Harrowing Of Hell
July 24, 2022

Pray Without Ceasing

Diane Carlisle, Lay Preacher

How’s your prayer life?
That’s a question a good friend has asked me on many occasions. “How’s your prayer life?” he says, especially when I am going off the deep end, or worrying about what may or may not happen, or when I am not being my best self.

I usually pause before I answer. Some questions run through my mind. “Is this a trick question? Is there a right answer? Should I admit that I have lapsed in my practice of praying the Daily Office? Is there a specific amount of time one should be praying? Is there a specific way that one should be praying?”

So…usually my answer is, “Great! Wonderful!” Or perhaps if I am being more honest…“Well, I haven’t been praying as much as I should be, thank you for asking. I will get back at it.”

Many people profess that they KNOW what prayer is, even if they don’t always DO it. Some even say they SHOULD do it more. But do we really understand prayer, and what happens when we pray?

As I was thinking about what I wanted to say today, I decided I should consult an authority about what prayer really is, before getting up here and telling you what I think Jesus is trying to teach the disciples about prayer.

So I consulted my friend. “Wiki” You know her, first name “Wiki” last name “Pedia.” and here was the knowledge she imparted: ”Prayer is an invocation or act that seeks to activate a rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.” 

So to put this in understandable church language: Prayer is something we do to be in relationship with God through some intentional means. It is about being in relationship with God.

In today’s Gospel we have Jesus teaching the disciples how to pray. He gives them what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Not too long ago Doyt taught a class on the Lord’s Prayer. He taught that the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer to be recited (although many people do just that). but it is an explanation of actually how we “do” prayer.  It is also a theological statement of what we believe to be true.

I believe Jesus had a pretty good prayer life. And that the followers of Jesus wanted to be more like Jesus, and part of that yearning was to pray to God as Jesus prayed to God.

In Matthew Chapter 6, more detail is given about what Jesus taught his disciples about prayer. Some of the things he tells them are “Whenever you pray do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners so they may be seen by others. Truly I say they have received their rewards”. And again, he says, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who is in secret will reward you, “ He also said, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think they will be heard because of their many words.”

Here we have some instructions on how to pray, or how not to pray, but not what happens when one prays. Back to that a little later…

Most often Jesus went off to pray alone. He went into the wilderness for forty days, alone, with God (well, that is until that pesky Satan came along). Jesus spent all night praying on a mountain before choosing his disciples. He had been praying alone just before he walked on water to the disciples in the boat. He often prayed while it was still dark. Praying at night or early in the morning, on a mountaintop or in a desolate place, allowed Jesus to give his full attention to God. This solitude, this being fully present and not distracted was a regular habit for Jesus.

Often I feel a little guilty when I think of all the places Jesus went to pray, but I don’t think guilt is a very helpful response to prayer, so I have to wonder: Did Jesus pray a lot because he WANTED to pray or because he thought he SHOULD pray? I think Jesus wanted to pray. I think for us to pray more deeply we have to WANT to pray.

We can’t just tell ourselves that we should pray more. So how can we pray in a way that helps us want to pray? Let me ask another question. Why should we want to pray?

Prayer, more than any other single activity, is what places us in the flow of the Spirit, in relationship with God.

When we pray hearts get convicted, sins get confessed, believers get united, intentions get encouraged, people receive guidance, the church is strengthened, stubbornness gets melted, wills get surrendered, evil gets defeated, grace gets released, sorrows are comforted, faith is born, and love triumphs!

Who wouldn’t want that? In prayer – in the presence of God – we come closest to being fully ourselves and to being fully in relationship with God.

The disciples clearly wanted that. They wanted to follow Jesus, to be like him. They wanted to be the people God made them to be, to be most authentically themselves. That is why they asked Jesus: “Lord, teach us to pray,” They had not witnessed Jesus praying, only his leaving to go somewhere else TO pray.

While the Lord’s prayer is one way Jesus instructed his disciples to pray, recited prayers are not the only form of prayer, Indeed, recited prayers are not the only way Jesus prayed to God either. There are many types of prayer, many of which you  probably know and practice already including: contemplative prayer, centering prayer, recited prayers (ie the Lord’s Prayer, the Magnificat, etc.), the Examen, prayers of petition or thanksgiving or intercession or confession. There are items that can aid in our prayer life like walking the labyrinth, icons, prayer beads, or holding crosses. The list goes on and on, but suffice it to say, that there is no one right way to pray.

