Sunday, July 29, 2007

Lord, teach us how to pray

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time, July 29, 2007:

A priest was preaching on the value of temperance. With great emphasis he said, “If I had all the beer in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” With even greater emphasis he said, “And if I had all the wine in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” And then finally, shaking his fist in the air, he Said, “And if I had all the whiskey in the world, I’d take it and pour it into the river.” With his homily complete, he sat down very satisfied with what he’d said. Then the leader of song stood very cautiously and announced, “For our offertory song, let us sing Hymn #365, ‘We Shall Gather at the River.”

We hear in today’s Gospel perhaps the most import request that we can make in the spiritual life. “Lord, teach us how to pray.” This is probably a question we’ve all wanted to ask the Lord at one point or another. Everyone knows that we should be people of prayer, but the search for the effective prayer isn’t always an easy one.

Sometimes we think that prayer is about finding the right formula – if we say the correct words in the correct way, we’ll get what we’re looking for. Perhaps if we pray the right novena on the right days, God will answer us. Now, I’m not looking for a show of hands here, but just think for a moment, how many of us have prayed the following types of prayers before:

· “Oh God, if only you would help me pass this test; get this promotion; not let the police officer see how fast I was going…”
· Or, “Dear Sweet Jesus, please don’t let my parents find out…”
· Or, “Oh God, if you get me out of this one, I swear I’ll become a priest…”
· Or, “Dear Lord, I will never do that again!”

These are what I like to call prayers of desperation, or 911 Prayers. As though all prayer consisted of were those moments when we pick up the God phone, dial 911, and help is on the way.

Now, this isn’t to suggest that we shouldn’t be calling on God for help in tough times. God should always be our first call. The problem with these prayers is that they view prayer as a sort of economic exchange. They are often bargaining prayers – God, You do this and I’ll do this. In other words, the question behind them is what do I have to give (or so, or say) to get the thing I want.

Jesus reminds us today that prayer first and foremost is not about an exchange, it is not an encounter in the economy of God; rather it is always about relationship. Prayer is not merely an event that responds to certain situations in our lives, it must be in fact our way of life. This is what St. Paul is talking about in First Thessalonians when he tells us to “be unceasing in prayer.” He means, we should lead lives that themselves become prayer.

So prayer is relationship. But, what kind of relationship? Well, notice how Jesus begins and ends what He has to say about prayer in today’s Gospel. He begins by saying, “When you pray, say: ‘Father’“ and he ends with the words, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father.” Jesus sandwiches everything He has to say about prayer in the language of a relationship between child and father, between child and parent. Prayer is a family affair based on a relationship of familiarity and love, of tenderness and intimacy – not on power, authority, or economy.

One way to think about this family relationship is to think of the word “family” as standing for: Forget About Me, I Love You in opposition to a world that tells us to Forget about YOU, I Love ME! The life of prayerful relationship cares about God first, then others before ourselves. So, our prayer doesn’t begin with asking God to do things for us in exchange for other things. It begins with getting to know a God who loves us so deeply and so intimately that He wants us to think of Him as our Father. Jesus understood this so well that He called God “Abba,” a title best translated as “Daddy.” When someone prays before their Abba, it isn’t about correct formulas; it is only about correct hearts. Hearts that understand family: forget about me, I love you.

Let us ask with the disciples today, “Lord, teach us how to pray.” I encourage everyone to do a few simple things. Take a few minutes at the beginning of each day to say, “Abba, Father, I love you. I know that there is nothing that can happen today that you and I can’t handle together.” In the middle of the day, say, “God, I’m thinking of you. Be with me today.” At the end of the day, simply say, “God, thank you for gift and blessings of this day. I’m sorry for all the things I may have done wrong. I ask your forgiveness and strength to do better tomorrow.” It really is that easy!

“Lord, teach us how to pray.”

May God give you peace!

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