“Lord, teach us to pray.” Can you relate to this plea? I know I can. Over nearly 40 years of following Jesus, I have tried different methods and disciplines for prayer. I have debated the efficacy of prayer and completed a seminary essay breaking down the Lord’s Prayer line by line. I have listened to people’s struggles with the purpose of prayer and why their prayers have not been answered. I have wondered about confident prayers for parking places, missing items and sports victories. And I have been asked by others, “Please, teach me to pray.”
It’s something I certainly felt I was lacking in when I went to seminary. In order to be ordained in this church, candidates must spend at least 3 months in Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE), usually in a hospital setting. I signed up for a summer in my hometown of Portland, Oregon but less than a month into my rotation, I got sick with the flu and bronchitis. Not only was I unable to work for a week, my recovery took longer and the danger of being contagious meant that I couldn’t spend my time visiting patients and their families, particularly because I was assigned to the neonatal unit, working with very ill newborns.
While I languished in the chaplain’s office, I started reading books on prayer, particularly on the medical effect of praying. One prominent book was written by a medical doctor and I was eager to see what studies and experiments might show about prayer. When I think back on it now, I realize that I felt so very powerless at that point, not only because I was sick and unable to fulfill my responsibilities, but also because the “work” of a hospital chaplain is mainly to sit and listen and pray, qualities that don’t come naturally to me.
I had recently spent 5 years working in a hospital directing a therapy program for people experiencing stroke, spinal cord and head injury. I was used to figuring out how to make people function better and adapting their world so that they might achieve the maximum independence possible. There were charts to fill out, tests to perform, exercises to prescribe. Sitting, listening and praying were skills I had not really developed or valued.
And now, because of my illness, I couldn’t even do those! So I tried to find proof that praying for people is effective, it changes things, it’s a worthwhile thing to do. When I got back out onto the ward, I performed my own little experiments, trying to pray for the rapid heartbeat of an unconscious child to even out or imaginatively praying my way through an ongoing surgery, adding my effort to the medical personnel present.
And for a while, I thought I was really getting it. The heartbeat did seem to slow. The child did make it through surgery. My prayers were effective. There was proof that my prayer was part of the therapeutic process.
Until the day I attended the birth of triplets, knowing that one of the babies had died in utero and the others were probably seriously compromised. It was devastating for all concerned. The physicians and nurses did what they could but their solemn faces showed how desperate the situation was. There was nothing I could do. I wanted to weep and wail with the mother. I wanted to be somewhere else. I felt like I was in the way with no role, no power and no answers.
Finally, after the two surviving babies were whisked away in incubators and the room was quiet and there was nothing else to do, the nurse placed the stillborn in my arms and I began, “There is one Body and one Spirit; There is one hope in God’s call to us; One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; one God and Father of all.”
When we pray, we go into the Mystery. We acknowledge that we don’t have it all together. We don’t control the Universe. We can’t make it all better. We can’t save the world. We are contingent. We are not ultimate. In the face of all that is difficult and overwhelming; in the presence of all that is awesome and beautiful; in the middle of situations that we cannot understand or fix; we fall to our knees. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” When we pray, we turn towards the eternal and Holy One who is beyond all our comprehension and yet as near as the breath we breathe. We exhale all our longings, pleadings and laments and inhale the dear presence of the Holy Spirit.
In prayer we receive our daily bread, just enough courage, hope and strength to go on, to continue the journey, to trust for the next step. I know why those disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They asked because they saw in his life and practice an intimacy and trust that was deeper than they had ever experienced and they wanted that connection for themselves. He was praying constantly and his prayer never ceased. He prayed up until the moment of his death and our Christian faith teaches us that he is still interceding for us eternally in glory.
Prayer holds us close to God’s heart and at the same time, we hold the cares, concerns, and thanksgivings of our own lives before God. As we expose our own sins and sorrows to God, we receive the grace and forgiveness needed to forgive others. As we ask for our own daily bread, we open our hands to share what we have been given. As we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we find ways to participate in the building of that vision. We find our lives becoming more and more of a prayer in both word and action.
In large measure we learn to pray by watching others, just as the disciples learned by watching Jesus. We need mentors in prayer and I want to lift some up for you today as you grow in prayer. The Episcopal Church is a church of prayer. Aside from the historical creeds, we don’t have a set of confessions or doctrines that you have to ascribe to. We often say, “Lex orandi, lex credendi” which means that the law of prayer is the law of belief. We believe what we pray. And what we pray often comes from Scripture through the Book of Common Prayer.
The prayer book is what gave me words when I had no words of my own at the baptism of a stillborn child. The prayer book provides us every Sunday with prayers that have been prayed by people through the centuries, the world over. It gives us both a daily rhythm for prayer through the offices of Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline as well as prayer for the great transitions of life: marriage, ordination, sickness and death.
Communal prayer, written prayers, prayers that are memorized and recited over and over again shape us and are there for us when words escape us. Many times at a death bed, a seemingly unconscious person will begin to mouth the words of the Lord’s Prayer in unison with those gathered in vigil. Often in times of anxiety, in the middle of a dark night, my lips repeat over and over the prayers that now live inside my brain without effort or conscious thought, “Holy God, holy and strong, holy immortal one, have mercy upon us.”
Those who compose and lead the prayers of the people here at St. Luke’s are also prayer mentors. They gather up all the prayer requests along with the Sunday readings, world and local events, and our partners in the larger church into common prayer that we share in together. We are blessed to be growing as a people of prayer along with them.
There are some prayer mentors who have particular gifts for healing, guidance and coming alongside others. They are the ones who offer prayer for anyone during communion at our prayer station by the candles. They have both a sensitivity to each person and to the presence of God’s Spirit. They will pray for you in words or even in their own prayer language that goes beyond words. If you like, they will wrap you up in a prayer shawl that has been woven out of fabric from former vestments. They will hold you and those concerns that you bring before God when it is too much to try and hold them alone.
So what happens when we pray? Did you notice the end of today’s gospel reading? After Jesus encourages them to pray and gives them words to use, he says keep asking, seeking and knocking. He ends by saying, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
When I first started here at St. Luke’s 4 years ago, I had to rely on prayer and God’s Spirit in ways I hadn’t been aware of for many years. This can be an enormously challenging place for ministry. I am so very grateful for those who gather every Sunday morning before worship and every Thursday either in person or via email to pray for this church, this neighborhood and the needs and concerns that come before us. We keep a prayer list for church and a prayer box for the Edible Hope Kitchen to receive requests. On our website is a way to make confidential prayer requests. Every week and for many, every day these concerns are held in prayer. If you would like to be part of this ministry, just let me know.
Recently our prayer group was asked to come and pray in person for The Seattle School. It was a holy time of listening, inviting the Spirit, praying both prepared and spontaneous prayers and caring and loving those who are part of the Body of Christ and our partners in ministry. It was powerful and deeply meaningful to all. It made a difference.
Prayer is not transactional but relational. It is “Help, Thanks and Wow” as well as the beautiful, Elizabethan language of the BCP. It is listening to God and to others. It is language and beyond language. You may be surprised to discover just how much you are praying, even when you think that you don’t really know how to do so. That Holy Other is always speaking, wooing and drawing us into relationship. “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” Amen.