17th Sunday in Ordinary Time 29 July 2007
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." That’s the first prayer I learned. For a half-decade of my life, I thought "This is it! Tonight’s the night!" Hated closing my eyes. Good days ended, thinking about end of days. Why did I have to go to bed asking God that I ‘wake up dead’, even if in His arms!?!? Then, ‘they’ added, "Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, bless this bed I lay upon". Not much consolation there! I regularly thought to myself, "Self...how come nobody is giving me an eschatological dissection of the prayer or at least a Scriptural pericope exegesis that would assure me that someone wasn’t closing on an eternal condo for me"? I know NOW, that it was prayer answered, but for at least five years it seemed like unanswered prayer, because the fear never went away!
"Teach us how to pray." They noticed a change in Him when He returned from prayer. Let’s try to enter into their heads to see what they were thinking in asking "teach us how to pray". They must not have had good results to date. They may be stuck on "Now I lay me down to sleep" kinds of prayer. So, they wanted to be taught how to pray. He sensed their frustration, and gave them a model, and more. Their way of praying wasn’t working. They didn’t feel as successful at it, as He obviously did. But, they’re not make a trip into go into the land of that great-big white elephant: unanswered prayer.
Have you had ALL of your prayers answered? Neither did they. It’s not a new phenomenon. They knew their Scriptures...lots of unanswered prayers. Moses begged to be allowed to enter the Promised Land but it didn’t happen. Jerusalem fell and the people were dragged off into exile: "Even when I cry for help, God shuts out my prayer". Paul complains of torture by "a thorn in the flesh"..."Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take this from me." But it didn’t happen. Jesus prayed desperately, "Father, take this cup from me!" But, the cup was not removed. 80 years after His death and Resurrection, Matthew is trying to recall the ‘formula’ that Jesus uttered. 85 years after, Luke attempts to resurrect the prayer too. Nobody had recorded it. The Lord’s followers were still asking how to pray, after a period of time longer than most of us live!
2000 years later you and I ask how to pray. It’s a wonder we pray at all, considering how profoundly some of us may have been disappointed by prayer. But prayer is more than listing our wants and Fed-Exing them up to heaven. Prayer is more than simple communication with God. Prayer is an act of genuine relationship. Prayer is not a divine tool that enables us to manipulate God so that we get what we want. That almost turns God into a coin-flipper. Which prayers get "yes" answers, which do not? We’ve all wondered why God didn’t answer some of our most desperate prayers. Do we reduce prayer to asking and demanding? God’s love for us does not include a knock-on-wood, heads or tails kind of relationship.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, prayer doesn’t begin with us. Prayer begins with God and God’s desire to give good gifts to us. Prayer begins in the heart of God. God initiates the conversation, the relationship, and prayer becomes our act of response to God’s presence in our lives, a presence that is holy, providing, forgiving, and protecting. But that still doesn’t answer the haunting question about what to make of unanswered prayer. We pray for deliverance from an addiction but continue to struggle with its torment. We pray for guidance but remain without direction. We pray for healing but a loved one dies in the prime of life. We pray for restoration but the marriage ends in a bitter divorce. We pray for an end to war but only see terrorism continue to rise. Sometimes our unanswered prayers can be explained. Human beings tend to hear only what’s comfortable to hear. So, sometimes unanswered prayer is actually answered prayer, just not answered the way we wanted it to be. Human beings also tend to be very impatient. Sometimes we have to wait much longer for an answer than we would like. And yes, sometimes the answer simply is "NO".
There’s another set of easy answers that try to blame us for unanswered prayer. These easy answers all have at the heart of their argument the fact that we are broken and fragile people who don’t really know how to pray to begin with. So, the reason your prayer wasn’t answered, the reply goes, is because your faith wasn’t strong enough, or your words weren’t the right words, or you weren’t following the right formula, making the right requests, speaking with enough forcefulness. It would be convenient, I suppose, if we could explain every incident of unanswered prayer as the fault of the one praying.At least there would be a rational explanation of the problem: We are to blame, every time. Good Lord....no wonder we say, "Lord, teach me to pray".
And so, He tries. The model for prayer Jesus gives us calls us to a level of trust that is more divine than human. When we pray, "give us this day our daily bread," we are asking only for what we need for today. When Jesus says, "Ask and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened," He’s not setting us up for disappointment by making an outrageous claim. Instead, Jesus is calling us to consider the greatness within little things. A partial answer might be forthcoming right away, an eventual answer is something we usually discover later on. We look back and realize our prayer WAS in fact answered. So, we begin to teach ourselves that God’s way of dealing with requests involves a deep love for us that includes listening and providing.
Ultimately, this may well be what prayer is really all about: the incredible ways we experience the presence of our loving God in the ordinariness of life. It’s not just in the great spiritual highs we have when we undoubtedly feel God’s presence. The truth of the matter is, the vast majority of our prayers are answered, whether they be for daily bread, for protection, for forgiveness, insight and growth. The greatness of God is best seen in all the gifts God extends daily, good gifts that we easily take for granted. In the end, asking "how do we explain unanswered prayer", I think, is the wrong question. Jesus didn’t say, here’s the reason some prayers aren’t answered. Jesus said this is how to pray and, as you pray, remember God yearns to give you everything you need.
We can’t explain prayer any more than we can explain the Incarnation. Maybe that’s just the ascent in faith that we need to make. Jesus Christ is God’s response to every prayer we’ve ever uttered, a response to every heart that has ever been broken by any feeling of abandonment. In Jesus Christ, God promised to be with us and to take care of us now and beyond this life. It’s why God uttered a five word sentence that wraps up this whole issue: "I am with you always" !