In today’s readings we have heard different prayers; within Psalm 85 we hear a Prayer for the Restoration of God’s Favour, and in Luke 11 verses 1-4 we hear a shorter version of The Lord’s Prayer and in verses 5-13 Luke is telling us that Jesus told the disciples about Perseverance in Prayer.
In today’s fast shifting world it is important to look at what does prayer mean to us? Is prayer losing its meaning, worth, and even becoming valueless in current society?
In the face of devastating events and with technology we see the instant, live, fast pace of media coverage. We are watching disasters and events unfolding on our screens right before our eyes. We are seeing live footage of accidents, earthquakes, fires like Notre Dame, a raft of natural disasters or even terrorists film their actions of destruction live on an array of social media.
Then immediately after the horrors have occurred out comes the reactions, some are swift and well thought out, and others are a slow drift of reactions of world leaders giving their ‘Thoughts & Prayers’. The offering of prayer seems to have become some sort of substitute for responses of people, in not knowing what to say or not knowing what to do. So a ‘Thought & Prayer’ has too often became a replacement for actually knowing what to say and for actually doing something.
The offering of our ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ used to be inoffensive but now it has sadly in many instances become a standard for world leaders to offer following a tragedy as a response because it is the easiest thing to do. In our Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other feeds we are finding that ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ are used so often they are becoming meaningless, criticised and people are now finding themselves cringing at the word ‘prayer’.
Recently I was in a discussion with some church leaders and one of them described the use of ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ like a defensive block and push back in a football game, a deflection without having to do anything more.
We are now at a point where it is almost necessary to offer our ‘sincere condolences’ and categorically state that we are holding those that are hurt and suffering in genuine prayers and that our heartfelt responses are not a politically easy ‘go to’ response. We have to ensure that are prayers are genuine, almost as a counter-reaction to the limp responses of ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ which many politicians sadly offer.
We have even found ourselves in recent months hearing our politicians asking if it is still relevant to offer ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ at the beginning of parliament because we are now a more secular society. We will all hold our own views on that but to me a daily reminder of accountability to God and the people politicians represent is a very good thing.
Thankfully there are some world and political leaders that give much more than lip service to ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ and we see a strong example in our New Zealand neighbour, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. She is walking the walk and being alongside those in pain and hurt and also taking a strong lead on implementing policy & legislative changes.
Leadership is about holding the hurt, crying with the hurt, praying with the hurt, and that may mean even doing so respectfully in the space of a different faith because prayers belong to many different faiths and peoples.
‘Thoughts & Prayers’ should not be a deflection, especially when leaders can be like Jacinda and do something very tangible rather than being like many other leaders in other countries, those who cow-tow to the powerful people and corporations who make the guns and the armaments that are bombing children in Yemen & Syria or shooting up classrooms, churches, synagogues, mosques in other countries.
Seriously in a world where ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ are often not respected, we need to re-examine and ask What is prayer? There are many modes and notions of praying. Sometimes people pray for miniscule things, sometimes people pray for a parking spot to open before them or lights to change when they are running late. Others pray for more money for ‘stuff’ to fill their already overfull lives, whilst others are praying for an extra few dollars to make ends meet, and others earnestly pray to ease their hurts.
When we look at today’s reading we encounter the disciples asking Jesus to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13). These aren’t people ignorant of praying – they were Jewish. They knew the various forms of prayer, ritual and praying but still they asked to learn. They must have seen in Jesus a deeper praying, a deeper experience that gave him a special type of presence. Perhaps displaying signs of deeper peace & wisdom and in being with him they saw an experience of living that transcended that of anyone else they had ever met.
Prayer, in Jesus’ life, led him into the deepest place of living and being and he was more whole, compassionate, present and grace-filled than anyone they ever met. So they asked him to teach them.
The prayer Jesus gave them began with words, familiar words to many of us, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ but in Luke it is a briefer form than Matthew’s version but the essential elements remain.
