by Anna Madsen—
I am the world’s lousiest pray-er. Never been good at it. I’ve gone to workshops, consulted with spiritual directors and even tried praying about it. Didn’t work. Partly, it’s because I get lost in thought during the actual prayer.
Sometimes I go into so many other thought-lands that I can’t find my way back. Sometimes I actually forget that I was praying. In seminary, I took a personality inventory called the Myers-Briggs that determined I was at that time (this can change throughout your lifetime) an ENFP type (for Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, Perceiving). A classmate brought in a Prayer Profile based on Myers-Briggs evaluations. Under ENFP, there was a little cartoon of a stick person earnestly trying to pray. The thought bubble went something like this: “Dear God, thank you for … Look! A bird!”
It’s still like that. “Dear God, thank you for all that you have given our family: love, a home, food … Wait, we need groceries. Where’s my list?” And so it goes.
I’ve gotten to the point where I have stopped saying, “You’re in my prayers,” because that optimistically suggests that I will pray. I want to pray. I should pray. But I only say this if I am absolutely positive that I can and will do it right then and there. I will say, however, “You are in my thoughts,” because that is undoubtedly true.
Some have tried to console me by saying that there are different forms of prayer, and that thinking about someone, or fixing meals for those in need, or writing blogs, or reading theology, or teaching is also a form of prayer. I appreciate the thought, but to me, it’s cheap grace. I just need to own that I am a terrible, lousy, pray-er.
That’s the first confession.
The second confession is that sometimes Scripture makes me angry. I don’t mean that it makes me angry when I hear something in it that is too challenging or uncomfortable. I mean that words in Scripture sometimes seem so out of touch with reality, so simplistic, that it ticks me off.
But I have rolled up my sleeves and wrestled with Jesus’ words about prayer in Luke 11:1-13. What most irked me?
“Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches find, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13)
It’s interesting to read the range of ways in which theologians try to come to terms with these words.
Some commentators say that if you just pray hard enough, all that you ask for in God’s name will be true. That, friends, isn’t necessarily the case. This can be a set up for disappointment and anger and feelings of being betrayed by God. How many of us have prayed to God for healing, for reconciliation, for hope or for faith, only to be answered with a deep and echoing silence? Or we might even “receive” the exact opposite of what we believe to be right and good in God’s name.
Other commentators say that God does answer our prayers, but just not in the way that we expect or want. That’s sophistry, an argument born out of a need to make sure that Scripture is literally true, more than a need to attend to the real and justified feeling of being abandoned by God in a moment (or several strung-together moments) of deep need. It seems we are sometimes afraid to acknowledge a very real feeling
experienced by our biblical ancestors, as reflected in several of the psalms and other scriptures.
It also is a thinly veiled way of suggesting that everything that happens must be because God wants it that way. How many people prayed for Hitler to stop, for the civil rights movement to succeed? How many pray for wars to end, for hunger to be sated, for hate to evaporate, and yet such atrocities persist, and even grow? Do we really want to say that God answers our prayers by letting war and hunger and hate run rampant?
So, no. It is not satisfactory to say that when we don’t get our prayers answered in the way we want, what we get clearly must be what God wants.
In fact, some say that the reference to snakes and scorpions gets exactly to that point: Fishermen sometimes caught a sea snake instead of their needed fish, and a scorpion, when curled up, could look like an egg. It would be a cruel joke for anyone to arrange things so that one gives something painfully other than the thing it was promised to be. God does not play these sorts of perverse games.
Instead, hope comes in Luke 11:13: “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
Ah. Breakthrough coming. The word “Holy” defines what Jesus has in mind: the Holy Spirit, the set apart Spirit, the hallowed Spirit.
Remember that the whole context of this passage is that of the disciples wanting Jesus to teach them to pray. It was customary that each rabbi (which is what Jesus was, of course—a Jewish rabbi) had a defining prayer, a prayer that was not only unique to him, but an encapsulation of this rabbi’s essential teachings, of who this rabbi was. So when the disciples asked him to teach them to pray, they weren’t so much asking Jesus to teach them in the way I’ve tried to learn (through classes and monasteries and prayer workshops). The disciples were asking Jesus to tell them who he was, what his vision of God was and what his vision of those who followed him was.
“Teach us to pray” could just as well have been: Teach us to align ourselves with you. Teach us who you, in the name of God, are.
With that in mind, we look differently both at the end of this passage (v. 13), where Jesus promises that if we pray for the Holy Spirit, it will be offered to us, and at the beginning of this passage (vv. 1-4), where Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer.
We see that both have something to do with the Holy Spirit, and that the Holy Spirit has something to do with God, and that the Holy Spirit has to do with community, even the community of those whom we do not know or do not like.
The prayer isn’t about my wishes or your wishes. It is about God’s wishes for us. It’s a prayer in the plural. Give us. Forgive us—as we forgive those indebted to us. Do not bring us into trial. It’s a prayer for the community, by the community, to the God of community.
The Rev. Dr. Anna Madsen is a freelance theologian and proud mama to daughter Else and son Karl. She works with OMG: Center for Theological Conversation (omgcenter.com) and enjoys seeing the occasional moose and bear in their woods.