July 29, 2007
Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1-13
Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is one of my favorite passages in all the scriptures. It describes Abraham interceding before God on behalf of Sodom, lest it be destroyed. I do not know of any other scriptural passage that more succinctly defines our relationship to God and the importance of prayer. The narrative unfolds like a drama, perhaps even like an extended comedy routine with increasing tension.
Abraham has a strategy. If he can get God to agree to spare Sodom for a certain number of just people, he can push God to reduce the number. Abraham succeeds in persuading God to spare the city for fifty just people. But, knowing that it would be difficult to find fifty good people in Sodom, he keeps lowering the number. He moves from fifty to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. His boldness and his persistence are amazing. With each verse the tension rises. We think to ourselves, “Abraham, quit while you’re ahead!” We expect God at each request to say, “No! Enough! I’ve given too much already!” But none of that happens. Verse by verse, Abraham succeeds, so that God agrees that only a handful of just people are necessary to spare all of Sodom.
Now this passage points to the importance of prayer. Our whole prayer tradition is an inheritance from Judaism, and this passage is one of its most brilliant expressions. Abraham is not afraid to ask God for what he wants. He does not hold back or stand on ceremony. Far from being reserved or polite, he attacks the conversation with God with an aggressiveness that can only be compared to a customer bartering with a merchant in a Near-Eastern bazaar. His example shows us that we are not only called to pray, but called to pray with our whole heart and soul. We are called to pray as if our life and the life of others depended upon it. Therefore, the intensity and the self-interest with which Abraham prays poses to us a fundamental question.
To place that question most directly I would simply ask, “Do you pray?” I am not asking whether you say prayers (we all do that) but do you pray? Do you entrust to God some of the needs of your life with anything approaching the intensity and the sincerity of Abraham? I would be willing to bet that many of us very seldom pray in that way. I think most of us say, “I don’t want to bother God. Things are going along pretty well. I can handle things myself.” Even when there are needs in our life, serious needs, I think are inclined to trust that things will work out. But we do not to turn to God and actually ask, “God, help me.”
Now both the Jewish and Christian traditions speak against such reluctance. What we are asked to do is to pray regularly and with all our soul. What we are asked to do is to entrust our deepest needs to God and believe that God will value the prayer that we offer. We are asked to believe that God is both Creator and Savior, and that our life is really in God’s hands. We believe all of those things in our head, but it is only in prayer that they move from theory to reality.
What would we pray for? We are able to choose. One of the great advantages of prayer is that it allows us to identify what is most important to us. We can pray for our children. We can pray that our cancer goes into remission. We can pray for a peaceful death. We can pray for world peace or that our marriage could heal. We can choose any need in our life. But it is not enough to identify such needs. We must actually ask God to help us. It is in vocalizing our needs and desires that they become prayer.
Now prayer of course is not magic. If we could pray today for a BMW and get one tomorrow, everyone would pray all the time. Prayer is an act of faith. It is entrusting our life, our deepest needs to God and believing that God will honor our request. Prayer is essential. Without prayer you cannot be a real Jew or a real Christian. Without prayer, all the things we believe are really just words. They are never entrusted to God in a real relationship. Jesus knows this. This is why as a good Jew he teaches us, “Ask and you will receive.” Notice he does not say you will receive what you ask for. But he does say you will receive. You will receive what God gives you, and what God gives you will be good.
Abraham then is our model. Identify some good thing, and trust God enough to ask for it. The outcome is in God’s hands, but the request and the way to offer it is in yours. So ask with all your strength. You might receive peace for your family, restored health, or the hope to go on. Don’t hold back. You may save Sodom.
Why Do We Pray?
July 25, 2010
In 2008 the Pew Charitable Trust conducted an extensive survey on religion in America. In that survey they discovered that 92% of Americans believe that God exists. 92%! That is an impressive number. But statistics can be deceiving. Believing that God exists does not in itself make you a person of faith. It is possible to believe in the existence of God, as you would believe in many facts of the world around us—like believing in the existence of Portugal or the existence of rings on Saturn. All of these things can be true and accurate, but they do not have much relevance for your life. Here is a much more revealing and important statistic: not the number of people who believe that God exists, but the number of people who pray. A person who prays does not believe in God as a fact, but as a person, a divine person with whom we have a relationship. More than any other activity, prayer indicates that faith is real.
