Open to God in prayer

Pentecost 9

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God who speaks peace to those who turn to him in their hearts. Amen.

The disciples said: “Lord, teach us to pray.” I wonder how you were taught to pray. I have a few very clear memories of my early education in prayer. When I was very young, my mother would come in to say “good night” and to pray with my sister and I. How well I remember the times that my sister and I would compete with each other to see how many and how varied were the things for which we would give thanks –  “the moon”, “the stars”, “the universe” we would call out as we gazed out of the window and strove to outdo each other with our thankfulness. I remember too the more dignified times when we would use the words of prayers written especially for children. My favourite which, sadly, I have long since forgotten, was one printed on a card sent to me by my favourite great aunt and stuck to the wall beside my bed.

When I was eleven a religious instruction teacher taught me a way of praying that was to influence – and sadly stultify – my prayer life for years. Using her (my) hand as a guide she taught the class that we should pray for the world, the church, the community, the sick and lastly – holding up the littlest and most insignificant finger – to pray for ourselves. Her point being that we shouldn’t think of ourselves. There is nothing wrong with this type of praying. It is very similar to the formula that we use week after week in our liturgy. For me, however, there were a number of problems with this form of prayer, the most important being that it didn’t really suit, or satisfy me. Of course, praying for others is one aspect of prayer, but this particular form of praying did not inform my knowledge of God or serve to deepen my relationship with God. At the same time, by suggesting that the self was not important, it actually prevented any attempt to think about myself in relationship with God. Thankfully, I have since learned that there are a great many ways in which to pray – some of which suit and some of which do not.

Last week, as a way to try to understand the difference between the frazzled Martha and the absorbed Mary, those of us who were here learned a very particular way of being totally present to Jesus. (If you weren’t here you can ask someone to tell you about the sultana or check the website.) Of course there are many and varied ways of paying attention to God – of making space for God in our lives. Praying for others or intercessions is one way to pray as we seek to share God’s compassion for the world. However, in order to pay attention to God, we need to listen as well. If we do all the talking then we will never hear what it is that God has to say to us. As the Psalmist reminds us today: 8 “Let me hear what God the Lord will speak,
for he will speak peace to his people,
to his faithful, to those who turn to him in their hearts.*(Ps 85)”

Listening to God means paying attention to all the ways in which God tries to communicate with us. There are a number of ways in which we can try to hear what God is saying to us. We can listen to God by deliberately setting aside time to be quiet, by making space in our lives, by being fully present to whatever we are doing or whatever is going on around us, by meditating or by conscientiously looking for evidence of God’s presence in our relationships, in our work and in other aspects of a day to day living. Each of us has to find our own pattern, our own way of listening, and our own way of relating. It is important to find the pattern which suits us rather than to squeeze ourselves into a form of prayer that is forced and unfruitful.

For example, I know of people who rise early in the morning as they find that is the only time that they can pray without distraction. Praying in the morning means that they do not get to the end of the day and discover that they have not made the time to pray. There are others whose entire day is spent in conversation with Jesus. Jesus is their constant companion to whom they pour out their thoughts, hopes and frustrations. A friend of mine has developed the habit of making the sign of the cross at times throughout the day.  He has a busy schedule and that simple gesture helps to remind him that God is always present. It helps him to pause, if only briefly and focus on that presence. Many of us, taught well by our parents still cannot close our eyes at night unless we have offered up a prayer to God.

Today’s gospel is often taken out of context to imply that if only we pray hard enough and long enough, God will answer our prayer. It occurs to me that it may be saying something quite different. Prayer is not so much about getting what we want, as it is about finding out what it is that God wants. This become clear in verse 13 where Jesus says: “13If 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!” The gift we receive when we pray is not necessarily a shopping trolley full of answered requests but the gift of God’s presence – the Holy Spirit.

Understood in this we see that the fruit of a lifetime of prayer is not wealth and security or the absence of trouble, but a life filled with the presence of God. The benefits of prayer are demonstrated in the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. Through prayer we develop a deep trust in God which overrides any anxieties or fears and which satisfies all our needs.

Luke’s account of Martha and Mary, and Luke’s commendation of the way in which Mary is able to give Jesus her full attention, leads very naturally into the disciples’ request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus does this in the very familiar words that we know as the Lord’s prayer. This leads Jesus to an instruction on how to persevere in prayer. We are told not to give up when it seems as though there is no response to our prayer, or when our prayer life seems arid and empty. We are to keep on seeking and knocking, knowing that God who loves us more than we can know will respond by being present in us through the Holy Spirit, guiding us through the vicissitudes of this life. We are called to be persistent in our prayer – to seek, to ask and to knock so that we will receive the gift that God has promised and so that our lives are filled with the presence of God.

Through prayer we become more aware of the awesomeness of God (hallowed be your name), through prayer we develop an attitude of openness and expectancy towards God (thy will be done), through prayer we develop our trust in and dependence on God (give us today our daily bread), through prayer we learn more and more of the nature and compassion of God (forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us), through prayer we align ourselves with the power of God for good, we strengthen our resolve and in turn are strengthened to face whatever life might throw at us (save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil)..

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