Text: Luke 11:1-13
What a friend we have in Jesus,
all our sins and grieves to bear.
What a privilege to carry,
everything to God in prayer.
Oh what peace we often forfeit,
Oh what needless pain we bear.
All because we do not carry,
everything to God in prayer.
That hymn along with our text today shaped my early understanding of prayer. Luke’s words were not only plastered in every room of the country church I attended they were also embedded in the pathways of my young brain. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
As a child and into my youth, even into adulthood, I spent a lot of time in prayer asking and then hoping that “it” would be given. I searched, under every rock, behind every door, along every road for answers to the questions about God and Jesus and faith that filled my young mind. I knocked, I banged, I pounded, and I begged for God to answer my prayers. God, please let me get that new motorcycle. Jesus, please don’t let my parents find out I am gay. God, if you will get me out of this mess, I promise I will be better. God please let my friend live.
As the years have passed, I must confess to you that I still ask, I still search, and I still knock, oftentimes even begging God to answer my prayers. The asking is far less for me now or about me. Now, I ask God for things like the impeachment of a sitting president. I ask God to not let one more child die in detention. Or one more parent to die trying to get their family across the border to safety. I ask God for relief for those suffering with mental illness – those who wake up every morning wishing that they had not awakened to another day. I ask God to restore the soul of this nation – a nation that has lost its way when it comes to doing justice, loving-kindness, and walking humbly. I pray that not another child will suffer abuse or neglect. I know that there are those out there who don’t believe that liberal Christians like myself still pray. I know this because folks have said as much to me. I have literally been asked if we pray at Pullen. Prayer, good old fashion praying, in the minds of some seems to be reserved for those evangelical Christians who still believe in the power of prayer. Not liberal Christians who waffle on the purpose and meaning of prayer. Not those who are timid about pouring out their heart and soul, asking God for what they need or want, for themselves or for anyone else. And maybe they are right for many of us learned a long time ago that such a belief about prayer and such praying is futile. After all, who can trust a God who answers some prayers and not others?
Now, I will make a second confession to you. This liberal Christian who doubts most of what she was taught about God and Jesus and faith growing up, and who today has more questions than answers about God and Jesus and faith, still petitions God. I still ask. I still knock and bang and beg and search. At times I even bargain with God. There, I said it. You know my secret. In the tradition of the Psalmist, with desperate imperfect words, I pour out my soul before God – for you, for my daughter who struggles, for this nation, for children sitting in cages separated from their parents terrified of what will happen next, for the sick and the lonely, for brown women harassed while simply enjoying a dinner out, and for white women who cause them harm. I pray. I pray with my words. With specificity, I ask God for help.
Do I understand my own praying? No. But for now, it seems that prayer for me is still about asking, still about saying to God, “how much more, God?” “How much more can I keep up with the demands of my family? How much more of this strained relationship can I take? How much more loss can I survive?… How much more can I give before I simply lose it? How much more can I trust God’s message of love, in the midst of the hate and violence and hopelessness of the world, before the Gospel starts sounding like just a figment of my imagination?… How much more can we hear about the manifestations of racism, terrorism, homophobia, xenophobia, before we begin to believe the dystopia as the norm over the Kingdom of God?” How much more can we take of the images of children being detained in cages, of mother’s clutching their children begging border patrols to let them cross the border before our eyes and hearts become de-sensitized to such atrocities? God, how much more praying must we do before something changes?
On those occasions, which were often, when Jesus went away to pray alone I have wondered about what he asked for, or if he even asked for anything. We know at least one time he asked for something. Before his crucifixion, he prayed: “God if it is possible, let this cup pass from me…” I can only imagine that in the tradition of the prophets before him, when in those moments alone praying, Jesus bared naked his soul before God asking, searching, and knocking. Surely, he too, asked in his prayer how much more, God? How much more?
Prayer is a confounding, perplexing part of my faith. I have experience prayer as those moments when I sit still and try to quiet my restless soul to listen for God’s wisdom in the silence. As I have searched and studied our holy scriptures for truth I have experienced that searching as prayer. Prayer has been for me a walk in the woods, a conversation with a friend, a moment of recognition of the beauty of God’s world. In some ways, it would seem that prayer is everything. And yet, my soul still longs for that spoken prayer before God where I bare naked my soul and I speak to God of my fears and fantasies, my hopes and helplessness, my dreams and my demons, my weaknesses and my wants. For me, the heart of prayer, is not being afraid to say to God what I most need to say, what my deepest needs are, my longings, my wants, my desires.
But here’s the paradox of prayer, at least for me: the more I ask of God and from God – the more I pour out my soul to God – the more I am aware of what God is asking of me and from me, and thus, the more God pours out God’s soul to me. When I ask God to care for and protect those sitting in detention centers for no crime other than not having a piece of paper that documents their right to be in this country, God asks me to go with my body to the detention center and bear witness to the injustice being done to immigrants and refugees here in America – the supposed land of the free. When I pray for the woman with mental illness living within steps at the back door of our church, God asks me to stop and listen to her story even though I might be in a hurry to get to the next place I am supposed to be. When I pray that our planet might survive the harm us humans are doing to it, I am compelled to work harder at composting and recycling and reducing my footprint on this planet. When I pray that our nation might heal the wounds of racism, I am more determined to understand my white privilege and fragility and I reach out to those still facing racism while enjoying a meal in a restaurant. I don’t know if my prayers change God in any way. I kind of doubt it. But I do know that my prayers change me in more ways than even I can understand. To me, prayer is a relationship in which I bare my soul to God and God bears God’s soul to me.
As I was looking for an image for the front of the worship guide I kept coming back to the picture you see there. It is a picture of a closed set of doors. The quote underneath the picture reads: “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” This week, as I contemplated those words from our sacred text, “knock and the door shall be opened” I kept being drawn back to this picture. I was drawn to the closed doors wondering when God might open them, or what it would take for God to open them. It was then that I realized praying is not about God opening up that door for me. Praying is the thing that gives me the courage to reach out to take hold of the doorknob, turn it and open the door from myself. The text doesn’t say, “Ask and someone else (God) will give it to you.” It says, “Ask and you shall receive.” The text doesn’t say, “Search and someone else (God) will take responsibility for your finding. The text says, “Search and you shall find.” The text doesn’t say, “Knock and someone else (God) will open the door for you.” It says, “Knock and the door will be opened.” Prayer changes the nature of the one praying.
Praying to God – the asking, the searching, the knocking – is what opens our eyes and our ears and our hearts to loving as God loves, acting as God acts, and being as God is. And when we can love as God loves, act as God acts, be as God is we are changed people and prayers are answered. I am a true believer when it comes to prayer and the power of prayer. Not the kind of prayer that influences God. But the kind of prayer that changes me.
“Whenever we say, “how much more?” from our places of hurt and pain and loss, God’s response is, “how much more will I give you?”
Whenever we voice, “how much more?” from our locations of abandonment and rejection, God says, “how much more do I promise to be with you?
Whenever we utter, “how much more?” from our spaces of disillusionment and disappointment God says, “how much more do I love you?”
On the day we call, “how much more?” God answers us, increasing our strength of soul (Psalm 138:3), because for every “how much more?” we say and pray — which we need to say, have to say, cannot help but pray in our times of need and grief and longing, God responds with God’s “how much more.””
And so I will keep asking and searching and knocking and singing.
Are you weak and heavy-laden,
cumbered with a load of care?
Precious Savior, still our refuge—
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Does this world despise, forsake thee?
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
In God’s arms, she’ll take and shield thee,
Thou wilt find a solace there.