Saturday, July 27, 2013

Lord, teach us how to pray

The new parish bookkeeper was struggling in her first week on the job to open the combination on the safe to count the weekend’s collection.  She had been told to commit it to memory, but for the life of her, she just couldn’t remember it.  After many tries, she finally went to the pastor's office and asked for help. The pastor came into the room and began to turn the dial.  Bu, after the first two numbers he paused, stared blankly for a moment and shook his head.  Finally he took a deep breath, looked serenely up to Heaven and his lips began to move ever so silently. Then he looked back at the lock, and quickly turned to the final number, and opened the safe. The bookkeeper was amazed. “I'm in awe of your faith and the power of your prayers, Father,” she said.  “It's really nothing,” he answered. “The combination is written on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”

Our Scriptures today invite us to reflect upon the power of prayer in our lives.  Our reading from Genesis gives us the example of Abraham’s determined prayers as he steps forward in prayer to save the people of Sodom from God’s wrath.  And in our Gospel the disciples make 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, 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”
  • “God, please don’t let that police officer see how fast I was going. Let him get the next guy.”
  • Or, “Oh God, if you get me out of this mess, I swear I’ll become a priest.”

These are what we 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. He should always be our first call.  The problem with these prayers is that they view prayer as a Divine Bargaining – God, You do this and I’ll do that.  In other words, the question behind them is what do I have to give (or do, or say) to get the thing I want.

But, Jesus reminds us today that prayer first and foremost is not about a bargain; 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 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 bargaining.

One way to think about this relationship is to think of the word “FAMILY” as an acronym 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.

You see, when we nurture our relationship with God through prayer, He knows our needs just like we know the needs of the people closest to us before they ever say them.  He knows our hearts when we share our hearts with Him each and every day and so He can respond to what we need because we have been with Him in our moments of prayer as a Father or Mother is with their child.  Prayer is powerful and can move mountains – but the power of prayer comes from its regularity, its depth of relationship. Anyone can have powerful results in prayer, but they must nurture a daily relationship with God to get there.

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.”

And may God give you peace!

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