July 24, 2022
+ Tomorrow, July 25—the feast of St. James the Greater—I will be observing the 19th anniversary of my ordination as a Deacon.
When I think about such a thing—19 years—it is very humbling.
The other day, I was sharing the fact I would be observing this day with a friend of mine, and she said to me: “So, I’m really curious, as an ordained person, do you really pray when people ask you for prayers, or do you just say you’ll pray and forget?”
It was one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked.
And it’s an important question.
I said this to her:
“I used to say I would and then would often forget and feel guilty for forgetting. So, now, what I do is when anyone asks for prayer from me, I immediately pray for them. Even if it’s a short, interior prayer, I will pray for them, ‘please, dear God, I pray for so-and-so’ and whatever issue they have. And when I do, I usually find that when I pray more fully, usually at Evening Prayer, and in a more focused way, that request is still there.”
And I can say this, prayer is as essential of a part of my ministry at St. Stephen’s as anything I do.
And I know it is for many of you as well.
For me, as an ordained person, I can tell you, I took very seriously the vow I first made 19 years ago tomorrow night, when Bishop Andy Fairfield asked me,
“Will you be faithful in prayer…?”
With that in mind, I can also say that one of the most common questions I have been asked in my 19 years of ordained ministry has been: “how should I pray?” Or “Am I praying correctly?”
And I think that is one of the most important questions anyone who is a Christian can ask me.
And I love to answer that question.
It is essential.
Prayer is essential to us as Christians.
It is in praying, that we not only seek God, but come to know God.
And it is from knowing God that that true prayer comes.
And that we get to truly experience God.
For those of us seeking God and striving after God, and God, in
return, coming to us and revealing God’s self to us, we do find the need to
respond in some way.
That response is, of course, prayer.
In our Gospel for today, we find Jesus talking about this response.
We find him talking about prayer.
The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray.
Jesus responds by teaching them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, or the Our Father, which is a beautiful.
I love the Lord’s Prayer.
So many of us take for granted.
But if you ever really study it, you will see it really is the very perfect prayer.
And it definitely has its roots in classic Judaism.
I will talk about the Lord’s Prayer in detail at another point.
Then he goes on to share a parable about a friend asking another friend for a loan.
In the midst of this discourse on prayer, Jesus says those words
we find quite familiar:
“For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knows, the door will be opened.”
Now, pay attention to some key words there:
I can’t tell you how many times I have heard the complaint from
people about unanswered prayers.
“I prayed and I prayed and nothing happened,” I will hear.
And I am definitely not going to tell you how many times I have complained about so-called “unanswered” prayer in my own life.
But when we talk of such things as unanswered prayers, no doubt we
are zeroing in on the first part of what Jesus is saying today:
“For everyone who asks receives.”
And before we move on from this, I just want to make clear—there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.
All prayers are answered, as you’ve heard me say many times.
The answer however is just not always what we might want to hear.
Our God is not Santa Claus in heaven, granting gifts to good children, nor is our God the god of Sigmund Freud’s Moses and Monotheism—a projection of our own parental expectations (to which many of us act like spoiled children).
God grants our prayers, but sometimes the answer is “Yes,” sometimes is “not yet,” and, sadly—and we have to face this fact as mature people in our lives—sometimes the answer is “No.”
And I can tell you from my own experience, the greatest moment of spiritual maturity is accepting that “no” from God.
But, that is, of course, the petitionary aspect of prayer, and very rarely do most of us move beyond asking God for “things,” as though God is some giant gift-dispenser in the sky.
(I am telling you this morning, in no uncertain terms, that God is not a giant gift-dispenser in the sky. Sorry!)
Jesus shows us that prayer also involves seeking and knocking—searching and knowing.
Oftentimes in those moments when a prayer is not answered in the way we think it should, we just give up.
We shake our fists at God and say, “God does not exists because my prayers weren’t answered.”
And that’s all right.
I’ve known a lot of people have done that.
That’s an honest and valid response to God.
I’ve certainly done it in my past.
And I understand people who do it.
But if we seek out the reasons our prayers are not answered in the way we want them to, we may truly find another answer—an answer we might not want to find, but an answer nonetheless.
And if we keep on knocking, if we keep on pushing ourselves in prayer, we will find more than we can even possibly imagine.
