Prayer, what it’s not

Sermon for proper 12C

Luke 11:1-13

Rev. Joshua D. Bowron

I would like for each of you to take a moment and reflect upon a gift that you have received. Think back to a wonderful gift you got, where the one giving it just “got you”. I’ll wait. Don’t get all high minded and think of a gift like your children or your spouse, I’m talking about a thing. Something that you can feel, taste, touch, see. And don’t get cute and choose a gift that God or the universe or nature gave you, I’m talking about a thing here.

Got it?

Now, this gift? What was it? Why is it special? Why did you choose it as your representative gift? Perhaps it was something that you didn’t know you needed. Perhaps it was a book given at the perfect time. Perhaps it was a symbol of the relationship you have with the giver of the gift. Whatever it is, because you have remembered it and called it to mind at this moment…it is special and good and right.

Now, in your mind’s eye, bring the giver of that gift forward alongside the gift. There they are, the giver and the gift side-by-side.

Which one is more important?

Which is more valuable to you: the giver or the gift?

I’d wager that all of us would say that the giver is infinitely more valuable than any gift, even this one very good gift.

I present this thought experiment to you because of Jesus’ teachings on prayer and my hope is that recalling both the gift and the giver will illustrate to you what Jesus is after in teaching us about prayer and have something for you in order to understand what prayer is more deeply.

I guess the fundamental thing that I want to share is that prayer is not the gift. Prayer is the giver. And then, as we will see, the giver is in turn the gift.

What is prayer anyway? We know that we are supposed to be doing it. We don’t really know what it means to pray. Why is it that I pray hard and God does not seem to hear me? How is it that prayer works when my friend died so horribly? Why do I feel like my prayers never go anywhere? Why do I feel so alone in my prayers? Finally, isn’t prayer just a cop out for those who don’t want to actively work against the evil of the world?

This week I had many opportunities to mull over this scripture with several groups of St. Martinites and some clergy colleagues and what I found is that almost all of our mistakes about what prayer is and what prayer does stems from one mistake. This mistake in our understanding of prayer is the notion that prayer is our work, that it’s something that we are doing. This may be a surprise to you because, “well isn’t that the point? That we do prayer? That we need to pray more and pray harder?”

It reminds me of the great film, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” there is that opening scene where everyone is praying for George and then later in the film one of George’s children asks the mother, “Shall I pray for daddy?” and Donna Reid, the mother answers, “Yes, darling pray, pray very hard.” Come to think of it, there is a great deal about prayer in that movie. There’s that one truly moving scene as George cries and prays, he says, “Dear Father in heaven, I’m not a praying man, but if you’re up there and you can hear me, show me the way… show me the way.”

“Pray hard, pray very hard.” Our notion of prayer is that if we pray hard if we are persistent then God will give us what we ask for. And today’s scripture certainly seems to say that: if you are persistent in your asking, God will get out of bed to answer your request.

This may be true, God may very well get out of bed and answer the door, but I’d like to begin reframing this to help you avoid the main pitfall of understanding that prayer is your work. It is not, prayer is essentially, and I use that word advisedly, “essentially what God does, how God addresses us, looks at us[1].”

So then, if God is the one who is praying then why bother praying? After all, what’s the use, God knows all, God knows all that we want or need, isn’t prayer just a hopeless and useless endeavor? To that I have two responses:

First, in our prayers God wants us to become aware of our own desires. In prayer we aren’t so much telling God what we want, instead we are telling ourselves what it is that we want. So often we go along in our lives completely insensible to what it is that we want or are even thinking. So, prayer becomes a moment when we slow down enough check in with ourselves and then offer that self to our fundamental reality, which is God.

Second, as we grow into a life of prayer, into this life that God activates, we have the sneaking suspicion that prayer for us might really be an ego-game. An ego game whereby we chase a certain feeling, or we are only satisfied when our prayers are answered in the way that we envisioned. I’ve had so many conversations in my ordained life with people who “just don’t feel it anymore.” God doesn’t feel real to them, so they walk. It’s small stakes grace, a domestic prosperity gospel. Not only that, it’s conditional love. Our conditions on God for our love of Her. But what if we set aside this drive of the ego in order to really pray, which is to allow God to pray in us? Prayer would then be a deep desire for God and God alone.

Jesus gives us a sense of what this desire for God means in today’s gospel. After these parabolic sayings about gifts given and persistence he says, “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!” Here we see what I was trying to show at the beginning, the giver is the gift. The Holy Spirit is what you get in prayer, not the thing you were asking for. You wanted the gift, but you got the giver instead.

So many times we ask for things without care of who we are addressing; it could be God, or Santa, or the flying spaghetti monster, either one is fine so long as I get what I want. “Dear Buddha, please bring me a pony and a plastic rocket[2].” God can only give certain things you know. God is limited in certain ways. Since God is the source and summit of all goodness then God cannot give bad gifts. My friends, sometimes in our prayers we don’t so much as ask God for fish and receive fish, we ask for snakes and get eggs and then complain about it. We ask for scorpions and get fish. “But I wanted a snake! I wanted a scorpion!”

Prayer, since it is God working, is not the acquisition of things or desired outcomes, no matter how good and right, prayer is God. Our prayers are then our desire for God and our relation to that gift of God.

Finally, I’d like to leave you with a little encouragement to pray. One of my spiritual heroes is Ruth Burrows, I have learned much about prayer through her writings. She says that “prayer takes place at the deepest levels of our person and escapes our direct cognition.” St. Paul says it this way, “We don’t pray as we ought, but the spirit intercedes on our behalf in sighs too deep for words.” Prayer happens in us and for us. Prayer happens below our cognition and language, God is working within us before we can even have the thought of prayer, I find that very comforting. Burrows continues that since prayer happens below our level of cognition therefore, “we can make no judgment about it[3].” You are hereby freed from your speculations on what prayer does and even what it is you are doing. Instead spend more time desiring God, desiring the gift of the Holy Spirit which transforms us and allows us to combat evil and in turn be a gift to all we encounter.

The Lord be with you. Let us pray:  Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask; through the worthiness of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord, in whose name we pray through the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] Essence of Prayer, Ruth Burrows, 1.

[2] Serenity, film, written by Joss Whedon

[3] Burrows, 6

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