Our reading for this morning builds on what we have heard over the last couple of weeks. Two weeks ago, we had the Parable of the Good Samaritan, the story of a man who goes out of his way to help a wounded stranger. Jesus tells us to “go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37). It’s a story about Christian living, active love of neighbor.
Last week we heard about Martha worried and distracted by many tasks, while her sister Mary was sitting at Jesus’ feet. It’s a story about balancing prayer (i.e. sitting at Jesus’ feet) and the legitimate demands on us, the things we need to be doing, our lives in the world.
Our reading for this morning is about prayer itself, about Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet, about the habits that surely formed and sustained the Good Samaritan.
Work. Prayer. And the balance of the two in our lives. That’s what this whole section of the Gospel is about.
As the reading begins, Jesus has gone off to pray by himself. That’s already a lesson for us. If Jesus needed prayer, you can be sure we do!
When Jesus finishes, one of his disciples asks Jesus to teach them to pray. His question is our question, too. Christian people want vigorous and vital prayer lives, and we need guidance.
But in a way, that is an odd thing.
Prayer is just talking to God, which should be easy. We don’t need a lot of training to talk to people, and people are considerably less trustworthy, loving, or forgiving than God. As Jesus says at the end of our reading, God loves us and wants to give us what we need more than the most loving human parent. For God, any prayer that comes from the heart is fine. It seems like we shouldn’t need any teaching.
But Jesus doesn’t dismiss the disciple’s question. Jesus teaches them, and us, to pray, presumably so we can pray better than we would otherwise be able to do. Prayer is both the most natural thing in the world, and a learned skill that gets better with instruction and practice.
I think about the way humans learn language. My younger son celebrated his 23rd birthday last week. Carrie did what she always does. She went through old pictures and shared them with our extended family. She pulled out his baby book, and read about his birth and his first few years.
None of us remembered Nicholas’ first words, but Carrie had recorded them. Number one was kitty cat. That says something about baby Nicholas’ priorities! Number two was—wait for it—daddy. It’s not a competition. But if it were a competition, I won! Number three was mommy. Then tee (tree). After that came a flow of words, so Carrie quit listing them.
Mostly I tell that story because I want you all to know that Daddy came before Mommy. But it has me thinking about how Nicholas learned language. We didn’t teach him exactly. He watched us, and he picked it up on his own, and he started doing it. It all happened more or less naturally.
For most of us, learning to pray starts the same way. It is a natural capacity we all have. We don’t need any special training. Prayer is just something we do. We ask God for what we need. We thank God for the blessings we have received. We praise God for the beauty all around us. We apologize to God when we know we have done wrong.
But natural though prayer may be, most of us learn to pray, and we learn the basics of how to pray, from watching other people. That’s one of the great gifts of being part of a community of faith. We pray together, and we all get a little better at praying.
What is true for us as Church is also true for us as individuals. We get better at prayer by doing it. We learned to speak by speaking. We learn to pray by praying.
That is one lesson from Jesus’ odd parable about borrowing from a friend in the middle of the night. The would-be borrower knocked on the door and kept on knocking until the poor man in bed gave him what he wanted, if only to make him go away. The lesson is, persist. Persist in prayer. Pray even if you don’t get immediate and visible results. Do it, and keep doing it, and over time you will be amazed at the results.
But we can keep going with the parallel of learning to speak.
Most of what Nicholas learned just happened naturally, as he listened and as he spoke. But he had to be taught, too. We taught him new words. We corrected him when he made mistakes. In school he had to learn spelling and grammar. And so on. Language is natural. And language is learned.
Prayer is not exactly the same, of course. Nobody wants to be corrected after they have prayed!
But for most of us, improving our prayer life takes discipline and practice. Real growth requires a commitment on our part, a desire to grow and a willingness to make an effort.
Thankfully, we have excellent models. Most valuable of all is the Lord’s Prayer. We have lots more models in our Prayerbook. (If you don’t have a Prayerbook and want one, let me know. We have extras.) The Lord’s Prayer and all the other prayers in the Prayerbook can give us words to pray when we can’t find the words ourselves.
How you pray depends a lot on your personality and your schedule. I like routine, so I do particular prayers at particular times through the day, using the book for many of them. Mostly that works for me.
But it doesn’t work for me all the time. I’m leaving town. For the next two weeks, my routine will be totally disrupted.
I could grit my teeth and stick with my normal patterns of prayer. But I know from past vacations that doesn’t really work. My prayers become something to get through and get done, which is to miss the point entirely.
On the other hand, I could skip praying altogether. But that’s not a good plan either. I need to pray. I need to touch base with God, to stay aware of God with me, to be nurtured and fed by God’s presence. Prayer is how we do that.
So, not praying is not an option. Holding to a routine that doesn’t work is also not an option. I’ll have to figure something out, some way to pray that works with the reality of my life while I’m travelling. It’s that balance thing.
The same is true for all of us. There is no one right way to pray. What works for one person may not work for another. What works at one time in your life may not work in another.
But if we start with the Lord’s Prayer, if we speak to God from the heart, if we spend time listening for God’s voice, if we make a real commitment to prayer, we will find the one for whom we search. God will draw us closer. God will open our eyes to God’s presence with us. God will give us the Holy Spirit who can work wonders in and through us.
That is the goal of our lives. And prayer is the main way that happens.
This week, take some time to review your own prayer practices. And give thanks to God for the invitation to dwell in God’s loving presence in whatever way works for you.
In Christ’s name. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan