Notes on Sermon for Sunday, July 28
What is Prayer?
Something so ubiquitous in our culture, yet do we really understand the deeper essence of what prayer is?
I remember as a child staying up late at night, kneeling next to my bed until the carpet made pock marks in my knees, straining to remember every single sin I had committed during that day, so that I was less afraid of dying in my sleep.
That, my friends, is a gross misunderstanding of what prayer is, because true prayer is beautiful. True prayer would never terrify, never shame.
There is something in us that, in moments of crisis, sends us into a more elementary understanding of Prayer, something, honestly, akin to a magic spell. We want some problem fixed, solved, erased. And, sometimes there is enormous pain and that is understandable. I have had those moments of pain, and I know how some of your pain makes mine look like a scratch by comparison.
And clergy become the practitioners of these magic spells, people to be brought out in moments of crisis so perform religious services—but who are then put aside when things in life are going well. Or, when folks think their lives are going well—and they “don’t need God,” well, it’s fine that the clergy stay out of their lives. We’ll come to you—or someone—when we experience a crisis.
There is an interesting dynamic at work within spiritual communities when it comes to prayer.
And, if I can say so, Facebook and social media don’t exactly help—in fact they rarely help with anything these days except cat videos. When we post prayer requests on there, are we asking for people to think about us and hold us in our challenge, or—honestly—are we thinking that we need to reach some critical mass in order that we can, somehow, convince God to give us what we want?
When we post these things, do we tally the “likes” or “loves” and somehow think that the more of these we get, the louder God hears it? (And who else had felt strange to click the “like” or “love” button when someone shares a deep pain they are experiencing?) These are tricky questions, even sensitive ones, but they are questions we are called to explore today.
What is prayer?
How do we understand it?
What does prayer do?
The texts today are fascinating when it comes to understanding prayer.
On one hand, anyone could cherry pick one of these texts and make an argument that “this” is prayer, that “this” is a proper understanding of prayer.
But…when they are taken in their total, when we examine the arc of the texts, the trajectory that they lay out, what do we learn?
We begin with this gripping text of Abraham bargaining with God to save Sodom and Gomorrah.
Abraham starts out with a plea to God to save it if Abraham can find fifty righteous people.
Fine, God says.
The, Abraham bargains God down. “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak once more. Suppose ten are found there.”
Who has not been in that place in their lives, feeling as though they need to bargain God down in order to receive some sort of blessing.
“I promise I’ll go to church, I’ll attend Mass, once a month if you just give me this…or let this happen.” (See how it fits seamlessly with “If you are good this year, [someone] will bring you presents. I’m just saying.)
This is the essence of a transactional understanding of prayer.
I’ll invest this, God, if you promise this. If you give me this, I’ll pay what I owe.
What a strange way to understand prayer—yet our culture teaches it. Yet, if you just take this one text out and hold it up, sure, you can squeeze it into that mold and pattern an understanding of prayer around it.
But wait, there’s more!
Then we come to the text from Colossians, and something has shifted.
Here, we have this image of being “rooted and built up in Christ” of being “established.”
We see this transactional understanding of prayer giving way to something else.
Something relational. Something transformational.
And, there is where we see the essence of a deeply Christian practice of prayer: in this movement from a transactional understanding to a transformational one. I cannot stress how important this shift of consciousness is.
Because this shift in consciousness is at the heart of what Jesus is seeking to embody and teach in the Gospel lesson.
The disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray like John the Baptizer had taught his disciples.
They need a structure, a framework—a practice.
This is key, of course, but the practice Jesus gives them may not be what they are looking for.
He gives them the essence of what we now know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Those few lines: praise, petition, reconciliation, and protection, these lay out a very meaningful understanding of what prayer is, what prayer is “doing.”
(For those wondering why, in our modern practice of the Lord’s Prayer, we end with “For thine is the Kingdom and the power and the glory, for ever and ever,” this is a doxology that was added later. It was an emphasis, a way to end what Jesus gave us with an added layer of praise to God.)
So, Jesus gives them this structure, which, if we pay close attention, is not about a magic spell but is rather seeking to offer a posture.
These words are seeking to cultivate a posture, where our heart is attuned with God’s heart.
Praise to God.
Petition for our needs—not our wants, not the selfish desires of our heart.
Reconciliation—the cultivation of a community based on forgiveness and trust.
And protection, the promise that God is with us no matter what struggles we face in our lives.
This is a posture of awareness of God’s presence.
But then there is this story about the neighbor needing a bit of food to feed guests.
And, on first glance, it seems like Jesus is teaching his disciples that, if we remain persistent in our prayers, if we just bug God enough, keep at it, that we will get what we want. Which, on first glance seems to support this earlier text in Genesis, with Abraham bargaining God down.
But I don’t think that is exactly what is going on here.
Look closely at what Jesus says toward the end.
“If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
He does not say “how much more will the heavenly Father give them what they want.”
He says, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
And that, to me, is what fully describes this movement from a transactional understanding of prayer to a transformational one.
Jesus is trying to describe this posture to his discipleship: that the essence of prayer is to cultivate a deeper awareness of God’s indwelling presence that, in turn, transforms the way you live in the world, understand life itself.
The way we pray shapes the way we believe and live in the world, as we say.
So, to put a fine point on it, what we actually “pray for,” in Jesus’ own understanding, is a deeper awareness of the indwelling Spirit, and in that awareness, we trust that God is at work in our lives. We “die to self,” in the sense that we seek to set aside the impulse to be driven by our own ambition and greed. Not that we deny the circumstances of our lives, but that we see how community is shaped and nurtured, and we are empowered to be present to one another in support and love.
In my recent reading, I keep going back to the writings of Ruth Burrows, a Carmelite nun in England. I want to share just a few insights from her that magnify what we see in today’s texts:
“Our Christian knowledge assures us that prayer is essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us. It is not primarily something we are doing to God, something we are giving to God but what God is doing for us. And what God is doing for us is giving us the divine Self in love.”
“When we find ourselves dissatisfied or anxious about our prayer it is worth asking ourselves the question: ‘What do I really want?’ and trying to listen honestly to the answer. We can be fairly certain that it will be some kind of ego-satisfaction. I may want to feel I am making progress, that my prayer is ‘working’ or that I am a spiritual adept. I may want to feel I am getting something for my money! True prayer means wanting GOD not ego. The great thing is to lay down this ego-drive. This is the ‘life’ we must lose, this is the ‘self’ we must abandon if we are to have true life and become that self God wants us to be, which only God can know and ultimately only God can bring into being.”
“a heart must be really listening,” Burrows says, “really wanting the truth, really wanting God. The difficulty is that we do not want him. We want our own version of him, one we can, so to speak, carry around in our pockets rather as some superstitious people carry around a charm.”
“prayer is not a technique but a relationship. There is no handicap, no obstacle, no problem. The only problem is that we do not want God. We may want a ‘spiritual life’, we may want ‘prayer’, but we do not want God. All anyone can do for us, any guru can teach us, is to keep our eyes on Jesus, God’s perfect, absolute friend.”
Because… and here is the key. Here is the root of what the disciples were asking for and what we truly ask for—if we dare to be honest: we want to experience that intimacy with God, that awareness of the union with God that is the essence of our lives, the root of our being. The reason for our living itself.
“Jesus, teach us to pray,” the disciples asked him.
I imagine Jesus pausing just for a moment, thinking in his heart: “Ok. I hear you. But I’m going to do you one better. I’m going to teach you—show you—how to live.”
 Ruth Burrows, The Essence of Prayer (London: Bloomsbury, 2006), 1.
 Ibid., 3.
 Ibid., 14.
 Ibid., 15.