Some of the first prayers I ever remember saying were during football games. My family is full of Redskins fans, and my dad in particular takes games very seriously. I remember being about six years old and watching the Redskins play the Dolphins in the Super Bowl. We were watching them on TV, and I could see everyone was so intent and so anxious. And so, though I didn’t understand much about God or prayer or how to pray, I kept praying that the pass on third and long would connect, or the field goal would make it through the uprights.
The Redskins won that Super Bowl, and I thought I was on to something good. Joe Theismann did okay that game, but I held myself personally responsible for praying the way to that Lombardi trophy. But the next year, the Skins went to the Super Bowl again. And this time they played the Raiders. And, despite my best attempts at prayer, the Skins were absolutely crushed.
It was probably my first experience of religious disillusionment.
I don’t pray about football much these days. Though I still sometimes catch myself saying, “Oh please, God, let him catch it,” and I feel a little embarrassed. I don’t think it’s ever wrong to talk to God, but I still feel self-conscious and like I’m doing something wrong. I still want to know, “Am I praying the right way?”
Maybe you’ve asked that too. If you have, you’re not alone. Even back in Jesus’ day, people were wondering if they were praying the right way. And one day one of his disciples said to him, “Teacher, teach us how to pray.”
Jesus responds by teaching them a prayer that we recite here every week, and that Christians around the world have recited daily since: “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
It sounds a little different than the words we say now, but there’s no mistaking that it’s the Lord’s Prayer. And it’s as close as we have ever gotten to a perfect prayer. And that makes sense, because it came right from the source.
When you look at the prayer, just in those few lines, there is so much there that is so rich. Jesus calls God “Father”, which means he is inviting us to enter into a conversation which is personal, and loving. We ask that God’s reign would come. We ask for our daily bread, trusting for God to provide what we need. And ask forgiveness, and we ask for help forgiving others. And, finally, we ask God to keep us safe, and out of harm’s way.
Really, everything you need is in that prayer. If there is such a thing as a “right way to pray”, this is it.
So, that being said, why didn’t Jesus just stop talking then? Why is there the rest of this passage? Jesus tells a story about a man who goes to a friend’s house late at night because he needs somethings and he knocks on the door. The friend shouts, “go away, I’m sleeping”. But the man still knocks, and eventually the man gets up and gives his friend what he needs. Jesus tells us, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”
He’s talking about prayer. He’s talking about the persistence of prayer. And he’s saying that when we care enough to keep knocking, God will answer. Jesus then tells his disciples, “You wouldn’t give your kids a snake if they asked for a fish, and you wouldn’t give your kids a scorpion when they ask for an egg, right? So why would God, who loves us as a parent, and who is a far better parent than any of us could ever be, withhold what we need from us?”
Now at this point you might be thinking, “that’s all very good and well, but I have prayed before and nothing has changed.” Maybe you prayed for something you really and truly needed, not just a football game, and you didn’t get what you need. Or maybe you prayed for someone you loved dearly who needed healing, and you ended up losing them anyway. Or maybe you have just cried out asking, “God, are you there”, but you haven’t had any response.
I wish I could give you an easy answer at this point, one that explained all that, but the fact is that I can’t, and it would be condescending for me to try. And at this point a lot of people would quote the words of CS Lewis, a well-known Christian writer, who once said, “Prayer doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
And, he’s right about one part of that. Prayer does change us. If you’ve ever gotten into a regular routing of praying, you know that. Your attention shifts. Your priorities change. You feel your life change in ways that make it better.
Two of my favorite prayers, the Prayer of St. Francis, and the Serenity Prayer, are two good examples of prayer that changes us. They teach us how to order our lives. They remind us of what matters and what we can do. And if we really mean what we pray, they change us.
And that, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. But if prayer were only a one-sided conversation with ourselves, it wouldn’t be all that much better than something written by a motivational speaker. We would feel good, but where is God in all that?
Prayer is not just about us. It’s about God, and it’s about a conversation that we are having with God. And time and again in Scripture, we are provided with examples of a God who does listen to us, and who does respond. That doesn’t always mean that we get what we want, and that doesn’t always mean that we are answered with a “yes”, but it does mean that, somehow, we get what we need. As Jesus said, God would hand us snakes and scorpions, and God’s door won’t go unanswered.
But, on our side, that means that we have to be a part of that conversation too. And sometimes that means that we have to recognize that prayer is more than just words. It’s not just a wish made to God. Sometimes the best kind of prayer can be our own action.
In the aftermath of the recent Oklahoma tornadoes, I saw a lot of people on TV and online saying, “pray for Oklahoma”. A few days later, some atheist groups countered with their own saying: “actually do something for Oklahoma”. Now, you all know that I don’t think atheists should be the punching bag for people of faith. They have their belief, and we have ours, but I remember thinking, “I don’t think you understand what prayer means.” Because praying for Oklahoma and actually doing something for Oklahoma are not mutually exclusive.
I do believe that prayer in and of itself is action. It’s asking for God’s involvement. But prayer doesn’t have to stop with words. In fact. prayer cannot just stop with words if it is real. Prayer can take many forms. And actions can be prayers as well.
When you write out a donation to disaster relief, that is a prayer. When you go and help rebuild houses, that’s a prayer. When you give food to those who are hungry, that’s a prayer. When you work for justice and peace, that’s a prayer. And when you get up in the morning, and get out of bed, and commit yourself to loving the people around you as best as you possibly can, that’s a prayer too.
If you are really intent on this Christian life, if you are really committed to prayer, then there is one way to live, and that is to live your life as a prayer. No matter where you are or what you are doing, use this one life you have to pray without ceasing. Make prayer your way of being in the world, and not something that you fall back on only when you need something. If you do that, everything will change. Because you cannot knock on that door for long before, one way or another, God will answer.
I’ll close with this. Many of you know that this weekend was the 50th anniversary of t he West Dover Fire Department. A few of us from our congregation are currently involved in the department, and many more have been for some time. I learned this weekend that members from our congregation were among those responsible for starting that department. People like Frank Smith, Paul Kammerlen, and Eddie Barber. I really think that what they did was a form of prayer. It was a form of communicating their love for God and neighbor into action.
And now 50 years later new generations go out in the middle of the night to pray themselves. West Dover, East Dover, Deerfield Valley Rescue, Ski Patrol, and our Dover Police. They pray by serving their neighbors. And that is a prayer that is always pleasing and acceptable to God. People like that teach us how to pray by what they do, not what they say. By living their life as a prayer.
There’s a capacity for all of us to do that, whether we wear a uniform or not. It starts when we go to God in prayer, but prayer is never complete until we commit to living that prayer. May God bless our prayers, and show us how to live our life as a prayer. And may all of our prayers glorify God. Amen.