The point of all of this, of course, is that when God breaks through to us, sometimes we also have to reach out to God as well.
And somewhere in the middle is where we will find the meeting point in which we find the asking, the seeking and knocking presented before us in a unique and amazing way.
In that place of meeting, we will find that prayer is truly our
response to God “by thought and deed, with or without words.”
And in that place of meeting, we come to “know” God.
Jesus is clear that prayer needs to be regular and consistent and heart-felt.
I have found that prayer is essential for all of us as Christians.
If we do not have prayer to sustain us and hold us up and carry us
forward, then it is so easy to become aimless and lost.
As some of you know, I lead a very disciplined prayer life.
I’m not saying that to brag or to pat myself on the back.
I lead a disciplined prayer because I can be a lazy person.
I pray the Daily Office every day—the services of Morning and Evening Prayer
found in the Book of Common Prayer—because I need to.
Actually, I’m supposed to.
All ordained clergy in the Anglican tradition are supposed to pray the Daily Office every day.
But I also do it because I need to.
See, kind of selfish.
But I do need it.
The late, great Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who also prayed the Daily Office every day, said that when he didn’t pray the Office, he felt off, like he hadn’t brushed his teeth.
That’s what it’s like for me as well.
After 25 years of praying the Office day in and day out, on good days and bad days, that’s what it’s like.
And I pray it because it is a way for me to pray for everyone at St. Stephen’s by name through the course of the week.
And, in addition to the Offices, I take regular times during the day to just stop and be quiet and simply “be” in the Presence of God, to just consciously open myself to God’s Presence and just “be” there with God.
No asking for anything.
Not fist-shaking or complaints.
Just being there.
That’s essentially what prayer is.
It is us opening ourselves to God, responding to God, seeking God and trying to know God.
Roberta Bondi is one of the best contemporary theologians alive today.
She is an expert in the so-called Desert Spirituality of the early Christian Church.
In her excellent spiritual autobiography, Memories of God, she writes this abut prayer:
“I abandoned the notion that prayer is basically verbal, petition
and praise, and came to see that prayer is sharing of the whole self and an entire
life with God. With a great wrench I set aside the conviction that the process
of moving closer to God in prayer should also be a process by which we discard
the damaged parts of ourselves of which we are most ashamed. I learned instead
that just the opposite is true, that prayer is a process of gathering in and
reclaiming the lost and despised and wounded parts of ourselves…”
I love that!
“…prayer is a process of gathering in and reclaiming the lost and despised and wounded parts of ourselves.”
So, essentially, prayer is not something formal and precise.
It does not have to perfect or “formulaic.”
We do not do it only when we are pure and holy and in that right spiritual state of mind.
We pray honestly and openly and when it is the last thing in the world we feel like doing.
We pray when life is falling apart and it seems like God is not listening.
And we pray when we are angry at God or bitter at life and all the unfair things that have come upon us.
I actually have no problem praying in those situations.
You know when I do have a problem praying?
When things are going well.
When all is well.
In those moments, I sometimes forget to open myself to God.
I sometimes forget just to say “thank you” for those good things.
I forget sometimes just to be grateful for the good things.
But even then we need to pray as well.
We pray to know God and to seek God.
And if we do so, if we stick with it, there will be a breakthrough.
I know, because I’ve experienced it.
And many of you know it too because you’ve experienced it.
There will be a breakthrough.
Of course, we can’t control when or how it will happen.
All we can do is recognize that it is God breaking through to us, again and again.
We see the breaking through fully in Jesus.
He shows us how God continues to break through into this world.
We see it in our own lives when, after struggling and worrying and despairing over something, suddenly it just “lifts” and we are filled with a strange peace we never thought would ever exists again.
In those moments, God does break through.
In response to that breaking through, we can each find a way of meeting God, whenever and however God comes to us, in prayer.
In that place of meeting, we will receive whatever we need, we will find what we’re searching for, and knocking, we will find a door opened to us.
That is how God responds to us.
So, let us go out.
Let us go to meet God.
Let us seek God.
Let us know God.
God is breaking through to us, wherever we might be in our lives.
Let us go out to meet the God who asks of us first, who seeks us out first, who knocks first so that we may open the door.
Let us pray.
Holy and loving God, we do ask, we do seek, we do knock; open the door of your Presence to us. Break through to us and meet here, where are, so that may truly know you, and serve in the world. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.