It was the summer of 1986, I was in the back seat riding down a rural side road with my best friend and his mother. She was a large jovial women who was really excited about Jesus, her driving proved it. The way she cornered that gravel felt at times like we’d be meeting Jesus very soon. “I need some new tires for this car” she said as she rolled down her window. “I am claiming new tires in Jesus’ name” she shouted fighting the wind. Rolling up the window she looked at me and said “Ask for anything in His name, God is bound by his word – he has to do it”. On a quiet night in town once I swear I could hear her in the distance claiming a meatball sub. Muhammad Ali once said “The man who views the world at 50 the same as he did at 20 has wasted 30 years of his life.” My thoughts on prayer have changed.
I grew up in the company of people who rolled down their windows to pray. After leaving high school I decided to go to Bible College. During those 4 years I was confronted with a smorgasbord of ideas about prayer. Two things changed my beliefs about prayer forever. After Seminary I was working at a mid size church in a larger city. I met a man who’s child was struggling with cancer. He was believing in God to heal his child and had thousands worldwide praying for the same thing. I’ll never forget meeting him for coffee one evening and seeing him walk in agitated. He had received a mass email from a friend who was in the process of selling his house. The email was asking for prayer because there was a bidding war and he was hoping for top dollar. My friend was confronted with a strange reality. He prayed to a God who apparently is more concerned about people making an extra 10 g’s on their house than about a child’s’ disease, pain and agony. 12 months later his son died. As a Pastor I knew all the run arounds. I had learned the pat answers and excuses for God and the arbitrary way prayers seem to be answered. I didn’t know how to pray anymore.
“Lord, teach us to pray”, the disciples ask Jesus in Luke 11. What an interesting question from these Jewish boys who learned about prayer from childhood. They would have grown up reciting the shema prayer twice a day. They would have grown up hearing and reciting the Psalms of David. What makes them think they don’t know how to pray now? Watching Jesus somehow intrigued them enough to feel their was more than they knew. Luke records Jesus’ words in an abbreviated fashion. In response to their question he says ‘pray like this: Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.’ Immediately the disciples must have been amazed at the intimacy Jesus models by calling God ‘father’. This has nothing to do with gender as it does about nurture. I wonder if the disciples had been praying sterilized prayers to a benevolent deity – this must have been surprising. ‘Your kingdom come’ Jesus says. Matthew recalls the extra line ‘Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven’. Jesus models that we pray for heaven to be revealed in this life. ‘Give us this day our daily bread’, reminds us to never ask for more than we need. To pray for more than we need is a cancer that is killing the North American Church. In the West, not only do we pray for more than we need, when we have more than we need we justify it by saying God is blessing us and we assume that those with less must be doing something wrong. Why do we think God wants us rich. God does not want us rich, nor does he want us poor neither are his concern. What God does want is for us to share all we have, this is the Kingdom come. No where does Jesus tell his disciples to pray for gratuitous things. Jesus continues ‘Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive others who sin against us’. We need to forgive because God does. In the moments when we let grace abound we most resemble our creator. Jesus finishes his prayer by saying ‘Lead us not into temptation’. Matthew’s gospel includes the line ‘but deliver us from the evil one’. I have come to realize that the evil one doesn’t necessarily imply the Devil alone. Evil manifests in a lot of ways, sometimes through you and sometimes through me. Deliver us from those who pervert good, and disguise selfishness and greed as God’s blessing. May I not be tempted to become an evil one who bastardizes the Gospel to my own ends.
These words Jesus provides are as much about posture as they are about prayer. It is much easier to pray only for your daily bread and not a months supply after you prayed for Gods kingdom to show up in ours. It is much easier to ask for forgiveness when your in the midst of forgiving those who’ve wronged you. And in those moments again the kingdom of God is showing up in ours. I am sure when the disciples heard this prayer they thought ‘I’m glad I asked’. I know I am.
After finishing this prayer Jesus tells an interesting story. ‘Imagine one of you has a friend who comes to you late at night asking for bread. Someone has unexpectedly arrived from out of town unannounced.’ Notice that Jesus is implicating the disciples as the friend in the house with the Bread. ‘Don’t bother me, the door is locked and kids are in bed’ Jesus says will most likely be the response. Then Jesus observes that you might not answer the door just because he is your friend, but you will because of his boldness. You will get up and give him all he needs. Then Jesus encourages the disciples to ‘Ask, and it will be given, to seek and they will find, to knock and the door will be opened’. He goes on to compare them as fathers to God as a father. ‘If your son asks for a fish you won’t give him a snake, nor if he asks for a egg, you won’t give him a scorpion’. Jesus brings the comparison together by saying ‘if you know how to give good things, how much more so will God give you the Holy Spirit’. Jesus says God knows what you need, and he will give you….wait a minute…the Holy Spirit? God knows what you need and so he will give you his Spirit. As you keep reading through the gospels and into the book of Acts you realize that this Spirit that God gives produces a boldness, and strength to believers.
Remember the story Jesus told implicates the disciples and therefore us in the house. Someone in need comes to us and asks boldly. Knocking, seeking, asking they come and they receive. Who provided for them? We did. Could it be that Jesus is implying that God answers prayers through us? I can’t help but think that this story Jesus tells is about us providing for those around us. The example he gives is that we should boldly ask and seek and knock. But why didn’t the friend just stay at home and open up his window and shout over to his friend and ask him to deliver 3 loaves of bread. Prayer is not about delivery it is about pickup. Everything Jesus tells them to do is about movement. The asking, seeking, and knocking are all about action. The story is about a man who is desperate enough to go and boldly ask a friend for help. Could it be that God gives us that strength, that boldness? All we have to do is pray for it. He tells the disciples that God will give his spirit, if you ask.
Some might assume that I don’t believe in asking God for things, you might be right. I believe instead in asking God for help. I no longer see God as a cosmic catalogue randomly responding to certain orders. I had said there were two things that changed my prayer life. The first thing was my friend who lost his son. The second was a prayer journal I kept in Seminary. As I flipped through the pages of requests, I can honestly say, I never received anything I asked for. I know the pat answers about how God knows what I need yada yada yada. The truth is that list of needs read like a bad country song. Instead of giving me stuff however, God gave me help. Instead of rent, he gave me his spirit which gave me boldness and strength. I knocked and asked and searched and God provided. Prayer is so much more than just asking for stuff. Like any relationship communication is central to it’s health and survival. God invites us into a beautiful conversation. One that consists of more than asking for stuff.
On a warm summers evening you might find me with the windows down, but not because I claiming new tires. I am out seeking, knocking, and asking and I am finding God in all sorts of places – I call it praying.
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