July 29, 2007
Genesis 18:20-32, Luke 11:1-13
Today’s first reading from the book of Genesis is one of my favorite passages in all the scriptures. It describes Abraham interceding before God on behalf of Sodom, lest it be destroyed. I do not know of any other scriptural passage that more succinctly defines our relationship to God and the importance of prayer. The narrative unfolds like a drama, perhaps even like an extended comedy routine with increasing tension.
Abraham has a strategy. If he can get God to agree to spare Sodom for a certain number of just people, he can push God to reduce the number. Abraham succeeds in persuading God to spare the city for fifty just people. But, knowing that it would be difficult to find fifty good people in Sodom, he keeps lowering the number. He moves from fifty to forty-five, then forty, then thirty, then twenty, then ten. His boldness and his persistence are amazing. With each verse the tension rises. We think to ourselves, “Abraham, quit while you’re ahead!” We expect God at each request to say, “No! Enough! I’ve given too much already!” But none of that happens. Verse by verse, Abraham succeeds, so that God agrees that only a handful of just people are necessary to spare all of Sodom.
Now this passage points to the importance of prayer. Our whole prayer tradition is an inheritance from Judaism, and this passage is one of its most brilliant expressions. Abraham is not afraid to ask God for what he wants. He does not hold back or stand on ceremony. Far from being reserved or polite, he attacks the conversation with God with an aggressiveness that can only be compared to a customer bartering with a merchant in a Near-Eastern bazaar. His example shows us that we are not only called to pray, but called to pray with our whole heart and soul. We are called to pray as if our life and the life of others depended upon it. Therefore, the intensity and the self-interest with which Abraham prays poses to us a fundamental question.
To place that question most directly I would simply ask, “Do you pray?” I am not asking whether you say prayers (we all do that) but do you pray? Do you entrust to God some of the needs of your life with anything approaching the intensity and the sincerity of Abraham? I would be willing to bet that many of us very seldom pray in that way. I think most of us say, “I don’t want to bother God. Things are going along pretty well. I can handle things myself.” Even when there are needs in our life, serious needs, I think are inclined to trust that things will work out. But we do not to turn to God and actually ask, “God, help me.”
Now both the Jewish and Christian traditions speak against such reluctance. What we are asked to do is to pray regularly and with all our soul. What we are asked to do is to entrust our deepest needs to God and believe that God will value the prayer that we offer. We are asked to believe that God is both Creator and Savior, and that our life is really in God’s hands. We believe all of those things in our head, but it is only in prayer that they move from theory to reality.
What would we pray for? We are able to choose. One of the great advantages of prayer is that it allows us to identify what is most important to us. We can pray for our children. We can pray that our cancer goes into remission. We can pray for a peaceful death. We can pray for world peace or that our marriage could heal. We can choose any need in our life. But it is not enough to identify such needs. We must actually ask God to help us. It is in vocalizing our needs and desires that they become prayer.
Now prayer of course is not magic. If we could pray today for a BMW and get one tomorrow, everyone would pray all the time. Prayer is an act of faith. It is entrusting our life, our deepest needs to God and believing that God will honor our request. Prayer is essential. Without prayer you cannot be a real Jew or a real Christian. Without prayer, all the things we believe are really just words. They are never entrusted to God in a real relationship. Jesus knows this. This is why as a good Jew he teaches us, “Ask and you will receive.” Notice he does not say you will receive what you ask for. But he does say you will receive. You will receive what God gives you, and what God gives you will be good.
Abraham then is our model. Identify some good thing, and trust God enough to ask for it. The outcome is in God’s hands, but the request and the way to offer it is in yours. So ask with all your strength. You might receive peace for your family, restored health, or the hope to go on. Don’t hold back. You may save Sodom.
Why Do We Pray?
July 25, 2010
In 2008 the Pew Charitable Trust conducted an extensive survey on religion in America. And in that survey they discovered that 92% of Americans believe that God exists. 92%! That is an impressive number. But statistics can be deceiving. This is the case here. Believing that God exists does not in itself make you a person of faith. It is possible to believe in the existence of God, as you would believe in many facts of the world around us—like believing in the existence of Portugal or the existence of rings on Saturn. All of these things can be true and accurate, but they do not have much relevance for your life.
Here is a much more revealing and important statistic: not the number of people who believe that God exists, but the number of people who pray. A person who prays does not believe in God as a fact, but as a person, a divine person with whom we have a relationship. More than any other activity, prayer indicates that faith is real.
This is why Jesus today in the gospel teaches his disciples to pray. As a good Jew he knew that prayer was essential. As a Jewish rabbi he knew that he was expected to give words to his disciples to direct their prayer. He gives them the Lord’s Prayer. Then he encourages his disciples to ask, to seek, to knock. But what is clear in Jesus’ directions is that the process of prayer is more than simply getting what you want. It is being part of a relationship with a loving father who cares for you even more than we care for our own children. So we can sum up Jesus’ teaching on prayer in this way: Prayer is not only a request; it is primarily a relationship. This is important. The more we focus on the request of prayer and how our request may or may not be answered, the more confusing and problematic prayer becomes.
For example, God knows all things. So why do we need to tell God what we want or what we need? God knows everything about us. God knows our desires and our wants and our needs. We presume that God is already working to bless us. So why should we pray? Prayer from this perspective looks superfluous. Or how about contradictory prayer? What if you pray that it rains today because your grass is brown, but your next door neighbor prays that it does not rain because she is having an outdoor barbecue? What is God to do? Both prayers cannot be answered. From this perspective, prayer does not work. It leads to an impossibility.
This is why we must remember that prayer is more than a request. It is primarily a relationship. We should ask for what we need. But the clearest reason why we ask is because we understand that we are in a relationship with the God who loves us. Just as in every other loving relationship, we are called to share our wants, our needs, and our hopes with the person who loves us. So the clearest truth about prayer is that it reminds us that we are related to a God who cares for us and leads us.
Even if our requests are not answered, two things always happen when we pray. The first is this: we remember who we are. When we pray we remember that we are not the center of the universe. That can be very helpful for many of us. When we pray we realize that God is the center of the universe, and that for all of our efforts and projects we need to trust God’s plan. We need to believe that God will bless us and direct our lives. The second thing that always happens when we pray is we grow more sensitive to God’s action in our life. Because prayer reminds us that God is active, the person who prays sees life in a new way and is more attentive to the blessings and the graces that occur in our lives and in the lives of others. So every time we pray, we remember who we are and we grow more sensitive to God’s grace.
Now I know that many people here pray often and well. You ask me for prayers and you pray for me. Thank you. But I also suspect that some of us here do not pray that often. We come to church and join in the liturgy, but we do not often place our personal needs and wants in trust before the Lord. The sacred scriptures today remind us of the importance of prayer and ask us to pray more, to speak in our own words to God about our lives. God is more than a fact. There is no action more fundamental to faith than prayer. So we should not be afraid to ask. Prayer is never wasted. Every time we pray, we remember who we are, that we are beloved daughters and sons of God. And every time we pray, we grow more sensitive and attentive to the beauty and power of God’s action among us.