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Monday, July 26, 2010

Pray with Boldness

Pr. 12, Yr. C
Luke 11:1-13
7/25/10

Anne Lamott—a quirky, truth-telling writer who is one of my favorites—suggests that our two best prayers are: “Help me, help me, help me!” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” There are lots of other ways we divide and categorize prayer, mnemonics to guide us in remembering not to make our prayers one-dimensional, books and websites galore on how to pray…but I think that when it comes to the bottom line, she’s pretty close to the truth with her bare bones approach.

At first blush, today’s gospel sounds like Jesus, too, is giving us the very simple Cliff notes version of prayer, then continuing to tell us that the key to successful prayer is persistence…just keep saying what you want over and over and eventually God will give in. There are a lot of problems with this interpretation, however, not the least of which is that it leaves us with tons of big questions about what went wrong if our petitions aren’t granted.

Maybe that’s one of the challenges about prayer: we’re often most interested in the what, the how, and the why; we want to leap into the explanations. But in this gospel, Jesus seems to be offering not so much a primer on prayer as an invitation to prayer. Jesus talks to his disciples about the “who” of prayer…us, God’s dear people and disciples, in conversation with the God who created us from and for love, who designed us to be in relationship with God.

To understand this perspective on what Jesus is saying, it helps to take a look at one particular word in the parable about the man knocking on his friend’s door in the middle of the night. Many translations, our own New Revised Standard included, say that it is because of the man’s persistence that the neighbor gives in and gets some food for him to share with his guest. In other words, the man throws a tantrum and his friend is finally worn down. Honestly, I don’t really like the idea of a God who only responds to the pleas of those who yell the loudest and the longest.

However, there’s another way to translate the Greek word we hear as “persistence,” and it sets the parable in a different light. Some scholars have suggested “shamelessness” instead…that because of the man’s shamelessness in asking—his confidence that his neighbor will help him with the food he needs to fulfill his own obligation to hospitality—the friend responds. The man is confident of their relationship, not just as friends but shaped by the norms and expectations of their culture, and he calls upon it boldly. Could it be that this is what Jesus is trying to tell us? “You have a relationship with God; you have the right and the privilege of coming to God boldly; seize that opportunity! Ask God to be God, and expect God to answer!”

You may have heard that the Aramaic word at the start of the Lord’s Prayer, “Abba,” conveys much more sense of familiarity than comes to mind for many of us when we say the more formal “Father.” It may not quite be “Daddy,” but there’s definitely the suggestion of the closeness of a healthy parent/child bond. That fits well with this other understanding of the parable, too; both are thus Jesus inviting us to call upon the One who is in this intimate relationship with us. Prayer isn’t first of all about needs and wants or even thanksgivings; it’s about trust in our relationship with God, that God’s desire for us to speak up—and to listen as well—is a sign of our mutual relationship.

How we act on that trust, our actual style of prayer, will vary from person to person, from one situation to another, from one point in our journey to the next. Prayer is most definitely not “one size fits all,” any more than I could reasonably walk into your home and expect to be able to wear anything I see, or put on the clothes I wore 40 years ago. One person will find God in the stillness of centering prayer; another will best express her heart’s longing in a prayer language, speaking in tongues; a third will turn to the words of the Church in the Book of Common Prayer; and yet another will use arrow prayers that are hardly more than a breath in length. Once we accept the invitation to pray shamelessly and boldly, we’re free to explore the manner of our prayer in many directions. That it’s good to pray is a given for Christians; how we pray varies infinitely…and that’s a good thing, as it reflects our uniqueness and diversity as children of the living God.

Prayer can be scary stuff. When we pray, we’re turning to the creator of the universe, the one who stills the storm and casts out evil, God Almighty, whose presence is in wind and fire and absolute silence…we’re marching right up to the door of that God, with audacity and shamelessness, trusting that by virtue of our relationship we have a right to be there...and knowing that as soon as we knock, the whole encounter is out of our control. Of course most of us feel some uncertainty about prayer!

But Jesus tells us here to go ahead and do it anyway. Ask, search, knock, and know that the God who loves us will hear.
“Help me, help me, help me, God.”
“Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

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