“If You Only Pray When You’re In Trouble, You’re In Trouble” July 28, 2019
“If You Only Pray When You’re In Trouble, You’re In Trouble”
The N. Carolina preacher Delmer Chilton tells about his son and a particular struggle with the Lord’s Prayer. Young Joe wanted to play basketball in the summer league and the only one around was at Father Ryan High School. Now as you can tell by the name, Father Ryan High was a Catholic school, but they let Joe play with them anyways. There weren’t many folks went to the summer league games- just a few family and friends – and you could hear just about everything in that big empty gym. Now, at Father Ryan they’d say the “Our father” right before they would go out to play and Joe, being the good son of a Lutheran pastor, would chime right in. Of course the Roman version is more biblical: it doesn’t have the “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory” at the end. It just stops. Well, the first time they were praying it and everybody else stops, you could hear Joe go “for thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glor-“ and then he looked around funny and afterwards he asked me about it, and I just said, “Well, the Romans are just more biblical about it and that’s not in scripture; it’s not in Matthew or Luke.” So he said OK, next time he’ll try to stop, but you know sometimes we just get on a roll. And so the next time he got about half way though the “For thine is the kingdom, and the power” and then just trailed off. The third time and they got praying and they all stopped and you could hear him saying, “For thine is the kingdom, and the power” and then he says “O, crap!” And you could hear him all over the gym. And I’m thinking to myself, “How many of our prayers do we just feel like stopping…and saying ‘O, crap!”
Now I tell that story not just for the humor for me, but because of the nature of prayer. Too often we get all hung up on the piety of prayer; that we ought to say it this certain way and we ought to feel this way about it. There are important things about prayer as Jesus teaches us, but one of the things to recognize, as we see in this story from Genesis, is that it has to do with communication in a relationship of a very personal nature with the creator of the universe. (2) And that includes frustration and anger and not always being clear about what we’re asking for. If we only pray when we know what to say, we won’t pray very often. That being said, the same thing holds true that if we only pray when we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble.
In today’s text from the Gospel of Luke, one of the disciples, without knowing it, makes one of the most important requests to Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” Jesus answers with words that we have come to know and love ever since. It’s one of the first pieces of scripture that we learn in the life of the church. “Our Father, who art in heaven…” but I have to tell you: to speak about this short set of instructions is almost mind-boggling. There is a full sermon in every line of this short prayer, but let’s save that for another day.
What struck me about Luke’s writing of this event is that yes, Jesus taught the disciples the words to use “when you pray.” It’s my understanding that John the Baptist would give his disciples certain prayers to use – often as a reward or to boost them up. So, yea – Jesus gave them, and us, a basic outline to use when we find ourselves “standing in the need of prayer” as the song goes. But more than that, he taught us that if we can gain a broader understanding of what prayer can really do, we’re going to find that it’s what we want to do – first thing in the morning, last thing at night, all the time. Prayer becomes out “go to” thing to do when we come to understand that it is through prayer that we come to know the greatest blessing of all: the gift of the Spirit. James Howell explains it this way: “Think of this in terms of human relationships. My wife’s value isn’t in whether my requests to her “work.” A healthy marriage, like prayer, hinges on spending time together, listening, going places, discerning what each other might want, loving each other, loving others. You have to love Jesus’ clever wording: Fathers know how to give good gifts to their children — and so our heavenly father knows how to give… what? Good gifts? No: the Holy Spirit! God’s presence: that’s the answer to prayer, the point of prayer, the dream of all who pray.”
I have to say that I agree with Mr. Howell. I mean, when we pray for stuff, what do we pray for? Do we pray for freedom from pain, from bad stuff, from things that make us miserable? Sure we do. Do we pray for peace and prosperity? Do we pray that the evils of this world will just vanish into thin air? Yea, we do that. But to stop there is to rob ourselves of the greatest gift of all: the peace and joy of living in the Spirit; of being in the presence of God. Martin Luther wrote, “What is important for a good prayer is not many words, as Christ says in Matt. 6:7, but rather a turning to God frequently and with heartfelt longing, and doing it without ceasing.” The true gift, the true power comes from prayer that is persistent, from prayer that never ends.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe we need to rethink our definition of prayer. Prayer is not necessarily all about being in the right place at the right time and saying the right words. Our gathering together to worship is a prayer in itself. We are communicating in a very special way with the creator of the universe. Now that’s something. Our singing together in church or around a campfire is prayer in the highest order. Our wanting to know more and more of the word of God is prayer. Our desire to be of service to God’s beloved in this world is a form of prayer, and I could go on and on. If we’re going to love like Jesus, then we have to pray like Jesus. What matters most is that our God doesn’t want us to ever stop.
For thine is the Kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever…
Amen & Shalom