This is why Jesus today in the gospel teaches his disciples to pray. As a good Jew he knew that prayer was essential. As a Jewish rabbi he knew that he was expected to give words to his disciples to direct their prayer. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer. Then he encourages his disciples to ask, to seek, to knock. But what is clear in Jesus’ directions is that the process of prayer is more than simply getting what you want. It is being part of a relationship with a loving father who cares for you even more than we care for our own children. So we can sum up Jesus’ teaching on prayer in this way: Prayer is not only a request; it is primarily a relationship. This is important. The more we focus on the request of prayer and how our request may or may not be answered, the more confusing and problematic prayer becomes. For example, God knows all things. So why do we need to tell God what we want or what we need? God knows everything about us. God knows our desires and our wants and our needs. We presume that God is already working to bless us. So why should we pray? Prayer from this perspective looks superfluous. Or how about contradictory prayer? What if you pray that it rains today because your grass is brown, but your next door neighbor prays that it does not rain because she is having an outdoor barbecue? What is God to do? Both prayers cannot be answered. From this perspective, prayer does not work. It leads to an impossibility.
This is why we must remember that prayer is more than a request.It is primarily a relationship. We should ask for what we need. But the clearest reason why we ask is because we understand that we are in a relationship with the God who loves us. Just as in every other loving relationship, we are called to share our wants, our needs, and our hopes with the person who loves us. So the clearest truth about prayer is that it reminds us that we are related to a God who cares for us and leads us.
Even if our requests are not answered, two things always happen when we pray. The first is this: we remember who we are. When we pray we remember that we are not the center of the universe. That can be very helpful for many of us. When we pray we realize that God is the center of the universe, and that for all of our efforts and projects we need to trust God’s plan. We need to believe that God will bless us and direct our lives. The second thing that always happens when we pray is we grow more sensitive to God’s action in our life. Because prayer reminds us that God is active, the person who prays sees life in a new way and is more attentive to the blessings and the graces that occur in our lives and in the lives of others. So every time we pray, we remember who we are and we grow more sensitive to God’s grace.
Now I know that many people here pray often and well. You ask me for prayers and you pray for me. Thank you. But I also suspect that some of us here do not pray that often. We come to church and join in the liturgy, but we do not often place our personal needs and wants in trust before the Lord. The sacred scriptures today remind us of the importance of prayer and ask us to pray more, to speak in our own words to God about our lives. God is more than a fact. There is no action more fundamental to faith than prayer. So we should not be afraid to ask. Prayer is never wasted. Every time we pray, we remember who we are, that we are beloved daughters and sons of God. And every time we pray, we grow more sensitive and attentive to the beauty and power of God’s action among us.
Two Thoughts on Prayer
July 25, 2016
A few weeks ago, we prayed that the Cavaliers would win the playoffs. Now they are the NBA champs. So God answered our prayer, right? But how about the fans in Oakland? I presume that some of them prayed that Golden State would win. Why was their prayer not answered? Did we pray harder? Were the Warriors less worthy? Is God, perhaps, a Cavaliers fan?
Just asking these questions illustrates how complex the reality of prayer is. How can we explain God’s actions when good people ask for different outcomes? How can we explain why certain prayers seem not to be answered? We don’t get the job offer. The person we wanted to take to the prom goes with someone else. The person we love does not recover from cancer. It’s no wonder some people conclude that prayer is useless. It doesn’t make any difference, they say. There’s no need to ask God for what we want. But against these objections, the Christian tradition, drawing deeply from its Jewish roots, insists that prayer is important, and that we should pray often. So how do we follow this tradition with all the questions about prayer? Let me offer you two thoughts which are related to one another.
