Our reading from Luke this morning is all about prayer. Luke, maybe more than any other Gospel, paints a picture of Jesus as one who was committed to prayer, so it makes sense that his disciples would ask him about it.
Throughout Luke, Jesus withdraws to pray in solitude.
Additionally, many of the important moments in Jesus ministry are preceded by prayer.
After Jesus is baptized, but before the Spirit descends upon him and the voice from heaven identifies him as God’s beloved son, Jesus prays.
Before Jesus asks the disciples who they think they he is, and Peter blurts out, “The Messiah!” he first prays.
The transfiguration happens when Jesus goes up to a mountaintop to pray with Peter, James, and John.
And, of course, Jesus spent his last night before his arrest and crucifixion in prayer at the Mount of Olives (which is the subject of the beautiful stained glass behind me). In Luke’s account, Jesus is in so much anguish that as he prays his sweat becomes “like great drops of blood.”
Not only is Jesus’ life marked by a constant rhythm of prayer, the life of the early church is also characterized by prayer. The book of Acts, which tells the story of how the early church formed after Jesus ascended, makes repeated references to the centrality of prayer in the life of the early church. Paul, James, Peter, and other New Testament writers either encourage their readers to pray, or assume they already are people of prayer.
If I were to ask you if prayer is an important part of the Christian life, I assume most of us would say yes. At the same time, if I were to ask you if you have a strong prayer life, I would assume most of us would say no. Prayer is one of those things that we know is important, and yet we find very hard to do.
To make things worse, prayer, for many of us, has become associated with guilt, which is really too bad. The first thing we may think when someone brings up the importance of prayer, is “Oh man, I don’t pray enough.” Maybe when you heard this Scripture this morning you had some kind of negative reaction – prayer is hard, it’s intimidating, it’s awkward – “I don’t want to talk about prayer!” you might’ve thought. Often, like the disciples, we don’t really know how to do it. We need someone to teach us.
Thankfully, Jesus gives the disciples, and us, some concrete directions about how to pray. In fact, he gives us too much direction for one sermon. In Luke’s account he gives a shorter version of the Lord’s prayer than the one from Matthew that we’re used to.
Then he gives an illustration of a neighbor who needs to borrow bread from another neighbor and who finally gets the bread due to his persistence.
From there, Jesus makes the point that, if we humans will give one another things out of pure annoyance, how much more readily will our loving Parent give us what we need? And if we, “who are evil (harsh!)” will give our children good things how much more will God give us good things?
There’s too much in this passage to talk about everything (believe me, I spent most of the week trying), so I want to focus on a kind of obscure section of the passage, and use that as a jumping off point to talk about 3 different approaches to prayer. I want to look at vv. 9-10, though we’ll connect these verses with some of the others from our reading.
Vv. 9-10 say, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
I want to use “ask” as the jumping off point for one kind of prayer, “search” as the jumping off point for another, and “knock” as the jumping off point for a third. Now, just to be clear, it’s not that these words mean something special in Greek and I’m illuminating the original intent of these words. I’m just using a little creativity and my own personal experience.
So, first: ask. Asking represents the most fundamental, basic form of prayer. It’s circumstantial. It’s little picture. Asking comes when we need something. (Petitionary prayer?)
Esther has learned to knock her fists together when she wants more food. She hasn’t learned many other signs, so knocking her fists together has been her way of saying she wants something, not just that she wants more. If she wants to play with a toy she can’t reach she might knock her fists together, or if she’s hungry she might start knocking her fists together. She has a need or a want, and so she asks.
Growing up, this was primarily what prayer was for me. As a little kid, before bed when I prayed with my parents, I always prayed that no one would have any bad dreams. I hated bad dreams and was really scared of them. I needed God to deliver me from those scary dreams, so I would pray for God’s help.
This is, I think, as far as many of us get in prayer. We think, in this case, that prayer is primarily about sharing our needs with God. There’s nothing wrong with this. Jesus tells us to pray that God would “give us each our daily bread.” When we ask, we are acknowledging that there’s something we need that God can provide, and we ask that God would do so. This could include praying for healing, praying for financial help, praying for God to mend a broken relationship, anything.
