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Before we talk about prayer this morning, I want to make sure you have seen the invitation from Susie Anderson and Marla Killough to join them every Wednesday at noon—from wherever you are—in praying for migrant children in detention and for all immigrants on our southern border. They encourage us to pray also for all undocumented immigrants, for Lucio Perez and all immigrants in sanctuary and their families, and for all people who work with immigrants, whether they be attorneys or volunteers, judges, or ICE agents, church members or activists or Border Patrol Officers.
Prayer is powerful—especially when we do it together.
Before we talk about prayer, I want to remind you of the invitation of Dorothy Cresswell and Dusty Miller to join them at the corner of Main and Amity Streets every Monday afternoon at 4—to fast and sing and pray for hungry children everywhere.
Prayer changes things—including us.
And before we talk about how and why to pray, I want to say something about these calls to pray for children. Because our dear brother Jesus, God With Us, seemed to see a connection between how we treat children and how God treats us. He seemed to think that our natural love for children would help us to understand God’s love for us, that our desire to give our children what they need and want would help us to trust that our Heavenly Parent cares about us and wants the best for us.
What parent would give a snake to their child who asked for a fish? Jesus asked—rhetorically. And if their child asked for an egg, what parent would give the child a scorpion?
Two thousand years later, we understand these questions to be more than rhetorical. We know of both bad parents and loving parents who simply will not or cannot provide for their children. And we know that our government has criminalized the actions of parents who take the heartbreaking action of leaving their homes in the hopes of giving their children a chance at life. Our government has turned the full force of its anti-immigrant policies on innocent children—taking them from their parents, locking them in cages, letting them go hungry and unwashed, prohibiting them from hugging one another, and sometimes acting far too late to get them needed medical care.
And so we pray—asking God to open and change hearts, asking for God’s presence and protection, seeking the coming of God’s realm. And so we pray—with our feet and with our money, we pray by writing letters and singing songs, by holding signs and candles. We pray in marching and screaming, lamenting and weeping, imagining and hoping.
Sometimes we even sit still and talk or write or otherwise pour our hearts out to God. Sometimes we say nothing at all, and simply open our hearts, listening for a word from the still-speaking Spirit, attentive to every sign of God’s presence.
But it can be hard to pray—because God’s realm is not yet here. Because we don’t always get what we need or want, for ourselves or for others or for the world. Because sometimes we feel our prayers go unanswered. Because we see the evil prosper. Because we pray and we pray and we pray, and bad things still happen to good people—some of them children, some of them us.
And so we may wonder what the point of prayer is. We may worry that we don’t do it correctly or often enough or with enough faith. We may feel we don’t have the time or the patience or the personality for prayer.
And yet Jesus was praying in a certain place, Luke says. Jesus was forever praying in some place or another.
And whenever Jesus returned from his prayer time, his disciples noticed something: He was more fully himself. He was more at one with God. He was grounded. He had a certain clarity and authority. He radiated love. He was filled with joy. And he was at peace—despite everything.
The disciples wanted some of that. They wanted all of that. They wanted to believe that they, too, could have an intimate life-changing, soul-restoring, mutually empowering relationship with the Creator, Giver, Ruler, and Sustainer of All.
And so they said, “Lord, teach us to pray.
Teach us to pray.
Ask, Jesus said, and you will receive.
Seek, he added, and you will find.
Knock, and the door will be opened to you.
Well, Jesus, we might be thinking, that sounds really nice—but it’s not exactly my experience.
And it’s not always my experience, either. It wasn’t even always Jesus’ experience. Surely, he prayed that Judas’ heart would be changed. We are told that he prayed that the cup of crucifixion would pass him by. And we know he prayed even as he was dying on the cross.
Prayer is not magic. Prayer is not a wish list. Prayer is not about changing God’s mind so that we get what we want.
Prayer is about relationship with God. Prayer is about connection. Prayer is about imagination. Prayer is about participating with God in the creation of new possibilities. Prayer is about a way of seeing the world and God’s role in it.
Without prayer, we might think that everything is up to us. We might think that what happens or doesn’t happen depends entirely on what we do or don’t do, that it is function of nothing more than earthly powers and human action.
But prayer informs our actions. Prayer changes our hearts. It invites us to ask for help, and it gives voice to our hopes and longings. Prayer encourages us to hope; prayer validates our longings; nowhere does Jesus ever tell us to dial back our desires. Instead, he encourages us to bring them to the one who loves us more than we can imagine.
Prayer also teaches us to love, as we become more aware of, and connected to, the needs of others. Prayer connects us to ourselves, because there is something about sitting and listening not only to God but also to our own hearts, that reveals our longings, our hopes, our needs, our state of being.
Sometimes just the simple act of sitting down and calming down and committing myself to prayer, to listening to my heart and declaring my need for God, is enough to bring me to tears. To pray is to make ourselves vulnerable. To pray is to acknowledge our need. To pray is to express our wants and hopes, and thus to open ourselves to disappointment. To pray is to live as it we are not alone. To pray is to access Spirit power. To pray is to let go and let God.
When we pray, our eyes and hearts are opened to a new way of seeing. When we pray, we become more aware of what God is doing in the world and what the Spirit is doing in and through us. Prayer changes our field of vision and our point of reference. Prayer invites us into “new dimensions of reality.”
Teach us to pray, Jesus’ disciples asked him.
And yet he did not respond with a list of how-tos. There are a thousand ways to pray. There are prayers of praise, prayers of lament, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of petition, prayers of reflection and evaluation, prayers of silence and contemplation. There are prayers of action.
(I have a five- or six-page handout on prayer that I put together during a Lenten series several years ago. I would be happy to email it to you, if you are interested. Just ask!)
The most important thing about prayer is to do it, Jesus said. Ask. Seek. Trust. Keep knocking on heaven’s door.
The right prayer is the one we actually do. The best way to learn to pray is to pray. To talk to God as we would to a friend. To talk with God as we would with someone who loves us and cares for us. To cast our cares on the one who knows our every need.
I don’t pretend to know how prayer “works.” I have seen answers to prayer that I never expected. And I am still waiting for answers to prayers that I have prayed a thousand times.
I believe prayer changes things in part because it changes us.
On Friday, I was here at the church for several hours on sanctuary business. These are frightening times for immigrants in our country; almost every day brings more news of doors being closed and locked, of individuals being deported, of entire classes of people being denied rights and necessities and hope.
As I prepared to leave, I began talking with Lucio about prayer.
“Prayer is the key that opens the door,” said our dear brother, who lives behind locked doors. La oración es la llave que abre la puerta—the door to newness, the door to healing, the door to peace, the door to hope, the door to God.
Prayer is the key that opens the door.
May it be so.