The first is this: we will never fully understand how prayer works. When we pray, we insert our needs and our lives into the very heart of God. And God is greater than us. Because God is greater than us, we cannot fully understand how God negotiates competing requests or why some prayers go unanswered. But even though we do not understand how prayer works, we continue to hear the invitation of God to pray. God continues to ask us to place our needs and the issues of our lives into God’s hands. And God makes this invitation because God cares for us. This leads to the second point.
Prayer is not primarily about what we ask, but about who we are. Every time we turn to God in prayer we not only bring a need before God, but we remind ourselves that we belong to God. Jesus makes this clear in today’s gospel. He tells his disciples to pray and then immediately he says, “Which one of you as a father would give his son a snake when he asks for a fish, or a scorpion if he asks for an egg? If you give good things to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to you?” Prayer, then, is about a relationship. It is about who we are. We are daughters and sons of God. Prayer reminds us that we belong to God.
So two thoughts: we will never fully understand how prayer works, and prayer is primarily about who we are. Now I realize that these two insights do not answer all the questions about prayer. They certainly do not give Golden State fans any consolation! But they do show us how prayer flows from what we believe. If we believe that God is all good and powerful, if we believe that God has made us and saved us, if we believe that God cares for us and wants us to be happy, does it not make sense that we ask God for what we need? After all, if God is our Father, to whom else should we turn?
Teach Us to Pray
July 28, 2019
A woman was running very late for an important meeting with her lawyer. When she arrived at the office building, even though the lot was large, she could find no place to park. After driving around uselessly for about ten minutes, she decided to pray. “Lord,” she said, “you know how important this meeting is for me. Please help me find a parking space.” She drove around for another five or ten minutes, but still nothing changed. So, she decided to sweeten the deal. “Lord,” she said, “if you find me a parking space, I’ll put 100 dollars in the collection at mass this weekend.” She drove around a bit more but still there was no room. “Lord,” she said, “this is very important to me. If you give me a parking space, I will put 500 dollars in the collection this weekend.” She drove around for five minutes more, but everything stayed the same. Finally she said, “Lord I am truly desperate here. If you give me a parking space, I’ll put a thousand dollars in the collection this weekend.” And, just as she said those words a parked car right in front of her backed up and pulled away. “Never mind Lord,” she said, “a place just opened up.”
It is easy to play games with prayer. This is true because most of us imagine prayer in an overly simplistic way. Yes, prayer is asking God for what we want, and God can give it to us. But prayer is not some kind mechanical, automatic process by which the things we want automatically appear. If every prayer was answered in the way in which it was prayed, everyone would be a believer, and every year the Indians would win the World Series.
Prayer has to be something more than simply getting the goods. This is what Jesus is showing us in today’s gospel. Now when we first hear Jesus’ words, they seem to confirm a magical notion of prayer. He says, “Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you.” But if we look at these words more carefully, we’ll see that any magical notion is dispelled. Jesus says, “Ask and you will receive.” But he does not say, “Ask and you will receive what you asked for.” Jesus promises that if we pray, if we ask for something, we will receive something. But what we receive is in the hands of God. This is why the most important word in today’s gospel is the word, “Father.” Payer is talking to God, but not as the creator or the all-powerful supreme being. Prayer is talking to God as our father who loves us. Therefore, in the deepest sense, prayer is bringing what we need to God and then trusting our father to act.
If you were suddenly diagnosed with cancer, you should pray. You should go to your father and say how frightened you are, how helpless you feel. You should ask for God to cure you. If you ask, you will receive. You might receive a cure, but you might receive something else, perhaps courage or a sense of peace. When people we care for are in trouble, we should pray. We should tell God how much they mean to us and how difficult their lives are because of a divorce, financial problems, or some other difficulty. If we seek help from God, we will find it. But it might be as simple as the call to help the people we love by our presence and care. If there’s something in our lives we know we need to change, we should pray. We should tell God that how our attitude of prejudice or the addiction that controls us is lessening our life and hurting others we love. If we knock on that door, it will open. It probably will not turn us immediately into a perfect loving person, but the road onto which that door opens is a road that leads to life.
Prayer is not some magical exercise. It is not a way to negotiate a parking space. Prayer is bringing our needs to our father. And the good news is this: when we approach the God who loves us, we will not be turned away empty-handed.