Prayer: If at first you don’t succeed…

Children’s Time: Giving a sermon on prayer is a lot like teaching a class about driving a car or sailing a ship. You need to know something about it before you get behind the wheel. And yet, you’ll never quite get the hang of it until you get in and drive. Jesus taught his disciples how to pray… but in the end they had to practice it. They had to take time to be with God in prayer, thanking and confessing, asking and listening.

One of the pastors in my online text study did a Google search on the internet for prayer. He found:
11,800 News related results for “prayer”
431,000 video results for “prayer”
12.8 million blog results for “prayer”
16 million book results for “prayer”
21.7 million image results for “prayer”

Prayer is on the minds of a lot of people, across denominations and among all religions.

Genesis 18 – Abraham’s haggling with God
In this story, Abraham barters with God to save the city from being destroyed. “What if there are 50 righteous in the city? 40? 30? 10?” Each time God says, “I will not destroy the city for ‘X’ amount of righteous people.”

We just spent a couple weeks in Tanzania, where everyone barters in the local marketplace. In Genesis, it doesn’t seem like God is too good at it, though. I bet Abraham coulda gotten him down to “one” faithful soul in Sodom, and even thrown in a new tent and a few goats out of the deal.

Apparently 10 wasn’t enough. As it turned out, whole city was wiped out. Only Lot and his family were spared. It kinda bothers me that the welfare of an entire city rests in the hands and hearts of 10 people. This week’s Psalm 138:8 implores God, “Do not abandon the works of your hands.” No matter how loathsome, hang in there with humanity, O God!

And as we see the destruction made by human hands unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico, we know we are not perfect.

To be sure, Sodom and Gommorha were cities steeped in violence. There was no true hospitality to found there among her citizens. Still, it’s a chilling indictment, to know that not even ten of them were worth saving in God’s eyes.

As with the law, such terrible texts drive me to ask, seek, knock for that divine intimacy the disciples craved when they said: “Lord, teach us to pray”

Luke 11 – Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray by giving them what we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.” He then tells them a story about a man who goes to visit a friend after dark, in search of bread to serve his houseguest. The moral of that story is simply to “Ask, Search, and Knock.” It’s the persistence that pays off.

We were watching an classic episode of Laurel and Hardy the other day (The Bohemian Girl) and there’s a scene in which Stan and Ollie are helping a little girl with her bedtime prayers. “Now I lay me down to sleep,” she begins. “I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If… if… if… Oh, what comes next?” Stanley whispers the ending to Ollie:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again! Amen.”

The problem with that answer is that it sets prayer up for success or failure. “Am I doing it right?” “Is this the way to address God?” “Is it long enough?”

What makes for a successful prayer? If it comes true? “Ask and it shall be given you.”

That seems straightforward enough. But what if I don’t get a pony and I’ve been praying for it for a long time? What if I’ve figured out how to pay for it and the feed and how all my friends will benefit from it – and I still don’t get that pony?

It seems that Jesus knows what we need most – even though he doesn’t quite spell it out. Through prayer we receive the Holy Spirit, living within us and guiding us on our way.

Really, as time goes on, that’s what we need the most: God’s Spirit to direct our days.
I’m reminded of the four-fold practice of lectio-divina, praying through the scriptures:

Reading (you will seek)
Meditating (you will find)
Praying (you will call)
Contemplating (the door will be opened to you)

Or this formula from a southern preacher (I don’t have a source on this)
I reads myself full
I thinks myself clear
I prays myself hot
I lets myself cool

Anne Lamott writes in Traveling Mercies that our two best prayers are, “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” (p. 82). So, however you pray – don’t give up! Try, try again! Not so you can “get it right” but so you can “get close to God.”

Let us pray: O God, we thank you for the gift of prayer. Draw us close to you each day through the power of your Spirit, in Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

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