By Debie Thomas

Let’s start with the hard stuff, and acknowledge that this week’s Gospel reading is full of potential landmines: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” “I tell you, even though [the friend whose door you bang on at midnight to ask for bread] will not get up and give you anything because you are his friend, at least because of your persistence, he will get up and give you whatever you need.”

When I call these famous words of Jesus “landmines,” I’m not saying he intentionally embedded suffering or danger into his disciples’ lives. What I’m saying is that this Gospel reading has a history of interpretation within the Church that the Church should not be proud of. Read the wrong way, the lection renders prayer transactional, inviting us to believe that God is a cosmic gumball machine into which we can insert our prayers like so many shiny quarters.

Like some of you, I was raised to believe in a gumball God. For years, I believed that fervent, persistent prayer heals diseases, prevents car accidents, feeds hungry children in far away countries, fends off nightmares, prevents premature death, saves broken relationships, and “stops the bad guys.”

But then life rose up and kicked me in the butt. Diseases didn’t get better, car accidents happened, I had nightmares, babies starved, young people died, relationships disintegrated, and the bad guys thrived. When I asked other Christians to explain these discrepancies to me, I received two answers: 1) You need to pray harder, longer, and with more faith, or 2) God did answer your prayers; he said no.

Both of those answers broke my heart. No, worse than that: both of those answers hardened my heart. Over time, prayer — which used to be easy — became excruciatingly hard. These days when I sit down to pray, I have to do weary battle with one persistent question: “Why bother?”

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All of that to say: I come to this week’s lectionary with trepidation, afraid of doing harm, afraid of reopening old wounds. To ask what role prayer plays in the face of ongoing tragedy, injustice, and oppression in our world is to raise the hardest questions I can think of about God — questions I don’t know how to answer. Does God intervene directly in human affairs? Does such intervention — or lack of it — depend in any way on our asking? Can prayer “change” God? Do our prayers have tangible effects on other people, even when those people have no idea that we’re praying for them?

To be fair, I know plenty of people for whom these questions are irrelevant and even heretical. I have friends and family members who pray with full confidence for everything from parking spots and lost house keys to cancer remission and Ivy League acceptances for their children. They pray expecting answers, and they apparently receive them. Or so I am told, and who am I to question their testimonies? All I can say is that my experiences with prayer have never been so certain or seamless.

If your prayer life is equally fraught, that what can we honestly make of Jesus’s teaching in this Gospel passage? What can we carry away that might still feel authentic and life-giving? Here are a few possibilities:

“Lord, teach us.” The reading begins with a disciple approaching Jesus and asking for instruction. “Lord, teach us to pray.” It’s a simple, straightforward request, but here’s what surprised me this week: I’ve never made it. Have you? Have you ever asked Jesus to teach you to pray? Did it ever occur to you that such a thing is askable? Or that your asking might give God joy?

Here’s the thing: the disciples were not ignorant or inexperienced when it comes to prayer; they were devout Jews who had most likely grown up attending Sabbath services, lifting their hands upward in worship, or lying prone on the ground to make their confessions. They knew how to pray. What they sought was not better technique.

So what was it? What did they observe in Jesus when he prayed? We can’t know for sure, but I’ll hazard some guesses: Intimacy. Belonging. Trust. Peace. A closeness that was transformative and nourishing. Fresh vision, renewed perspective, greater strength, and deeper empathy. “Lord, teach us to pray.” In other words, teach us to attain what you have attained. Teach us to be with God as you are with God. To commune as you commune. To communicate as you communicate. Teach us to unlearn those false beliefs and false promises that keep us from praying as you do. We confess that we are impatient, self-absorbed, and transactional creatures, greedy for quick answers and even quicker gains. Unmake all of that. Help us to start afresh. Teach us to pray.

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When you pray: “When you pray,” Jesus says to his disciples in response to their request — and already I’m in trouble. When I pray? Shoot. How about, “If I pray?” Because really, all attempts at self-delusion aside, when do I pray? When it’s January 1st, and I’ve made yet another New Year’s resolution to have a “daily quiet time” with God? When I’ve read my millionth book on the theology or the history or the psychology or the neurology of prayer, and I decide with great zeal to give the practice another shot? When I promise I’ll, “keep you in my thoughts and prayers,” because your situation scares or saddens or paralyzes me so badly that I can’t think of anything else to say? When I am in full panic mode, and the only options available in my desperation are prayer or collapse?

