The gospel reading today centres on prayer – and not the set liturgical prayers for a Sunday morning but our personal prayer life.
Very personal as we are encouraged to address ultimate reality, as Father. I think it is always right at this point to say that this term can be as much a hindrance as a help, but the point here is that God is close and connected. God is family.
Within the Godhead itself, the divine has attributes to which we can ascribe male and female characteristics for sure, but the point here is closeness and a bond that cannot be broken. Many families can be described as dysfunctional but nothing can ever alter the fact that your mother and Father are always going to be your mother and father. It is a given – you are forever connected to God your Father.
What follows is Luke’s very short version of the Lord’s prayer that I feel I’m on pretty safe ground in saying nobody uses any more, if they ever did, all preferring the longer version in Matthew – which is the version we use in our services with another ending to that one as well taken from another very early Christian source called the Didache.
But the form of words is unimportant in many ways.
The essence of the Lord’s prayer , in whatever form it takes, is to affirm the nearness of God, to ascribe due worth to God’s essence and character, and to ask that the qualities and character of God be embedded in the world.....starting with us
In the Christian tradition we ascribe to God the qualities of Grace, mercy and forgiveness leading to wholeness, the ability to create and re-create – to metaphorically bring life out of death in any given situation. Resurrection is not so much a once for all historical event, it is the stuff of life that results in hope that even in our darkest hours, even out of death itself, something good can and will emerge if we keep faith.
These are the qualities of the kingdom that we are praying will come.
We pray for our basic human needs – our daily bread. We are real life human beings and need the basic stuff of life - Food, water, shelter. Without these, nothing else much matters. Everything else pales into insignificance.
Knowing how leaden footed and how far from perfection we are we pray for forgiveness for all the times and situations we could have done better and contributed to the common good instead of making the world a poorer place through our words and actions.
Mindful of how easily led we are, compromised humans with feet of clay, we even pray that that we’ll be guided away from all temptations to be self serving and selfish rather than a God centred approach to living. It is a difficult road in a complex life. No better example of the complexity of modern life is the example that Archbishop Justin Welby’s foray into the world of finance provided. A just and well meaning determination to give the poor a better deal, compromised the very next day by revelations that the church indirectly funds Wonga.com. That is just a temporary embarrassment that will be addressed, but you see just how complex and compromised both the church as an institution and us as individuals can be. We have to live “in” the world and negotiating a path that does justice to our principles while having to survive and thrive is a tricky and complex one – which is why we need to keep returning to God in prayer.
What follows this example of how to pray in Luke are two little parables.
The first one, we can call it the persistent friend or the churlish householder has always perplexed me. It surely doesn’t mean you can twist God’s arm through persistent nagging does it, because as Matthew has Jesus say in his prelude to his version of the Lord’s prayer.
“And in praying do not heap up empty phrases like the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard for their many words”
Both parables seem want to engender faith that their prayers will be answered.
And here we enter a very difficult area. We all of us have seen so much unjust suffering and death in our lives, so much hurt and failure that to say that all our prayers will be answered sems very glib indeed.
I am not going to open up the can of worms that asks whether it is possible or even desirable that God can intervene to change a situation or third party because we ask for it.
But I will say that the primary reason we pray at all is that we are communing with God, simply resting in his presence and trusting despite many signs to the contrary in the end “All will be well, and all manner of things will be well”.
But of course a close second is that we praying for something to change. We are praying for a situation to be transformed. I will say this; the primary objet of that change has to be the person or people doing the praying. The change we are looking for in the world must start with us, the individuals doing the praying.
If you pray for a famine in Africa, does that mean that God will answer it by making crops grow in answer to our prayers. Perhaps but I say that if the effect of the prayer is to change and motivate the people doing the praying to physically and pragmatically get involved to contribute to aid programmes, to fight corruption in these countries and change the world’s attitude to trade then that prayer has been answered. God works through us – in cooperation with us.
Both my sister and brother have cancer. Do I think that praying for them constantly will twist God’s arm to cure them? I might want that to be the case with all my heart, but actually I hope that God will work through the surgeons and consultants and perhaps motivate me to phone them more often and at least let them know that someone else cares and is with them and make me more aware and compassionate than I have been before, then the prayer is active and working. It is transforming us more into the likeness of God – more compassionate and loving.
Transformation is the key. Challenging us to walk in the light and avoid the shadows. Prayer keeps us on the path or at least reminds us that the path exists and where we should be walking even when we aren’t.
Personal prayer is the key to transforming the world – starting with yourself. Jesus encourages us to do it often and in trust.