11He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” 2He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. 3Give us each day our daily bread. 4And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” 5And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; 6for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ 7And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ 8I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. 9“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 11Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? 13If 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!”
A few years ago I attended a series of classes where we learned to write Lament Psalms. Seem odd to you? It felt odd to me. We learned to cry out to God with words that insisted on God’s presence with us. We dared to accuse God of silence, even ignoring us. We even complained to God! It was audacious and bold. It was impudent.
And it’s the most honest I’d ever been with God.
We learned to write Lament Psalms by reading Psalms of Lament. We saw in these Psalms anger, sorrow, deep sadness. We also began to understand honesty in our feelings. Like Jacob by the River Jabok, we learned to wrestle with God.
I wonder how often Jesus talked with his disciples about prayer? I believe it was often. He knew what was ahead for them. And as he journeyed to the cross, he must have known that they would need to be in prayer often. Interesting, though, is that the disciples asked him to teach them.
He taught them about persistence. That scene where one friend bangs on the door of another friend, only to be refused because it’s not convenient, is an example of Jesus’ use of exaggeration. None of us would refuse to help a friend that came calling late at night. In Jesus’ day it would also be unheard of. You help a friend who is in need. You don’t leave her standing there while she shamelessly bangs on the door. You get up and give her what she needs. Because, you have a lot of people to face in the morning and when they discover you didn’t help, well, you are shamed, even shunned.
Jesus’ point is persistence. Keep on asking for the same thing. Be shameless with God. Pray and God listens. Pray and God listens, maybe even speaks. Pray and God listens and speaks and acts. All in God’s time, when God is ready. All in God’s time, perhaps when God deems that you’re ready.
But, wait, there’s more.
Jesus tells us to Ask-Search-Knock. Sometimes we know, or think we know, what to pray for. So we ask.[i]
Other times we cry out to God with sighing. We search for the why and how. Our words don’t make much sense. We reach out for understanding and discovery.[ii]
Then there are times when we knock on that door. Not nicely, but banging in rage and pain, desperate for God. Desperate for mercy.[iii]
And that’s where we run into the problem. We’re supposed to be nice to God, aren’t we? We musn’t annoy God or hurt God’s feelings. We have to say the right thing. Our words should demonstrate respect.
It’s like that popular acronym for teaching prayer: ACTS. It stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication and intercession. It’s a nice way to pray if you have lots of time and not much on your mind. It’s useful to remember what God has done for you.
When we pray an adoration, we are reminded of God’s goodness. When we confess to God, we are reminded of God’s goodness despite our shortcomings. The problem is, that there are times when we have a need to be shamelessly persistent and ask, search and knock. Sometimes at the top of our lungs.
And that’s when I learned how to write Psalms of Lament. To do that we read audacious Psalms. Some of them are searching Psalms: For example, this one from Psalm 55:1-2:
Give ear to my prayer, O God;
do not hide yourself from my supplication.
2 Attend to me, and answer me;
I am troubled in my complaint.
I am distraught.
But what about these?
I am weary with my crying; my throat is parched.
My eyes grow dim with waiting for my God. (Ps 69:3)
Answer me when I call, O God of my right! (Ps 4:1a)
And who can forget the words of Ps 22 that Jesus said from the cross?
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me,from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest. (Ps 22:1-2)
These Psalms cry out with pain and demand. They insist that God attend to the one praying. They aren’t nice; they aren’t respectful; they aren’t words that our mothers taught us to say. These are words that acknowledge that God isn’t just “up there” or “out there” somewhere, but right here. God is present in the here and the now.
And while we knock on that door and shamelessly insist that God get out of bed and help us, God is already there. Holding us. Shedding tears with us. Feeling all of that pain and more. Saying, “Go ahead, give me all you’ve got. I can take it.”
And in an hour or a day or a month or years hence, when we’re ready to dry our tears and we’ve been emptied of the pain and anger, we look back. Lo and behold, God has been at work. In your life and the lives of those who created or caused or were part of the pain.
A few years ago a friend told me a story about herself. It was late at night; her husband had been asleep for several hours. The pain of an event that had occurred several months ago cropped up, yet again, to haunt her. She couldn’t take anymore. Her knock on the door of God’s house of mercy came in the form of a devastating decision. As she considered, she sensed a voice saying, “Really?” That’s when she decided to wake her husband up. He wisely held her as she wept bitter, hurting tears that refused to stop. He rocked her silently for what seemed like hours until there was absolutely nothing left inside her.
She was emptied of everything. She didn’t sleep that night. Instead, she lay beside her husband feeling that total emptiness being filled with God only knows what. It was a kind of energy moving through her body.
That’s shameless persistence. That’s knocking at the door with no words to convey that pain. That’s audacious, demanding.
So, “when we pray,” Jesus says. “Say Father, hallowed by your name.”
And that quickly he moves into supplications:
- Your kingdom come. – The reign has come near. We yearn for God to bring it to fullness.
- Give us bread. We crave the Great Messianic Banquet at the end of time. But for now,provide for us our necessary sustenance. Release us from our sins. Help us forgive those who sin against us.
- Preserve us. Protect us from the test and the trial that jeopardizes faith.
When we pray, we pray for others. We pray for ourselves. We pray for everything from travel mercies to death and dying. We pray for God’s shalom. We pray for sustenance for our souls. We pray and we pray and we pray.
And for all that we pray for, aren’t we really crying out to God for one thing?
Bring it on, God. Bring your kingdom here on earth.
And if you’re not ready to bring it into fullness, help us today see a glimpse of the kingdom.
And that’s what we ask-search-knock for. Glimpses of the kingdom in those travel mercies, those prayers for health, and sustenance. Glimpses of the kingdom in our attempts to forgive. Glimpses of the kingdom that remind us that the powers that rule today will pass away. That God in Christ has won the victory in his resurrection.
Your kingdom come, Lord.
Bring it on.
All glory and honor be to God.
[i] Thomas Long, “Westminster Bible Companion: Matthew” (Louisville, London. Westminster John Knox Press, 1997) Page 80