“When you pray,” Jesus says casually, as if prayer in the life of a disciple is a given. A matter of course. A practice so natural and so intrinsic, he might as well say, “when you breathe,” or “when you blink,” or “when your heart beats.” Prayer is not a “special” activity reserved for special times, special places, or special people. Prayer is not the private property of a pious few; prayer is mercifully ordinary. Prayer is what we’re wired for. Prayer is what God’s children do. And that, if we’ll pause and think about it for a minute, is a reason to both relax and rejoice. It’s an invitation to enter into prayer gently, and with quiet confidence. To trust it as we trust oxygen, food, or water. To lean into it as we lean into the strength of our own bones, tendons, and muscles. Prayer will hold us because it is for us. We know and are known in prayer.

Ask, seek, knock: Yes, back to the landmines. But what if we begin with a possible synonym for Jesus’s famous ask-seek-knock trifecta? What about, “yearn?” Or, hunger? Or, want– and want fiercely, persistently, insatiably, and passionately? What if Jesus’s lesson here is a lesson of permission? Permission to name our longings? To acknowledge the desires which drive and haunt us? To state without reservation or embarrassment that all is not okay, that we are not yet full, that God’s kingdom has not yet come, and that even though it’s midnight and we know our door-pounding at our friend’s front step is mightily inconvenient to the surrounding universe, we don’t care and we’re going to keep pounding because we still need bread right now?

Ask. Seek. Knock. Keep knocking. Go to your friend’s house and wake him up. Don’t let him go back to sleep until he hauls himself out of bed. When you pray, say, “Your kingdom come.” When you pray, say, “Give us each day our daily bread.” When you pray, say, “Forgive us our sins.” When you pray, say, “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” Ask. Seek. Knock. Keep knocking.

Notice that there is nothing dainty or delicate about this teaching from Jesus. His invitation is muscular, assertive, aerobic, and pushy. It is longing named, named, and named again. It is holy yearning insisting on itself to a God who can more than handle our ferocity. It is, in a word, imperative. I wonder how my prayer life would change if I accepted Jesus’s call to prayer as a call to wrestle, to struggle, and to contend with God. Apparently this God is not too invested in my politeness. Who knew?

How much more: Read carefully, and you’ll find another surprise. There is only one promise in this entire Gospel lesson. Only one, and it is not the one I was raised to desire or expect. Jesus concludes his teaching on prayer with a striking sentence: “If 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!” What Jesus promises us in answer to our prayers is the Holy Spirit. That’s it. That’s all. There is no other promise or guarantee. How the Church devolved from this to prosperity theology is beyond me, but here we are, here’s the actual promise: when we pray, when we persist in prayer, when we name our longings in prayer without fear or compromise, God will never fail to give us God’s own, abundant, indwelling and overflowing self as the Answer we actually need. When we contend in prayer, God will not withhold God’s loving, consoling, healing, transforming, and empowering Spirit from us. When it comes to no-holds-barred, absolutely self-giving generosity, God’s answer to all of our prayers will always be Yes.

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Maybe this “yes” is what the disciples sensed in Jesus when they watched him pray. Maybe the presence of the Spirit radiating through Jesus is what compelled them to go deeper in their own prayer lives. Whatever the “yes” was, it suffused Jesus’s whole being. However the Spirit manifested herself in Jesus’s life, she was so beautiful and so compelling, the disciples wanted to experience her, too.

So here’s the question for us: do we consider the “yes” of God’s Spirit a sufficient response to our prayers? If God’s guaranteed answer to our petitions is God’s own self, can we live with that?

I’ll be honest: sometimes I can, and sometimes I can’t. It’s not easy to let go of my transactional, gumball God — idol though he is. The truth is, it’s hard to persist in prayer and not receive the answers I’m hoping for. It’s hard to accept the Holy Spirit as God’s perfect gift when I’d rather receive healing for my son’s chronic headaches, or an end to the toxicity that now governs American politics, or lasting freedom from anxiety, or commonsense gun control, or some reliable hope in the face of global climate change. My love for God, I realize, is thinner than I thought it was — often I want stuff from God much more than I want God. I want God to sweep in and fix everything much more than I want God’s Spirit to fill and accompany me so that I can do my part to heal the world. Resting in God’s yes requires vulnerability, patience, courage, discipline and trust — traits I can only cultivate in prayer.

So we pray. We pray because Jesus wants us to. We pray because it’s what God’s children do. We pray because we yearn and our yearning is precious to God. And we pray because what we need most — whether we recognize it or not — is God’s own Spirit pouring God’s self into us. With words, without words, through laughter, through tears, in hope, and in despair, our prayers usher in God’s Spirit, and remind us that we are not alone in this broken, aching world. God’s Spirit is our Yes. God’s Spirit is our guarantee.

Debie Thomas: debie.thomas1@gmail.com

Image credits: (1) Painting Valley: Painting for Generations; (2) Fine Art America; and (3) Espoused to Him blog.

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