July 28, 2013
Nils Friberg had been the pastor of the First Swedish Baptist Church in Oakland, California when my mother was young. On retirement, he and his wife returned to what was then Lakeside Baptist Church when I was growing up. I remember that when he was asked to do the pastoral prayer, even after walking across the chancel became difficult for him; he would step behind the pulpit, lift his hands high, look straight up and boom out a prayer in a heavy Swedish accent. I thought he was looking right through the roof directly into heaven, compelling God to listen to his prayer. Nobody else I knew prayed like Dr. Friberg. I wanted to learn to pray so I could know God would listen.
Only years later did I learn that lifting hands and looking up was a standard posture for prayer in the early centuries of the Church. In the second and third centuries Christians painted and carved pictures of women leading prayer with their arms uplifted. This is a remarkable sign of the transforming power of the Gospel, as in the religions of pagan Rome, women were relegated to subservient roles and even prostitution.
In Colossians 2:6 we get a hint that following Jesus was a total way of life, not religious practices, as was common among the pagans. Prayer was not something these early Christians did, it was the way they lived.
When we think of prayer, we think of how we fail in intensity, confidence, frequency and duration. As you listen to the words of Jesus today, I hope you will realize that God enjoys listening and responding to our prayers.
The theme of the General Assembly that just finished was, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We all identify with the disciples’ request in Luke 11:1-13. We are more familiar with how Matthew presented of some of this material. What surprises you in Luke, why? Jesus didn’t just teach how to pray but what to expect from God when we pray. To understand Jesus’ explanation, you need to know he used a humorous hyperbole. Hospitality, especially to travelers, was such a strong cultural value that turning down the friend’s request was laughable. The whole village would be shamed not to care for a traveler. Also bread was not the meal but the means by which the meal was eaten, dipping into a common pot.
[Jesus] 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 [to avoid shame] 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!”
Though “persistence” is a possible translation of verse 8, “avoid shame” fits the point of Jesus’ teaching that God joyfully hears and responds to our prayers. To teach persistence in prayer, to pray and not give up, Jesus told the parable of the widow and the judge in Luke 18:1-8.
The familiar triplet – ask, search, knock – assures those who pray they will receive, find and be opened to by God.
Typical of Middle Eastern teaching, Jesus drives his point home with a third image, parents giving good gifts to their children. Typical of Luke, he specified that Jesus promised the heavenly Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.
Since God enjoys listening and responding to our prayers, what did Jesus teach about how to pray? We are used to the liturgical version of the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew. We recite it together every Sunday, which is probably how it was intended to be used. But here Jesus gives it to us in its simplest, stripped down version, more suited for private prayer. Yet, it is still about “us” not “me.” We pray as a community, even when alone. No elegant title, just familiar “Abba” in Aramaic: Father, Dad, Papa. Five basic petitions. No need for a script or a rosary. Your fingers will do. Honor God. Put God in control. Provide for us today. Forgive because our life is about forgiveness. Keep us out of trouble.
I recognize that as a pastor I have more opportunity and time for prayer than most of you, but I want to suggest some simple practices I have found helpful that I think you can all handle. Every morning I face the four directions of the compass, starting with east to give the new day to God. As I face each direction, I think about who and what are out there and hand them over to God
When someone tells me of a trouble they are having, I ask if I can pray for them and may exchange phone numbers. About a month later a call and ask how they are doing.
In your bulletin today is a sign-up sheet for a prayer triad. The idea is for three people to get together four times to pray for our church between September 1 and November 21 at times and places that work for you. I have prepared a guide to help you pray four of Paul’s prayers for New Testament churches for our church. My goal is to have 10-12 triads (that’s 30-36 people) this fall and then to repeat it between New Year’s and Lent, aiming for 30-36 triads (90-108 people). It’s simple enough, anyone can do it. I’ve seen its power in a few congregations. Imagine the spiritual impact of 100 people praying for this church!
When we lived in the Daybreak community for mentally handicapped adults in Ontario, Thursdays were our evening to have dinner at Stephenson House and handle the evening routines to give the regular assistants a break. One of my roles was to help Michael Arnett get ready for bed. Michael could not read and needed specific instructions for each step of his routine. Remove his clothes and hang or put them in the hamper. Put on his pajamas. Wash up and brush his teeth. Lay out his clothes to put on in the morning. Set his alarm so he could be ready for his ride to the sheltered workshop in the morning. And last of all, to kneel by his bed and pray.
When Michael prayed he held a small wooden cross that Father Henri Nouwen had brought him from Latin America. He stared at that cross with such intensity, that much like Nils Friberg, he seemed to be looking straight into the heart of God. No Swedish accent, but with the halting, irregular voice of one whose brain and body don’t work well together, he prayed like no one else I’ve ever known except Nils Friberg. He prayed for the people in his house, for everyone in the Daybreak community, including his even more disabled brother, Adam. For his parents. For people from all over the world who had visited the community in recent years. For people in the world who were suffering disasters that Michael heard about on the news but had no way of understanding. Not once did I ever hear Michael ask God for anything for himself! But he prayed with the absolute confidence that God enjoyed listening to him and responding to him.