This is only a problem if it’s the only form of prayer we know. If this is the only form of prayer we pray, then God becomes totally reactionary – God has little to do with our lives unless we need something from God – and in that sense, God becomes kind of a genie in a bottle. Also, this kind of prayer requires a lot from us; we have to fill the void with words, the prayer relies on us coming up with things to ask for and things to be thankful for. I think that’s one reason so many people struggle with prayer. They stay in the “asking” phase of prayer, and they often don’t know what to say, so they don’t say anything, and since they think prayer is all about them saying something, they don’t pray.
The second form of prayer is seeking. “Seeking” is a big-picture kind of praying. It isn’t just circumstantial. Seeking implies desire – a desire to live a life of faith, in which God leads us. It’s about a life spent seeking God. The word “seeking” makes me think of treasure hunters or miners, who dedicate large chunks of time, possibly their whole lives, to finding things of value, often at great risk to their personal safety.
A fun picture of this is the classic movie The Goonies. In this movie, a group of kids goes looking for One-Eyed Willy’s treasure while being hotly pursued by a band of crooks. Between the many booby-traps ahead of them and the dangerous criminals chasing them, you’d think they’d look for the quickest escape, but instead they press on, looking for the treasure they believe is there.
That might sound a bit like the apostle Paul saying in Philippians, “But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” Paul was someone who sought Jesus and followed the leading of the Holy Spirit, even at great risk to his safety. We know he was eventually imprisoned and most likely martyred under Nero.
There are a number of times I’ve sought God’s will in prayer. One particularly comes to mind: I had graduated from college, but didn’t know what to do with my life. I was working at a coffee shop and living with the Pauls, a wonderful family in NE Portland. While I had been pretty laidback about my career plans up to this point, I was struggling with the job I was in and was pretty sure I didn’t want to work in coffee long-term. On top of that, I was engaged to a very driven, hard-working woman. I knew it was time to grow up a bit and start thinking about what I wanted to do long-term. Or, more importantly, I needed to start seeking God’s direction. What was God calling me to?
I was by myself in the Paul’s living room, and I just became overwhelmed. What was I supposed to do with my life? I knelt down on my knees with my arms on their couch and hands clasped together, and prayed that God would give me direction. The prayer wasn’t simply, “God, I need a job.” The prayer was, “God, I want to spend my life serving you, but I don’t know what you want me to do.” In other words, I was asking God to give me a vocation, a calling. The clouds didn’t part and the sun break through and the answer become suddenly clear. But God began to lead me that day toward graduate school, then toward seminary, then, ultimately toward accepting my call to pastoral ministry.
I’m guessing that all of us have felt overwhelmed and directionless, desiring a life of meaning and fulfillment. Some of us may feel that way right now. As Christians, the first place we should go when we’re seeking meaning and direction is to God, who gives us the desires of our hearts.
But we don’t only need to seek God when we’re on the cusp of some big life change. If we were to genuinely seek God’s leading every day, God probably wouldn’t pull us out of their current life in any dramatic fashion (though God might), but our priorities throughout the day would change.
Maybe work wouldn’t be just about getting through the day, but we might ask, how can I love my coworkers? How can I do my seemingly ordinary tasks as if I were doing them for God? How can my life reflect Christ to everyone I come in contact with?
So this second form of prayer is about the big picture, seeking God’s leading, God’s call on our lives, in an intentional way. This form of prayer doesn’t exclude the first one, it expands it. We still pray for the necessities, but we want more than that: we want direction and meaning, fulfillment in life. We want to be the people God has created us to be.
The third form of prayer is knocking. When I think of knocking, I think of a home, which is what I imagine most of us think of. This type of prayer is all about finding our home in God. Another way of saying this is that I think this form of prayer is about abiding in God. And while asking is about the little picture and seeking is about the big picture, knocking is about the eternal.
The aim of this third form of prayer is nothing but the very presence of God. We don’t ask for anything – not specifics, not direction, we long only for the merging of our lives with the life of God, our consciousness with God’s consciousness. We seek “the mind of Christ.” This is what people often refer to when they speak of contemplative prayer.
