastically, “Wow, that’s a big help!”? Lots of us have been outraged the past few years when people responded to a tragedy like a mass shooting with “thoughts and prayers.” It comes across as an excuse not to do anything.
And yet we do pray. Even in our most skeptical moments (and we all have at least a few of those) we catch ourselves praying. The doctor’s office calls with our test results, or a prospective employer calls, and we catch ourselves silently saying, “Please, let the news the good!” We slam on the brakes, and as the car starts skidding, we beg for it to stop in time. Maybe that’s praying to the car, but it’s still praying. We’re hoping that simply expressing our desires, even silently, somehow makes a difference, maybe even that somehow some sort of somebody is listening, and not just listening but lovingly responding. So we wind up praying, even those of us who suspect that it doesn’t make any difference.
And we wonder about that. Jesus’ first followers wondered about it too:
Luke 11:1-4, 9-13: Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial. …. So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 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!”
Jesus’ first followers see Jesus praying. And they’ve reportedly seen amazing things happen around him, and around the guy who baptized him. So they think Jesus and John the Baptist must be on to some deep secret about how to pray and get results. And so they ask, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”
So Jesus obliges them … with a very short prayer. We all know it—“The Lord’s Prayer.” My Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer includes a version of it in every liturgy. Luke’s version is shorter and blunter than the one we know by heart, but it’s pretty much the same thing.
But if Jesus’ followers were hoping he would share some great secret, this prayer is bound to be a disappointment. It’s a pretty ordinary prayer. Sure, people have written whole books on it, but you could write a whole book on just about any other prayer in our prayerbook, if you wanted to. We treat it as really important because it’s been handed down to us as a prayer Jesus himself taught.
But it’s still a prayer that anybody in Jesus’ time and place might have prayed. In fact, people were already praying a prayer that went something like this: “Magnified and sanctified be His great name in the world He created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during your life and during your days, and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily and in the near future.”
Jesus’ version is a bit different, but it’s basically spelling out what it means to pray for the coming of God’s reign. Both prayers ask that this world might become a community where basic needs are being met, where failures and conflicts are being reconciled, where persecution for being different is only a fading memory.
It’s a good-enough prayer, a prayer worth praying. But there’s no secret key to unlock the mysteries of prayer here. Jesus’ followers ask him to teach them something extraordinary, and he responds with a prayer that must have come across as disappointingly ordinary.
It’s like he’s saying, “Just about any prayer will do. Try this one, it’s good enough. It fits what I’ve been preaching. Try it. Or try something. Just do it.”
This fits how I understand prayer as a peculiar sort of process thinker: prayer is simply verbalizing the ongoing dialogue with God that brought us here in the first place. It started in Genesis. From the very beginning, God was in some sort of communication with a vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. God “spoke” to the chaos creatively, the chaos responded creatively, and that’s how we got this intricately interwoven community we call the world, with all its appealing and devastating surprises. That dialogue is still happening even when we don’t notice it. When we pray, we’re starting to notice the dialogue. We’re waking up to it. We’re finding our voice in it.
Of course the whole storyline of the Bible is that this dialogue is no guarantee that everything will be rosy. God “speaks” creatively to the whole world, to every part of it, and every part responds creatively in its own limited way, and that’s bound to make a mess of things. Dialogues are always messy, and this one has often been downright devastating.
But God never stops speaking, summoning creative community out of conflicted chaos over and over again. God receives the spoken and unspoken aspirations of every creature, weaves them together, and provides each of us a whole range of new ways forward—together. Some move forward into community, others remain stuck in conflict, so God repeats the whole process over and over.
That’s how prayer works. It’s a dialogue. Dialogues are messy. In fact, they’re uncontrollable even when they’re going somewhere. And that’s why we keep wondering if prayer ever works. The results are hardly ever what we thought they might be.
But wonder or not, Jesus says don’t give up; be downright stubborn about it; it does get results. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” He’s confirming our hope that simply expressing our desires somehow makes a difference, that somehow some sort of somebody is listening, and not just listening but lovingly responding.
But of course we still tend to read into his words things he didn’t say. Jesus didn’t say here that we would get exactly what we asked for. Loving parents wouldn’t give their children snakes or scorpions to eat, but they might give them kale! (I’ll eat kale, I know it’s good for me, but I’ll never prefer it to, say, french fries.) What he did say we are guaranteed to get is the Holy Spirit, which, if we are honest, is what we hardly ever ask for. But the Holy Spirit is what, or who, Jesus promises us whenever we ask, search, or knock.
Maybe that sounds like another generous serving of kale when we had asked for french fries. But that’s what we’re promised—that Spirit of God who moved over that ancient, vast, dark, shapeless, fluid mess, summoning it to become a luminous, shapely, creative community. We’re promised a dialogue partner who keeps drawing us and the whole world into a community where basic needs are being met, where failures and conflicts are being reconciled, where persecution for being different is only a fading memory.
And that community does show up, however fleetingly. It began to show up when God said, “Let there be light.” It began to show up again when God summoned Abraham to be a blessing to all the families of the earth. It began to show up when Jesus started preaching, “The kingdom of God has come near.” It began to show up when Jesus’ followers discovered that even an execution couldn’t put an end to him. And of course it began to show up when those followers so dramatically received the Holy Spirit on that first Pentecost.
Of course we know after centuries that every time this community shows up, it suffers major setbacks. It comes to us more in glimpses than in settled institutions. But it does keep showing up. In days where hatefulness has been normalized, we especially need to look for it. Indeed, we need to keep looking for ways that we ourselves can be part of the answer to the prayer we and God are praying together.
Try this prayer, says Jesus. It will do. It’s awakening to a dialogue, to the prayer we are praying to God and the prayer God is praying to us: May we together become a community where basic needs are being met, where failures and conflicts are being reconciled, where persecution for being different is only a fading memory.