He said to them,
When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
It is actually a prayer that picks up the essential elements of life and being. It names the Holy, the sacred and seeks the coming of the reality of the kingdom of ‘heaven,’ the way that reflects justice, love, peace and holiness in the world.
It speaks of bread for the day, as an imperative to survive – and debt that was part of the daily struggle of the ordinary people during the time of Jesus, just as it is for the majority of the world’s population today.
Financial debt keeps people bound and deprived of life. The prayer invites us to understand how bread and debt symbolise the essential elements of life, both then and now.
The prayer seeks deliverance from the trials that test us, or perhaps deliverance through the trials that test us, form us and push us towards a more self-aware and compassionate life that opens our being to other people and the earth itself.
Deliverance through testing and trial creates more deeply humble and gracious human beings, with the realisation that we cannot save ourselves and that we are not the centre of the universe – we need other people and we need life beyond the life we live as a gift from God.
Jesus takes the teaching further by drawing us into a story of desperation and how that desperation results in persistent longing that moves to action. His simple story is of one who has a desperate need for bread to feed family and visitor. The person knocks on his neighbour’s door to seek help. If he is desperate, he will continue knocking until the door is answered, even if it is late in the night.
Jesus didn’t teach us to pray so that we could be passive or inoffensive. Jesus offers a parable about a persistence to keep asking. Jesus teaches us that prayer
is meant to be bold, persistent, uncomfortable; it’s meant to get results.
Jesus says, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” So, what does Jesus mean when he says, “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened”?
It just doesn’t always seem true especially when a politician who offers ‘Thoughts & Prayers’ isn’t going to pray at all, and even if he or she does, it won’t mean anything practical in terms of changing policy or resources.
So, why do we pray? How can Jesus promise us that God will hear and respond to our prayers—that we will receive what we ask for, that doors once locked shut will be opened?
Yes, prayer happens in dark, quiet, private places. Prayer happens in moments of deep fear, of yearning, of reckoning. But prayer is not meant to stay just between us and God.
Our prayers need to have feet and hands. Prayer is the practice of seeking God’s presence and guidance as we work toward creating a better world. Prayer is one way we know God is with us, even when the challenges ahead seem insurmountable.
Jesus wanted our prayers to lead us to difficult places; to challenge us to do uncomfortable things in his service; to give hope. If you’re tired of hearing people offer their thoughts and prayers in the face of devastating situations because it doesn’t seem like enough, then it’s time for us to change how we think about prayer.
It’s time for us to reclaim what it means to pray the way Jesus taught us. It’s time for us to be shameless—to keep asking for God’s presence in our lives and in the world, despite how daunting our challenges may seem.
What is happening in our world today that requires our persistence in prayer? What is happening in our lives that needs to change? What are we seeking? What are we hoping for? Jesus promises us that if we knock the door will be opened, but we might have to knock hard and often; we might have to ask others to join us. Jesus invites us to pray with the assurance that God is listening; and not only that, but God is acting on our behalf, ready to respond and to transform our lives and the world around us.
If we have moments when we feel like our prayers are weak, or like we don’t know what to say or do, we can be like the disciples: “Lord, teach us to pray,” they asked him. Jesus stands ready not only to answer our prayers, but also to show us the way by promising that the Spirit of God will be given to anyone who asks – this is the only promise in this teaching moment.
Prayer is an invitation into grace, to journey into that deeper place and to receive the rich joy and peace of the Spirit of God, of ‘being’ in God. This is prayer of the heart and is the life Jesus invites us into and as Psalm 85 tells us, prayer is a place where Steadfast love and Faithfulness will meet, where Righteousness and Peace will kiss each other!
Written by Delia Quigley
Delia is an elder at TUC and a leader at the monthly Rainbow Christian Alliance. Delia is also a leader in the Kairos Outside ministry and in the Emmaus Walks.
Delia is a retired Federal Police officer and has served in several peacekeeping operations. Delia is a member of Presbytery Standing Committee.More from Delia Quigley