There are two things I notice about Jesus’s own practice of prayer and his teaching – the first is that it is all about relationship. That is why he teaches his disciples to begin their prayer with the intimate and personal address, ‘our father’. Now that of course is not always the most helpful way to think about God, especially if our earthly fathers have been less than wonderful, but it does signal that close, healthy relationship with God is possible.
Prayer covers the full gamut of human interactions – saying ‘thank you’, saying ‘I’m sorry’, sharing the ups and downs, the dreams and the hopes – wanting to know what is important to the other. Our conversation with God mimics our close human conversations – and the Lord’s prayer covers all these things. When Jesus’s disciples ask him to teach them to pray, it was not because they did not already know how to pray – they were faithful Jews, they prayed five times a day. It was because they saw a different, intimate quality in Jesus’s prayer that they wanted to emulate. And perhaps they could see that when Jesus prayed he was doing more than just asking or saying sorry – he was actually enjoying an intimate conversation with one he loved. And like all intimate conversations, Jesus prayer needed time and solitude. This is the second thing I notice about his practice of prayer. Jesus spends a lot of his prayer in silence and solitude, out on the hillside before it gets light or long into the night. This prayer does not seem to be about asking. It seems to be about presence – Jesus’s presence to the Creator and the Creator’s to Jesus. And somehow in that encounter, things change.
Very often our intercessory prayer can be about seeking change in others – more peace among leaders, more faithfulness among disciples, more health among the sick. But this prayer of presence is about allowing change in ourselves – our attitudes, our way of being in the world. When we stop trying to bargain with God or tell God what to do, there is simply more space for God to act in our lives. Like love, such prayer is not so much an activity as an attitude – a choosing to be in a space and place where God can act within us.
So, prayer on the pattern of Jesus is about relationship, intimate constantly renewed relationship; and about presence sought in times of silence and solitude. In an era of fractured relationships and constant distraction and noise, it is not surprising that we find it difficult. Yet the most important thing is that we persist.
One day when I was confessing to my spiritual director that my prayer was somewhat lack lustre, she remarked, ‘but you keep turning up – even if sporadically and unwillingly, you show up. And that’s what matters’. As today’s parable suggests, persistence in prayer has effect over time. If we read that parable, not as being about ourselves and a God who is reluctant to give us what is essential, but eventually gives in if we nag enough (put enough coins in the vending machine, give it a good a thump as it were!); if instead we read it as being about two parts of ourselves, the part that wants to pray and the part that can’t be bothered and has already locked the door and gone to bed, I think it becomes more helpful. The faithfulness that enables us to keep turning up and giving it a go, will eventually move us to a place where relationship with God and deeper presence become possible.
So let’s not worry too much about how God answers prayer. Let’s concentrate instead on how we make ourselves open to the action of God in and through us. And let’s keep turning up – and God will do the rest. In whose name. Amen.
by Penny Jones, for Pentecost 7 Year C , 28 July 2019