I was relatively new in my ministry internship when Carter invited me to come to visit him on his ranch. We were in a town in northern Texas, and I assumed it was a hospitable attempt by one of the congregation’s pillars to get to know the young pastor-in-training. Carter met me as I got out of my car. He gestured broadly across the vast spaces of his land, which seemed to extend to the horizon. After the quick orientation, he led me inside, and I realized why he had wanted me to visit. His wife was bedfast, racked with cancer. We went in to see her. We prayed and came back into the living room. “I pray and pray,” Carter said, “But I guess God’s not listening.” He looked at me with weathered and watery eyes. As I looked into them, words just failed me, so together we quietly beheld the mystery of God, the mystery of life. Carter finally broke the silence, “She’s not getting better, but I won’t stop praying. I won’t stop hoping. I don’t know what else to do but hope that God has all this worked out.”
There have been more than 30 years since that day with Carter. While I felt somewhat embarrassed at the time that I didn’t have the right word to speak to him, now I know that most often there isn’t a right word. But that doesn’t keep us from hoping — and praying.
Jesus’ reflections on prayer in this passage point beyond techniques, forms and styles. There are no magic formulas, no right words. When it comes to prayer it’s not so much a matter of what and how and when. Rather, it’s about who and why.
The “who” is each of us and all of us and God. Prayer binds each of us and all of us closer to God.
Why do we pray? We pray to God because God is the one from whom all blessings flow. We pray to God because all that we are and all that we have comes from God’s hand. We pray to God because in life and in death we belong to God.
So when we gather for worship, our service is filled with prayers: a prayer of confession as we acknowledge our need for God’s mercy, a prayer for illumination as we seek the Spirit’s help in understanding the ancient words of Scripture; a prayer of invocation that the preacher’s words might be vessels of good news; a prayer of intercession for the world and for all who suffer in body, mind, and spirit; the Lord’s Prayer, using the words Jesus taught; a prayer of thanksgiving offering our gratitude to God; and sacramental prayers inviting the Spirit to move through the water and the bread and the cup to seal us in the promises of the gospel. In addition to all these spoken prayers in our worship, there are the prayers offered in observed silences plus all those prayers offered in the quiet of our hearts.
In prayer after prayer, these themes are reinforced: God is the one from whom all blessings flow; God is the source of all that we have and all that we are; God is the one to whom we belong in life an in death. The words change, but these themes persist. Over time, we become more and more aware of them and we are shaped by them and our prayers are deepened. When it comes to prayer, the who and the why matter the most.
And that’s all fine, right? Especially in a pretty room where we put on our church clothes and church faces. It’s all fine. But what do you do when you pray day after day and nothing seems to happen? What do you do when you pray and your friends pray and your church prays and your friends’ churches pray, and the illness persists or the injustice prevails or the condition worsens? Doesn’t Jesus say right here that “Everyone who asks receives and everyone who searches finds and for everyone who knocks the door will be open?” (Luke 11:10). Yet we have all known people and quite likely we are people who have not always received what we asked for, nor have we always found what we’ve been seeking, nor has the door always been opened for us, in spite of our persistent knocking. Carter’s words have been our words, “I pray and I pray, but I guess God’s not listening.”
I believe God does listen. Surely, that is the witness of Scripture. Faithfully, consistently, lovingly, mercifully and graciously, God hears our prayers. Our pleas, our complaints, our questions, our laments, our praises, our thanksgivings and our sighs too deep for words – God hears all of that.
Prayer is not about getting what we want when we want it. Prayer is about learning to trust God; it’s about growing in relationship with God by voicing the cares of our hearts and sharing with God the joys and sorrows of our lives. Prayer is not the clenched fist demanding that our will be done; it is the open hand receiving God’s provisions for this day. Prayer is the means by which we acknowledge that God is God and we are not.
Perhaps that’s what Carter had finally learned as we shared questions and tears and silence all those years ago. It’s surely what I’m learning, day by day. How about you? So I still keep Carter’s words close at hand: “I won’t stop praying. I won’t stop hoping. I don’t know what else to do but hope that God has all this worked out.”
Hoping, praying – these are the marks of our lives as God’s people. Hoping, praying – it’s how we live, it’s how we grow.
- How has your understanding of prayer changed over the years? What have you learned about prayer? What do you continue to wonder about?
- Are there modes or means of prayer that are particularly meaningful for you?
- What are the words or phrases in the Lord’s Prayer that especially resonate for you?