The preacher’s five year old daughter noticed that her father always paused and bowed his head for a moment before starting his sermon. One day, she asked him why.
“Well, honey,” he began, proud that his daughter was so observant of his messages, “I am asking the Lord to help me preach a good sermon.”
“How come he doesn’t answer it?” She asked.
The young girl in this joke from my friend John von Lackum captures what is perhaps the number one question that people have about prayer – why does it seem that it often goes unanswered? If I thought I could answer that question, I would be wonderfully satisfied – but I really don’t know why some prayers seem to be answered and others do not.
Is it any wonder that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, this incongruity between what we know of God’s love and what we experience in life is confusing and difficult. The portion of the Gospel of Luke which immediately precedes the parable about the person knocking on the door at midnight is actually Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. We call it that because literally, it is the prayer which Jesus taught us to pray, his prayer, the Lord’s prayer.
Then he brings in this parable about knocking on the door with impunity – persistence until it is opened. A man is sleeping with his family, as was the custom of the time, on mats on the floor of the main living area of the house. To come to the door would require stepping over each one and disrupting them in their sleep so the man of the house is firm. “Go away!”
The petitioner keeps knocking, however – banging away. Here Jesus the narrator interjects the point of the story in a surprising way. “I tell you that the door was opened, not because he was a friend, but because of this continual knocking.”
There are a couple of cultural notes to this parable. The first is the importance of hospitality – and bread. When a traveler comes to your home you offer bread and water to drink to ease the weariness of the road. Bread is made at home, a traveler would not have had any fresh bread for all the days of his journey, so it would be a welcome refresher. But where to get bread in the middle of the night? There are no markets which sell it; each household would have the bread rising in the larder waiting to be taken to the communal baker in the morning. [When I lived in Afghanistan, I used to love watching the work of the bakers. Even in the city of Kabul, the women would line up to bring their worked dough to the Tandoor Oven to be baked in the morning before breakfast. I used to wonder how the baker identified whose “nan” (bread) was for whom as he would slap them up against the hot brick wall of the oven to bake.] In Jesus’ day, bread was made every day and was meant to last the family until the next morning, when the routine would start over again.
The friend at the door is desperate and, we assume, in the hope that there are some left over bits of bread at the neighbor’s home; he knocks with the hope of fulfilling his duty as a host.
The point of the parable seems, strangely, to be saying, the more persistence you use, the more likely you are to get your prayer answered. That stands in contrast to the mumbled, “if it be thy will” kind of prayers you often hear. Jesus seems to be saying, knock – knock loud and often and God will answer!”
Does that mean, then, that if a prematurely born child dies in the infant ICU that the parents who have been praying, just did not pray loudly or doggedly enough? Do you have to badger God to make God answer a prayer?
Let me leave that troubling question hanging for a bit, and turn to a story from a Presbyterian minister named Jim McCrae who lives “over the river and through the woods” in Galena, Illinois where he is pastor of the church. He tells of the time several years ago when his family bought a brand new mini-van and headed out to Yellowstone Park for the first time.
They were driving on the Park road in the early morning when without much warning a great big bull buffalo started across the road right in front of them. The collision sent the giant animal somersaulting, head over heals over the hood of the van. Dazed for a minute, he picked himself up without a sound and continued in the direction he had been going. The van, on the other hand was completely smashed up – when nearly two tons of buffalo hits vehicle, it is more often than not the vehicle that loses.
We know what damage a mere white tailed deer can do to a car, so is it any wonder a buffalo could cause such a mess. These kinds of collisions are not as uncommon as you might think in that part of the U.S. – Sally and I met a family whose traveling home, one of those big Winnebago summer cottages on wheels, hit and was totally disabled by a moose near Jackson, Wyoming. The poor folks had lost not only their vehicle, but also their home and all their clothes and food supplies as a result.
What is interesting about the story of the buffalo in Yellowstone is the way in which McCrae reports their initial reaction to the collision. “One would think that they would do something to control these animals in a busy park like Yellowstone!” was Mr. McCrae’s first response to the accident: …our first reaction was to wonder why the rangers didn't do something to move the buffalos back from the road or put up fences to protect people from them. The rangers regularly move problem bears into the back country to get them away from people. So why shouldn't they do the same with the buffalos?