There’s a fantastic interview on the Nomad Podcast with Rowan Williams, and it’s all about prayer. I started listening to it again to prepare for this sermon, and I had to stop because I was trying to transcribe almost every word he said. But there is one quote that stood out above the rest in light of this idea of prayer. Rowan Williams says that the aim of this 3rd kind of prayer, contemplative prayer, is that “the link, the connection, the communion (between the individual and God)…is being renewed, that I’m giving God some opportunity of communicating or sharing which would not be there if I were just talking busily or acting frantically…it’s a time when, I think, I’m allowing God to get at me or get to me and therefore hoping that sort of steady drip of God’s presence erodes some of the more stony habits and assumptions inside.”
I love the part where he says it’s about letting God “get at” him! How often do you think of prayer in that way? In the first two types of prayer, we’re essentially trying to get at God, we’re trying to get God to give us either needs and wants, or direction and guidance. But in this third kind of prayer, we’re asking God to get at us. We’re not pitching prayers at God, we’re simply receiving from God.
I’m guessing that this third type of prayer seems the most intimidating and the most specialized. It probably seems like the type of prayer that you leave to the professionals, like Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury. It might seem as if these three types of prayer are a ladder and you start with phase one, then move to phase two, and then, maybe, get to phase three. But I think this third kind of prayer is actually the starting point for all prayer. So in that case I was wrong when I said the first type of prayer was the most fundamental.
The surprising ending to our reading from Luke this morning supports that idea: Jesus says, “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 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!” The requests are for tangibles – a fish and an egg, but God gives the Holy Spirit. The ultimate goal, the ultimate answer to prayer is the abiding presence of God – where God abides in us and we abide in God.
In addition to being the starting point of prayer, the primary aim of prayer, this third type of prayer is also, I would argue, the easiest kind of prayer. It’s the easiest because it demands the least from us. Instead of one more thing to do, instead of requiring us to fill our prayer time with our own thoughts and words, it requires only that we stop doing anything. We stop trying to get at God and we let God get at us. We open ourselves to God’s presence.
It’s often assumed that this must happen in silence (that’s how I usually think of it) but I’m reading a book on contemplation in the black church and the author, Barbara Holmes, really challenges that, saying that raucous worship in the black church tradition is deeply contemplative, and I think she’s onto something. Still, for most of us, if we’re trying to engage in this kind of prayer on a personal level, we should probably start in silence. But it can be the silence of our drive to work, the silence of our lunch break, the silence before bed, or, as is common, silence at the beginning of our day.
I’ve been trying to develop contemplative prayer practices for the last year or so. As most of you know, a week from tomorrow I start a 2 year program on contemplative Christian practices called the Living School at the Center for Action and Contemplation.
Let me tell you how I currently practice this kind of prayer. I wake up between 5:30 and 6, and the first thing I do (of course!) is start the coffee. While the coffee brews, I sit in a chair in an upright position. Then I pray “the Jesus prayer,” which is an ancient prayer that comes out of the Orthodox Church. It’s simple: as I breathe in a pray, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,” and as I exhale I pray, “Have mercy on me a sinner.” This prayer is based on the parable Jesus tells of the tax collector and the Pharisee. The tax collector, who goes home justified, prays, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”
Some of you may be uncomfortable with this language of sin, but it doesn’t bother me. For me, identifying myself as a sinner means readily admitting that I am one who needs God’s grace every minute of every day. Whether I’ve done something wrong, or someone’s done something wrong to me, or I’m stressed about something, or I simply need to make it through the day, I need Christ’s mercy.
Still, if you don’t like that exact language, Richard Foster in his book on prayer recommends you make up your own short, repetitive prayer, where you say one thing as you breathe in, and another as you breathe out. It doesn’t have to be “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
As I pray this prayer, I try to empty my mind. If specific needs, requests, or people I need to pray for come to mind, I acknowledge them, then give them to God, then let go of them, all the while saying the Jesus prayer as I breathe in and out.
After a few minutes (when the coffee’s done), I’m done and I move on to my Bible reading.
I believe that if we start with this kind of prayer, the third type, the contemplative type, the other two will naturally follow. If we abide in Christ, then surely we will share our needs and our anxieties with him. If we abide in Christ, then surely we’ll seek his will as we go about our days. If our eyes are set on the eternal then surely the eternal will encompass the day-to-day realities of our lives: little picture and big picture alike.
So, friends, ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, but first, knock, because the door is open, the table is set, and the Parent, Son, and Holy Spirit are ready to welcome you home. Amen.