Prayer of Illumination
Teach us to pray. Teach us to listen. Teach us to serve. Teach us to love.
It sounds so simple to ask,
but living our call to be your Beloved can be so complicated.
Guide us with your grace, your wisdom, and your peace,
with the power of the Holy Spirit keeping us on course. Amen.
Luke 11:1-13[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.” 2 He said to them, “When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
3 Give us each day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
5 And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6 for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7 And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8 I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
9 “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. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13 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!”
It’s comforting for me to read this story in the gospel. It’s comforting to know that even the disciples,
the closest friends of Jesus,
the people who walked with him by the sea of Galilee,
who shared meals and broke bread with him,
and who witnessed his stories, his miracles, his arguments, and his teachings,
even THEY had questions about how to pray.
Luke shares this story, when one disciple pipes up and asks Jesus what to say when praying. We assume the rest of the disciples slow down and listen in too, for the Greek switches to the plural when Jesus responds. This story is comforting that the faithful of a different time and place also wondered how to weave words together to speak to the Divine.
Jesus does not tease or trifle with the question or the one who asks. He answers directly, with words we will repeat in a few minutes. Jesus responds with a prayer that is spoken around the world, in different languages, by people of different denominations and traditions, and words that are still repeated with hope and promise, every day.
The rubric is familiar. First, Jesus teaches the disciples to refer to the Almighty as a caring parent, adding reverence for the distance between the Divine and humanity, the Creator and those of creation. Then, ask for the will of God to reign, acknowledging it will be different than what we on earth can comprehend or contrive. Seek what you need, just to meet your daily needs. Don’t be greedy. Then, seek the welfare of those who have wronged you, recognizing that you have strayed from the love of the Holy yourself. Hope that God will take care of you. Amen. May it be so. Truly. It’s a prayer between family members, woven with love, hope, promise, and humility. It’s a prayer that people grasp onto and repeat when words fail them in the face of tragedy and disaster. It’s a prayer that binds us together as Christians, even when so many things divide us around the dinner table or in the neighborhood. My hunch is it’s a familiar prayer to many in this room. Jesus taught the disciples how to pray, how to address his Abba with reverence, respect, yearning, and anticipation of reconciliation.
Many of us here today are still longing to know how to pray, as well. As a professional pray-er, I am called on to pray at picnics and potlucks, at meetings and in hospital rooms. It’s awkward to admit, but sometimes I worry that I’m not doing it right, that my words are insufficient for the moment. One moment of inadequacy stands out in my memory.
Midway through my seminary studies, I joined a professor and several students on a trip to Ghana, to explore the Presbyterian Church there and to learn from fellow Christians on a different continent. During our three-week trip, we lived with families, and for my first home stay in the Ho region, Deirdre and I spent three nights with the Rev. Dinah and her three grandchildren. On the second night, the town lost electricity—no storm, no clear reason—it was routine for the people of this village to lose power. We gathered candles and shared stories and finished our dinner by the glow of flickering candlelight and one steady beam from a flashlight. The next morning, we joined Rev. Dinah as she went around the town, checking on her flock. Several blocks away, there had been a house fire, and two toddlers, two dear cousins, had died. That house was surrounded by family and neighbors, weeping and singing in the street. After Rev. Dinah spoke with the mothers, she looked to us and asked,
“Will you pray?”
I was still in shock, that as we had enjoyed the night with stories and laughter, two precious children had perished. I stammered in response, and Deirdre said, “Go ahead, you start.” My heart was feeling all the feels: despair, anger, self-doubt, grief, denial. When I couldn’t come up with my own words, I stared quoting scripture, starting with the prophets…mumbling from Isaiah, “Comfort, O Comfort my people…” desperately hoping that God would offer these grieving families some comfort, some peace. I wrapped up quickly, and looked at Deirdre. She took a deep breath, and she started to sing. Her voice was haunting, tender, exquisite. I don’t remember the words or the melody, but I do remember how I felt in that moment: in awe, in communion with these women I had just met, in the presence of the Spirit in the middle of the street. Tears were streaming down our faces by the time she finished. Her voice had washed over our grief. Dierdre had asked God why, seeking solace not answers, and she ushered us through the door of prayer to experience the presence of the Holy. She had prayed with her whole self. That morning, Diedre taught me that sometimes prayer is a song.
I believe Jesus was weeping with those mothers that morning, and I believe Jesus was present in Diedre’s prayer. I trust that Jesus would affirm that her song was a form of prayer. If asked again, I expect Jesus would say that there is not a wrong way to pray. If we are asking from the heart, if we are searching to understand God’s ways more than our own, if we are expecting a response from the Holy through the door of prayer and silence, then I don’t think you can disappoint Jesus or pray ineffectively. His full response to the disciple’s question about prayer includes the open-ended formula of ask, search, knock. It’s another pathway to praise, petition, and intercession. Jesus describes another method of weaving together our hopes and our hearts in communion and in communication with the Holy. Jesus teaches that there is not just one way, or just one set of words, to pray. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Like the friend who shares his bread even after he has settled down in bed, like the parent who offers a child a fish or egg, God will respond when we pray. We may not get the exact response we hoped for, but prayer will lead us to discern God’s presence and reply.