But we quickly had second thoughts about that. After all, Yellowstone is their home, not ours. There are so many people - including my own family to a degree - who enjoy seeing the beauty of nature, but prefer to have it on our own terms - that is, we don't want to leave behind our flush toilets and showers or maybe even our laptops and color TV's when we decide to rough it.
We have a tendency to want to rearrange nature for our own convenience. We even give this philosophy a name: "wildlife management." But that phrase, as McCrae points out, is something of an oxymoron - a contradiction in terms. Once nature is "managed," it is no longer really completely "wild."
God does not manage human experience either, and that is the point. When human beings were placed in the Garden of Eden they were given the choice about how they wished to live – given total freedom, our figurative first man and woman, Adam and Eve chose to eat the fruit of the tree, which God forbad them to eat. Our forbearers experienced God as one who put us in our own luscious Yellowstone where we could grow and prosper but God did not ever choose to manage the wildlife in Eden. Consequently, humanity chose to go our own way – in the figurative decision to eat that apple. We have been making our own decisions ever since, with the freedom of the will, and sometimes it brings us into collisions with one another. God does not pull strings – like a puppeteer - and our prayers are not made with the hope that we can get God to pull the string we want.
"Lord, teach us. Teach us to pray!" Notice something here. When did the disciples ask for this? When did they make this request? Was it after Jesus gave a lecture on prayer? No! Was it after Jesus led a seminar on prayer? No! Was it after Jesus preached a powerful sermon on prayer? No! None of these. Remember how it is recorded in Luke 11. "Jesus was praying in a certain place and when he finished, they said to him, 'Lord, teach us to pray.'"
They saw the power of prayer in Him. They saw how important prayer was to Him. Harry Emerson Fosdick stresses it in his book, …The Secret of Victorious Living. "Note that this awakened interest in prayer came not at all from new arguments about it, but from a new exhibition of its power. Here, before their very eyes, they saw a personality in whom prayer was vital and influential! The more they lived with him, the more they saw that they could never explain him or understand him unless they understood his praying and so not at all because of new arguments, but because of amazing spiritual power released in him by prayer. They wanted him to tell them how to pray." The disciples sometimes were slow on the uptake, but at this point they were quickly and precisely on target. They saw in Jesus’ demeanor the answer to this question: how do we pray and why do we pray? And they learned from Him (as we can) what the elements are that lead to a meaningful prayer life – a life transformed by the presence of God.
Let me share another of John’s jokes: It is like the mother who sent her fifth grade boy up to bed. In a few minutes she went to make sure that he was tucked in. When she stuck her head into his room, she saw that he was kneeling beside his bed in prayer. Pausing to listen to his prayers, she heard her son praying over and over again. "Let it be Tokyo! Please dear God, let it be Tokyo!"
When he finished his prayers, she asked him, "What did you mean, 'Let it be Tokyo'?"
"Oh," the boy said with embarrassment, "we had our geography exam today and I was praying that God would make Tokyo the capital of France."
At first glance it would seem that this young man is doing exactly what Jesus instructs his disciples in the portion of Luke we read this morning. He is persistent all right, but prayer is not a magical means by which we get God to do what we want.
What if this young boy’s prayer had been some days earlier and his petition had been, “Help me to do my best! Help me to do my best!” I am convinced that in the praying, the boy would have learned not to depend on luck but would have learned to study – to take the journey of learning geography, just as all of us need to learn to take the journey to learn to live our lives with faith.
Prayer is an inner openness to God which allows his divine power to be released in us. Ultimately, the power of prayer is not that we succeed in changing God, but that God succeeds in changing us.
The importunity which the friend at midnight portrayed was really vulnerability – an acknowledgement before the whole town that he was without the means to fulfill his duty as a host. His shameless banging was just that – approaching his neighbor without “shame” without pretence without excuse – just openly laying bare his need.
Jesus says knock – and then the section ends with the words, “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:13) God is in, around and greater than any circumstance; that, come what may, we belong to him and underneath are the everlasting arms. “Prayer is not a trading post, [a place to barter and bargain,] but a line of communication.
Prayer is that journey which strips away our pretenses and our fears and our excuses – all the barriers and baggage we carry to load us down with self doubt – and opens us to the presence of the Holy Spirit. Prayer is not to make God change, prayer is to ask God to change us. There is no right way to begin – no correct language to use – only just start to get the door open. It is in the relationship of prayer that we enter into harmony with God. That energy of God in the world is the energy that can transform our lives. To pray for healing is to journey to the healing place in the presence of God. Amen.