One of the movies that has stuck in my mind the longest is a Jim Carrey vehicle called Bruce Almighty. Carrey plays Bruce Nolan, a reporter in Buffalo, New York, who is frustrated that he can’t get all that he wants out of life. Promotions pass him by. Others get the newsier stories. Despite his life being reasonably good—decent job, loving girlfriend, good health—Bruce wants more. On a particularly frustrating night, Bruce has had enough. He screams at God (a kind of prayer in its own right, I might add), “The gloves are off Big Guy!” He’s mad at God. He’s mad at the world. He thinks he can do better than God in running this whole thing.
So, God, played by Morgan Freeman—good casting—gives Bruce power. God says, “You want my power and responsibility? It’s yours. Have at it. I’m going on vacation.” Bruce uses his newfound powers to do whatever he wants, but one of his jobs as God is to answer prayers. It’s a huge job. The prayers come to his computer like emails, and he can’t keep up with all the requests. Sick of dealing with it, Bruce decides he should just say “yes” to every single request. Each and every prayer gets answered “yes.” Everyone gets that they want.
Only this creates chaos because what one person wants may not be what they need or often runs smack into what someone else doesn’t want. Lottery winners abound, but this devalues money. People pray that their team will win the big game, but what happens when people pray for both teams to win and the answer is yes? It’s a catastrophe.
It’s tempting to treat God like a vending machine, and when what we ask of God does not get answered the way we want, we get mad. We pray for peace. We pray for healing. We pray for patience or resolution, but the answers don’t seem to come. God is not Amazon with its one-click purchasing—all you could ever want just a click away. But in our world of instant gratification, it’s hard to live in the place of unanswered prayer. We want what we want, and we want it now. Unanswered prayer is a tough pill to swallow, particularly when we feel our prayers aren’t selfish.
Jesus’ disciples have witnessed his active prayer life. They want to know how he does it, so they come to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” That in itself is a great prayer because I think most of us wrestle with prayer. I know I do. Sometimes prayer can feel like a toolbox filled with every tool we could ever need, but we don’t know how to use the tools or we’ve used them badly and gotten hurt. So, we avoid the tools until the job at hand absolutely requires them and we still feel under-equipped.
So, Jesus teaches his disciples—and us—how to pray. Ironically, many have memorized the words of this prayer. We know how to pray, but I think we struggle with trusting the One to whom we’re praying. Our gospel text in Luke frames the Lord’s Prayer with a parable and a teaching that are less about prayer than they are about learning to trust the One to whom we’re praying.
We’ll get back to the first part of the teaching, but let’s take a few moments to think through the rest of Jesus’ teaching. He begins with a parable about a man who gets an unexpected visitor late at night. Hospitality is essential in the Middle East, although I think this is one of those parables that translates well into our context. If my neighbor came ringing my doorbell at midnight needing my help, I’d go help however I could. And I hate being up late at night. But this neighbor responds with surprising negativity. “It’s late. The door’s locked. The kids are in bed. Come back tomorrow.” That’s not at all what would happen normally in their society—or frankly, in ours. But that’s the story.
An interesting word pops up in verse 8. Our version translates this as “persistence,” but that’s a pretty tame rendering of the word that’s there. The word anaideian is better defined as “lack of sensitivity to what is proper, shamelessness, impertinence, or ignoring of convention.” Interestingly, this word could apply to either the one who would shamelessly knock on his neighbor’s door at midnight or to the one who shamelessly tried to turn his neighbor away in his need. Either way, Jesus’ point is clear. Even people in hard situations can be shamed into doing the right thing, and God is far better than that.
The very character of God wants to respond to our prayers in ways that will unfold God’s reign in the world, so Jesus encourages us, “Ask, seek, knock.” You’ll get answers. God is good. If we ask for a fish, God will not give us a snake. If we ask for an egg, God won’t give us a scorpion. I’d hope that’s been the case with any of our parenting. We don’t give our kids everything they want—not all they want is good for them or for the bigger picture—but we show our love for our children by how we care for them. Jesus’ point here is that “God’s goodness outstrips that of even the best of human [parents].” That’s something we can bank on.
