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.