The final verses in today’s text are an important reminder for all of us who pray and search for God’s response. The reply may not be in the shape, manner, or timeline we expected, but it does not mean that God is absent or apathetic. Jesus reminds the disciples, and in so doing reminds us too, that God wants what is good for us.
Listen to this translation of verses 10 through 13, from Eugene Peterson’s The Message:
Don’t bargain with God. Be direct. Ask for what you need. This is not a cat-and-mouse, hide-and-seek game we’re in. If your little boy asks for a serving of fish, do you scare him with a live snake on his plate? If your little girl asks for an egg, do you trick her with a spider? As bad as you are, you wouldn’t think of such a thing—you’re at least decent to your own children. And don’t you think the Father who conceived you in love will give the Holy Spirit when you ask him?
The God, who conceived you in love, may not offer a cure or a new position or a mended heart immediately when you pray. Prayer is not a bargaining game. It’s not a wish list. It’s a conversation with the Lord, it’s a song, it’s a lifted intention of healing and wholeness. God’s response may not be clear at first, but we trust the same God who created the world and called it good, wants what is good and whole and holy for all God’s people. The Holy Spirit will come, but it may not show up in the way you expected or first requested. Like prayer, the Spirit comes in all forms, and designs, with boundless love.
Sometimes prayer is a song, and sometimes prayer is as simple as paying attention. Many of you know how much I love the work of poet Mary Oliver. She has a way of describing the natural word with reverence and awe of the Creator. At a recent meeting of the Presbyterian Women’s coordinating council, her poem “Praying” was the opening devotional.
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.
Can you imagine that doorway into thanks? Could it be the same door that Jesus described for the disciples, the door that will always open for those who knock? The door that will always welcome in those who offer thanks and gratitude. The door that is always invitational, always available, always unlocked. Like the children, can you come up with one or two things for which you are grateful this morning? Are you willing to wait in the silence for another voice to speak? It’s difficult to trust that God’s voice will echo through our prayers, but if we pay attention, the response will become clear.
Sometimes prayer is as simple as paying attention, and sometimes prayer is a simple question. Even in a university town overflowing with professors, students, and researchers, I believe children often ask the best questions. One of my favorite books is Children’s Letters to God, a collection of wonderful prayers, letters written by curious and compassionate children, published in 1966. I’ll share just three entries today:
Are you real? Some people do not believe it. If you are, you better do something quick.
I wrote you before, do you remember? Well I did what I promised. But you did not send me the horse yet. What about it?
What is it like when you die? Nobody will tell me. I just want to know, I don’t want to do it.
These children pray about deep theological questions: about God’s existence, God’s work in the world (or the apparent absence of it), and the experience of death. Honest, clear-sighted questions for God the Everlasting, God the Eternal, God the Creator. Their prayers are another reminder that there is not a right or wrong way to pray. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus says we come into God’s kingdom as children. We can all learn how to pray from the children in our midst and of this church family.
God seeks to be in conversation with us, to be in dialogue about our own needs and our concerns for our community, the earth, and people around the world. Prayer is one way to enter into conversation with the Divine. Gods wants us to share our thoughts, our fears, and our dreams. Only when we open our hearts to hear God’s voice, can we begin to create the space to listen. Prayer provides the pause, the silence, the space to listen for God’s loving response. We can initiate the conversation anytime, anywhere.
So, it seems fitting to conclude a sermon about prayer with a Franciscan Blessing, a prayer for each of you, Beloved of God, and for the whole church:
May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers,
half-truths, and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression, and
exploitation of people [and the earth],
so that you may wish for justice, freedom, and peace.
May God bless you with enough foolishness to believe that you can
make a difference in this world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done.
Amen and Amen. May your life be a living prayer, in song, by paying attention, or by asking profound questions. May you continue to ask, search, and knock. And may you know God’s power through it all.
“May joy and nothing less find you on the way.
May you be blessed, and may you continue to be a blessing.
And may light, love’s own crucified, risen light, guide you
and countless others all the way home. Shalom.”
-E. Carson Brisson
 Luke 11: 10-13. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Translated by Eugene Peterson. 2002.
 Oliver, Mary. “Praying” Thirst. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. 37.
 Children’s Letters to God. Compiled by Eric Marshall and Stuart Hample. 1966 edition.
 “A Franciscan Blessing” Common Prayer, Pocket Edition: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Gen. Editors Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Zondervan: Grand Rapids, 2012. 71.