So, Jesus frames his teaching on prayer with a teaching on the very character of God. God is good. God loves you. God wants to give good things to you. But now we should go back to the “how” of Jesus teaching us to pray. It’s what we call the Lord’s Prayer. These may be just about the most frequently recited words uttered in the world over the past 2000 years. We pray them at almost every worship service here at First Pres. We may not have a lot of Scripture memorized, but we do know this prayer. And it’s a doozy. Multiple times this week I kept thinking about Annie Dillard’s comment that we should be wearing crash helmets in church since we’re mixing up the volatile chemistry between us and the God who created everything. This prayer is potent.
If we detached this prayer from Jesus’ teaching that follows, it would be tempting to treat God like a vending machine or even a genie. Say the right words in the right manner, and we get what we want. No, “Christians should not pray to get whatever they want. They should pray for God to bring the fullness of God’s reign to fruition. These verses affirm God’s commitment to accomplishing this, and those who pray as Jesus taught should expect that God intends to use them as a means toward doing so.”
So, we have asked Jesus to teach us how to pray, and what he offers is very simple, but don’t think that prayer is whatever we think it is. Yes, it’s a conversation with God (as though that’s a simple enough matter). But it’s also more. It’s a way that we, the children of God, connect with our heavenly Father who loves us and calls us to do great things with the gift of our lives.
Tim Keller in his book on prayer laments that we’ve turned the Lord’s Prayer into rote memorization. He likens it to someone who lives so close to the train tracks that they no longer hear the trains that roll by and rattle their home. In Keller’s words, “Jesus is saying, as it were, ‘Wouldn’t you like to be able to come face-to-face with the Father and king of the universe every day, to pour out your heart to him, and to sense him listening to and loving you?’ We say, of course, yes. Jesus responds, ‘It’s all in the Lord’s Prayer,’ and we say, ‘In the what?’ It’s so familiar we can no longer hear it. Yet everything we need is within it.”
So, the prayer begins with words to address God. Interestingly, Jesus tells us to call God “Father,” which comes from the Aramaic word “Abba.” It’s what children called their parents. And it’s a weird way to start praying to God. It’s certainly not how most others were instructed to pray in Jesus’ day. But then the address immediately gets heavenly. God’s not just our father. God is our father in heaven, who loves us and is worthy of all we can offer. God is holy—set apart—and yet present and active in our dailyness. This God—our heavenly Father—is the One whose will we’re praying will be done in our lives, which is different than just asking for whatever we want.
But the petitions that follow give us a simple framework for prayer, and it’s one we can remember in our personal prayer lives because the Lord’s Prayer is familiar to us. It’s give us, forgive us, lead us, and deliver us. Let me take just a little time to break these down.
We begin with asking for what we need. Give us. Give us our daily bread. Give us enough. It reveals that we are in a position of dependence upon God for all that we have. As much as our hard work and decisions lead also to what we have, at root everything comes from God’s hand to us. We are dependent on God, but the good news is that God tells us to ask. Within the will of God, we receive what we need to do what is needful in life and faith.
We move to forgive us. We all stand before a holy and perfect God with our frailty and brokenness. We are not God. We are not holy or perfect. But God stands ready to forgive—always. Seek and you will find. And it’s not just about the sins we have committed. It’s about relieving us from the hurt of being unforgiving towards those who have wronged us. It’s so easy to hold onto a grudge, but it’s so destructive. Forgiveness is a letting go—a removal as far as the east is from the west, which brings peace and wholeness to us and to others. Never underestimate how powerful forgiveness is!
But prayer is not just about asking for what we need materially or spiritually. It’s about guidance. We pray lead us away from things that can harm us. We pray deliver us from evil. Why? Because we can be lost and vulnerable. We need direction and guidance. Knock on that door to the unknown because God will open the doors you need opened and keep secure those doors you shouldn’t walk through. This is the time in prayer where waiting and silence are often best. These are the “we don’t know what to do, but our eyes are on you” prayers. Be shameless in prayer. God is listening.
At its root, prayer is simple. Talk to God. Listen to God. Come to a deeper understanding of this loving God, who cares intimately about the details of your life. Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened. But remember that prayer is all about God’s loving and good will for you and the whole world. So sometimes our asking gets a “no” or a “not yet.” Sometimes our seeking takes longer than we want it to. Why? Because God’s got a better plan than we do. “I’ve seen prayers answered,” writes Anne Lamott, “but often, in my experiences, if you get what you pray for, you’ve really shortchanged yourself.” Jesus has taught us how to pray. So, let’s keep asking, seeking, and knocking until God’s reign is fully here.