In one-on-one meetings with parishioners, over and over again I have heard folks say, “I just don’t know how to pray. I think I’m doing it wrong. I don’t get the sense that God is listening, so it must be something about how I’m doing it that’s getting in the way.”
Prayer – we worry that it is this big mysterious thing that requires special talents, or that you’re supposed to follow a particular formula for it to truly be effective. And frankly, we Episcopalians fall into that belief quite naturally, because we’ve got a whole book full of some of the most beautifully crafted prayers imaginable that we use in worship and in private prayer – the Book of Common Prayer. Read those prayers, and it’s easy to get the idea that you’ve got to be an A-#1 wordsmith to pray the right way. Just look at the wonderful words of one of the collects for Evening Prayer: “Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ, give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous, and all for your love’s sake.”
Oh my. It is so beautiful that it brings tears to my eyes whenever I read it.
I don’t know about you, but when I pray, it rarely sounds so exquisite. It’s usually a lot more basic.
The writer Anne Lamott says there are two prayers : “What???!!!!???” and “Thanks!!!”
I think I’d like to modify that list a bit. When I’m talking about prayer with children, I talk about a list that starts with the obvious one that we all use all the time: “Please.” Whether we’re grownups or kids, we use “Please” prayers all the time: please bring me the new game for my Nintendo game system, please bring my friend healing, please help me get that job, please make the repair on my car’s air conditioner not cost too much money. Then, because it’s not polite to just ask for stuff and not respond when we are given something, the next prayer is “Thank you.” And we should use that a lot, because we really have been given so much by our Heavenly Father. Thank you that this awful headache went away. Thank you that I got a little raise. Thank you that my baby slept through the night. Thank you that I didn’t take a drink today. Thank you that I woke up this morning.
“Please” and “thank you” might be enough for some folks, but for others of us, we need to add another one: “Oops.” We need it because we regularly do things that we wish we hadn’t done, say things we wish we hadn’t said, and we need to ask forgiveness. So “oops” is about acknowledging that we have failed in some way, whether it is big or small, and so we ask for God’s forgiveness, even as we should ask forgiveness from the person we have offended or fix the thing we have broken. Oops. I said something hurtful about a friend. Oops. I didn’t do what I promised I would do, because I was feeling lazy. Oops. I need forgiveness.
The last prayer on my list is one that we don’t think of very often, and I suspect that is because we have lost our childlike ability to be amazed at the wonderfulness of God’s creation around us.
That prayer is “Wow!” I say a prayer of wow when I’m out early in the morning and see the delicate lace of a spiderweb in a beam of sunlight, with a drop of dew adorning it like a diamond. I say a prayer of wow when my grandson smiles and says “I is here!” I say a prayer of wow when I see someone who has been terribly ill go home from the hospital with health restored. So many wows around us, if we only keep our eyes open for them.
When we hear the gospel this morning, we hear the disciples asking Jesus the same sort of question we all ask – how should we pray? It’s remarkable to imagine that they would be worried about the right way to pray. They’ve been with Jesus, the master himself. Shouldn’t it come naturally to them? But they, too, have doubts about how they are supposed to pray (not so much of a surprise, since the rules of prayer were so much a part of the old way of the temple), so Jesus gives them a prayer…
…and it’s a prayer that has all the kinds of prayer that I’ve talked about.
“Please…” please bring your kingdom to earth. Please give us the food we need each day. Please keep bad things away. Please show mercy to us.
“Thank you…” thank you for your holiness, for the promise of your kingdom, for your presence among us.
“Oops…” yes, we have sinned, and we acknowledge that, so please forgive us, as we try our best to forgive those who have sinned against us.
“Wow…” you are here, you have brought the promise of your kingdom to us. We see it every day in so many unexpected ways. You are the giver of all gifts, you are the gift.
Such a short prayer, and so much packed into it!
And just in case the apostles are confused about what it all means, Jesus gives them a very concrete example of how it works. If you go and knock on your friend’s door in the middle of the night, he may grumble a bit, but he will probably get up and let you in and give you what you need, particularly if you keep on knocking on his door. He may come down because you’re his friend. He may come down because you’ve been persistent and kept knocking. No matter what the reason, he’ll come down and let you in.
Why? Because you are a friend. You are in relationship with him. He can’t really refuse you, even though he’d rather roll over and go back to sleep. He loves you, even though he may not particularly like you when you wake him up in the middle of the night.
So Jesus says, go ahead. Knock. Keep knocking. Use this prayer, or just use the words of children.
Prayer is no more and no less than the spoken or whispered or thought words of relationship, relationship with God and with each other.
That is why Jesus says to the apostles, “Knock, and the door will be opened.” Prayer is the opening of the door to deeper relationship with God. It is not about the elegance of the language. It is not about the form, or about who wrote the words. It is about relationship, about opening the door to the God who dearly loves us and who wants the best for us, and wants us to be the best we can be. God is waiting on the other side of the door.
Knock. He is waiting for you, with grace and generosity and joy.
Ask. God will respond. We may not get exactly what we are asking for, but God WILL respond.
Search. God will find you, and let you find him. If you keep your eyes and ears open, you may find him in the place and in the way you least expect.
What helps you to knock, to ask, to search? Prayer. Simple words. The words that Jesus taught us, or at the moments when words fail us, the simple ones. Please. Thank you. Oops. Wow.
God understands, whatever the words, whatever the form, whatever the language. Spoken aloud or in the silence of our hearts, God knows. Thanks be to God.