Your prayer life is not a prescriptive set of rules for communicating with God,  it is not better because of quantity. It is dependent however on one’s perseverance and commitment to a relationship with the one holy and immortal God. As Nike’s slogan states: Just do it!

Let’s look at the second half of the gospel reading for today. A friend goes to their neighbor’s house to ask for bread for some guests.The owner tells his friend to go away because the children are sleeping.

I have to admit this pericopy didn’t make a lot of sense to me until our trip to the Holy Land earlier this year. While in Nazareth, we saw a dwelling, under the Church of the Annunciation, that was from the time of Jesus. We were told that in these types of  homes animals were kept in the back and the people slept at the front near the entrance.

People would shut their doors and put their children to bed for the night, effectively blocking the entrance to the dwelling. If someone were to knock on the door then the owner of the home would have to crawl over sleeping children, most likely waking them, in order to answer the door. This is quite an inconvenience.

What the owner of the house 9n this story did was to try and get the friend who had knocked on the door to go away so as to not wake up the children. Eventually though the owner  relented and gave the friend the bread because the friend persevered.

In this parable the owner of the home, the father, or parent is God. God gave the friend what was  needed, although the friend did have to be persistent!

What Jesus is teaching the disciples is that prayer works. If you pray to God, God does listen, if you knock the door will be opened unto you.

The parable ends with Jesus rhetorically asking: “Would someone give a child something that they did not need or could not use or did not want when they asked?  Would a child when they asked for a  fish, be given a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will they be given a scorpion?” Or will what they need and deeply desire (even though they may not know it just then) be given to them? It is so with the Holy Spirit. Knock and the door will be opened unto you.

I have had many people say to me, “Yes, I get that, but I have prayed to God for ‘x’ and it didn’t come to pass, which brings us back to the prayer Jesus taught the disciples. Remember the line in the longer version of the Lord’s Prayer, the one we pray each Sunday, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven”?

I remember many years ago when  the school where I taught was closing because of the expansion of Seatac Airport. As a frequent flier, I was glad for the expansion, but as a teacher who had to move from my beloved school, it was hard.

I was transferred to a nearby school where I was assigned to teach first grade – six year olds! I was deathly afraid of six year olds. Their needs are intense and their coping  and academic skills are still very much in the emerging, bud stage. I would dare to even say some hadn’t even sprouted yet.

I prayed hard and fervently all summer that some other classroom would open up, one where the children had some knowledge  of how to act in school and had some ability to work independently and READ the directions. Alas, my prayer was not answered.

The first day of school came and in marched those little beings who had very rudimentary reading skills at best, didn’t know how to walk in a line or hold a lunch tray without dropping it and solved all of their problems by hitting or crying. I cried right along with them! However, I didn’t quit praying (or crying), but it became very clear to me by November that God was not going to find me another group of children, a little older, a little wiser, to teach.

God gave me THIS group of children. My prayers changed to asking for guidance and for peace.

As the year continued these little beings blossomed. They learned to read. They learned to carry a tray and walk in line. They even learned to use words when something happened that they didn’t like (well most of the time). They stopped crying and so did I (until the last day of school when I cried because of what God had done for me and these beautiful children).

These children (and I can still name them all by name) became part of one of the most rewarding years of my 30 years of teaching. God gave me more than I had asked for or could have imagined. I still hear from some of them from time to time. They have now graduated from high school and many have already graduated from college. Two are even engaged to each other. Some are parents of their own.

These former six year olds taught me that prayer is answered, perhaps not in the way we want them to be, but they are always answered, often in ways more marvelous than we could have asked or imagined.

When I was assigned that wonderful, incredible group of 6 year olds and I was terrified, what I didn’t know is that I needed to do was  pray to change me.

As the Apostle Paul preaches, you must persevere in prayer, pray without ceasing, and be persistent. Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not into your own understanding.

So , what happens when we pray? Over time, sometimes a short time, sometimes a long time, through perseverance in prayer our wills become aligned with God’s will.

It is through prayer that we are changed, that our prayers are answered and we become more the person that God imagined when we were created..

As we will sing in a few minutes:
Ask, and it shall be given unto you; Seek and you shall find.
Knock and the door shall be opened unto you.

Which brings us to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. And “Just do it!”