July 24th, 2016
I have not been doing this pastor thing for very long, only about five and half years as an officially ordained one. And, funnily enough, one of the things I did not learn to do very well in all my formation was the act of prayer, or praying. I remember my second confirmation group, about six or seven students, typical suburban kids. I asked them, “How many of you pray during meals?” One of them said, “Well, we do it at really important meals, like Thanksgiving.” Most of them didn’t pray at meals. “How many of you pray with your parents?” I asked. They all kind of looked around. I wasn’t sure if they were too embarrassed to admit that they had any kind of social interaction with their parents at all, or if the thought sharing a prayer with them was just too much to admit, or whether or not they just never prayed with their parents at all. They claimed that they didn’t really pray with their parents. “How many of you pray?” Embarrassed wiggling. Finally one kid admitted that he prayed at night sometimes before he went to sleep.
So, I was struck that day by two things: first, that I felt very ill-equipped to teach these kids how to pray. And the second thing was, if they don’t know how to pray by the time they get to confirmation, it’s almost too late. Parents, you have got to teach your kids how to pray, the earlier the better. Otherwise they might end up with someone like me.
Now, I want to pause a little, because teaching kids to pray is so important we ask parents to make a promise to do it before we baptize their children: we say, do you promise to teach them the Lord’s prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Creed, and to nurture them in faith prayer, just as we nurture them in food and drink and shelter. I believe in praying before meals, because I also believe that families ought to eat together, at least once a day, especially in our own fragmented world. It’s getting harder and harder to do these things, I know, but they can still be done—if you eat together, pray together.
I’ve wondered why those parents didn’t teach their kids to pray. And I don’t think it was all the kids—I think younger teenagers are pretty much embarrassed to talk about important things, and their experience of prayer might be—well, a lot like the experience any of us might have. Some of us have very rich and deep prayer lives, in which we feel connected, deeply, to God’s presence, in almost tactile and visionary ways. Others may feel nothing at all. Others of us may have secretly given up on prayer.
My favorite story about prayer is from Huckleberry Finn, which happens after Huck gets back from a nighttime adventure with Tom Sawyer, all clayey and greasy and dog-tired, and his ward, Miss Watson admonishes him for backsliding into hoboism and tells him must pray. Paraphrasing our good Lord, she says that he must ask for whatever he wants, and if he asks enough, he’ll get it. So, Huck prays for fishing line and hook, and he gets the line, but no hooks. Prayer, he concludes, is useless. He thinks about the bad things that have happened to people he knows: “Why don’t Deacon Winn get back the money he lost on pork,” he thinks. “Why can’t the widow get back the silver snuffbox that was stole? Why can’t Miss Watson fat up?” Miss Watson says that he should pray for spiritual gifts, so he ponders that for a while and he thinks, “There ain’t nothing in it—there ain’t no advantage it—except for other people…”
I wonder, often, if that’s an attitude a lot of people hold. My prayers don’t work. Look at Abraham today. He learns the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, and so he pleads and pleads to God to save it. For the sake of fifty, will you spare the cities? Abraham asks. Yes, God says. For forty? asks Abraham. Yes, for forty. For thirty? Abraham asks. Yes, for thirty, says God. And notice that Abraham, is scared. He asks God not to be angry if he speaks; he asks if the Lord will listen just one more time. And finally, the Lord promises to spare the city if there are ten righteous people.
Well, the problem, as you probably know, is that God neglected to tell Abraham there are no righteous people anywhere on earth, and especially not in Sodom and Gomorrah, save maybe Abraham, and even that was dicey. We all know what happens to Sodom and Gomorrah—Sodom and Gomorrah go boom. Abraham heard yes, but the real answer was no. And God knew it. You might be forgiven if you sometimes think that your prayers don’t matter, that some other, more righteous person than you should pray, because you don’t get the fish hooks, the healing, or whatever else it is you ask. Maybe you think this prayer business isn’t for you or that God doesn’t hear your prayer. Maybe you’re too scared to ask something of God, thinking that you’re just little old you, and could God really want to give you anything? Would it matter? What if you ask for the wrong things?
But I don’t think that’s what God has in mind. If there’s one thing I could teach people, it’s that our relationship with God is not transactional. It’s not God waiting around for us to put together the right words or the right life so that God can finally give us the things we ask for. No. God asks us to pray so that we can love God more, and so God can shape us through prayer.
I take comfort knowing the disciples weren’t sure how to pray either, and that Jesus taught them a prayer. His prayer teaches us how to pray, what to ask for—first that we hold God holy; second, that God’s reign come among us; third, that we receive what we need; fourth, that we are forgiven for our sins; fifth, that we forgive others their sins against us; sixth, to be directed in life so that we will not be tempted by things that counteract these things; and finally, that when those moments come, God will save us from them. That’s pretty much everything you need in prayer.
God knows that we are all in need, and each of us with our own particular needs. We should pray about them—both that God would satisfy our need and that God will help us distinguish between our wants and our needs. God answers our prayers, not always as we would like but as we need. But more than that, God grows closer to us in prayer. Even when we pray haltingly, or with a lot of confusion, or not knowing what we should say or ask, every prayer we offer is a moment in which God comes closer to us, or rather opens our awareness to God’s presence.
So don’t give up praying. Teach your children to pray and to worship. Unlike parents, God never tires of hearing his children’s incessant questions and requests, and will always steer us right. It’s true that we don’t always get what we want, but I think it’s also true that God always gives us what we need—grace to do God’s will, to be workers in his kingdom. So pray, and listen and watch for the sure presence of God.
And if you don’t know how to get started, or if you simply are worried you aren’t going to do it right, here’s my suggestion. Go to a quiet, private place, and start with the Lord’s Prayer, silently or aloud, and then just tell God what’s on your mind and your heart. There’s no right way to do it except doing it. God wants to hear your prayer, and God will answer in the way you need. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack