Tag Archives: prayer

Ask and you shall recieve. Or, you know, not.

Sometimes you can ask, and ask and ask and... nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

Sometimes we can ask, and ask and ask and… nothing seems to happen. (photo from elca.org)

 Text: Luke 11:1-13

I find this text to be… difficult. I mean, the Lord’s Prayer, I’m fine with. Who can argue with that? The part I find difficult is at the end. “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened…” We’ve all heard it. And I think it is safe to assume we have all asked and not had it given unto us. It’s hard, and it hurts.

When I worked at Northwest Memorial in Chicago, during my seminary chaplaincy, I was called to the room of a woman who had, for lack of a better phrase, full body cancer. It had metastasized everywhere. While we were talking, she asked me about prayer. She was a lapsed Catholic and wondered if I might bring her a rosary and help her learn the Hail Mary. I went to the office and grabbed her a rosary and a Catholic prayer book, recited the Hail Mary with her (as my Swedish Lutheran grandmother’s head spun somewhere in Ohio), and said goodbye. Weeks later, she was back in and asked to see me. She wanted to tell me that she had been cured through prayer. After her last time in the hospital, she started going to church and attending a women’s prayer circle. The women prayed for her and laid hands on her every week. Now, no cancer. They were just running some final tests.

I wanted to be happy for her, I really did. I tried. But as she prayed for a cure, so did I. I prayed and prayed for my father’s brain to somehow be rid of the malignant tumor that was killing him. There was no cure. He would die. God is so fair that God is unfair, a friend once told me. Some prayers are answered in the way and time we want and, well, some just aren’t. And it sucks.

Sometimes, I watch televangelists when I can’t sleep.

I was watching a particular evangelist known for preaching what is called the prosperity gospel. The prosperity gospel is the idea that God wants you to have everything you want, and you will get it if only you pray hard enough and work hard enough (and, often, donate a lot to the church or preacher who is telling you this). This preacher was on a prosperity gospel roll when he remarked that people who have financial troubles have them because their faith is not strong enough. Then he went on to say that people who are ill, people who have cancer, people who are dying, are in that state because they weren’t praying hard enough.

Wait, what the what?

But there it is in the scripture, right? Ask and it shall be given unto you! Seek and you shall find! Knock and the door will be opened! Jesus said it, it’s right there. So if it’s not happening for you, there must be something wrong with you. That’s what this preacher was telling the people in his congregation and the people he reaches across the world through the glowing screen.

Few things get my hackles up as much as placing the brokenness of the world on people’s shoulders and telling then that it would go away if only they worked hard enough. I guess that is the Lutheran in me.

This kind of thinking is dangerous. It can kill faith. When we walk around with the idea that God is a cosmic butler who will respond to our desires (as long as they are Godly desires, naturally. Or maybe desires for a new car), with a resounding yes!, we are setting ourselves up for disappointment.

But still, we have this section of the Bible (and in Mark and Matthew as well) that tells us that if we ask we will receive, if we seek we will find, and if we knock, a door will open. So what do we do when that doesn’t happen? What do we do when we have been unemployed for months and we are knocking and asking and seeking, but no doors seem to be opening, no answers coming, no jobs to be found? What about when a loved one is ill and we pray and pray and pray and yet there is no cure, no remission, no end to the pain?

If we have hung our faith on a God who will do exactly what we want, when we want, it may not sustain us through hard times – because that’s not how God works.

We have ways we explain God’s apparent lack of response to our prayers. God answers all prayers, sometimes the answer is no. It wasn’t the right time, be patient. But these answers are wholly unsatisfying. I want what I want and I want it now.

It’s one thing when I don’t get something I want like a parking space (yes, I have prayed for those before), or a shiny new car. Then it’s pretty sensible that God’s answer was either no or silence (because I don’t doubt God has better things to do than help me get a parking space). But when we pray for a cure, for an end to pain, for a job that will help us feed our families – then the silence on God’s end seems uncaring and distant. It is this silence that leads people to disbelief, to observe that a good God just wouldn’t let these horrible things happen, so either there is no God, or God is not good.

This misunderstands who God is, what God is, and God’s role in our lives and the universe.

God is not a genie, or a celestial butler or a vending machine. God is so much bigger and more than this. God is a mystery we have only seen in pieces and parts. But all of those pieces and parts add up to one thing: God is love. God is the creator, the ground of being, beyond our comprehension, And sometimes, this is really hard to deal with. We want a God who is like us. We want a God whose primary job it is to respond to our demands in the time we want the way we want. When we do this to God, we make God small, and relegate the source of our being to our servant.

But what so we do with the fact that something that Jesus said doesn’t jive with our experience of God and our stories of God in Jesus Christ that tell us God is a God of love? What do we do when something that Jesus said doesn’t appear to be the way the world works?

We put it back in context. We look at the verses around it, we use the rest of the Bible and our tradition to help us out. When we do this, we discover that  maybe because we aren’t making the connections Christ wants us to make, we’re making the connections we want to make, the connections that give us butler God.

To make sense of ask and it shall be given unto you, seek and you shall find, knock and the door shall be opened unto you, let’s look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples. What are we to ask for? What are we to seek? Where shall we knock?

For Jesus, it is all about the kingdom. Start with thanksgiving, with a heart of gratitude. Ask for our basic needs to be met. Ask for forgiveness. Seek the ability to forgive others. Seek God’s will. Knock on the door of the kingdom.

I can tell you from personal experience that when things are falling apart, starting the day or your prayer with gratitude feels impossible. It is really hard. It can feel forced. But it can also switch your frame entirely and change the way you are looking at your life and change how you approach your day.  A little thanksgiving to the creator can refocus not only your day, but your life.

It’s about God and the kingdom. God wants us to seek the Kingdom, God wants us to knock on the door of the kingdom. This is the gift we are to ask for – and it is already here. The kingdom, Christ said, is here. It is in prayer that we encounter God and it is in seeking God’s will, seeking to forgive and be forgiven, to praise, to ask for salvation and to ask for our basic needs to be filled that we knock on the door of the kingdom. When we live in a Christ centered way, when we live in prayer and love, we seek the kingdom and we will find the kingdom. For most of us, the discovery will be fleeting. We will have kingdom moments, moments when we are filled with God’s love that everything feels perfect. Then the moment will fade. The world will get in our way. We will start thinking about ourselves and our needs and what we don’t have, we will compare what we have to what those around us have. Or our illness will break through, despair will grab a hold of us and we will become blind to the kingdom again. Sometimes we may pray and pray and pray and it will seem like the door isn’t opening and there is nothing to find. Then a friend will appear at the perfect moment with words of encouragement and the kingdom breaks through into our world again. And again. And again.

I don’t want to sound like I’m saying God doesn’t want us to pray for cures or love or hope or for the pain to go away or for whatever else we may be praying for. God does. God wants to know what we want, God wants us to be in relationship together and one of the paths to relationship is by being honest about what you want and need. But it’s not always going to work out the way we want it to. Sometimes it will. Cures happen, jobs appear out of the blue and sometimes love falls out of trees. But it also might not. Because the world is a broken place, and as much as God may love us as individuals and as a people, we aren’t always going to get what we want. But we will get what we need: love. Forgiveness. Community. Small glimpses of the kingdom.

The kingdom is the best gift God can give us. It is the opposite of giving a child a scorpion. The receiving, finding, and opening to God’s kingdom is the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what I want or what you want, which is hard. But it is about God’s kingdom, which, even in glimpses, is more than anything we could possibly ask for.

God’s version of okay and mine are not the same

I have a lot of stuff happening in my life lately. For the most part, half of it is really good and half is just plain awful. Painful. Crappy. It is really, really confusing to have both happening at once — I’m never quite sure how to feel, and sometimes I feel like I am feeling all the feelings exactly at once.

Fortunately, before much of the bad became evident, I had started to cultuvate a pretty decent prayer life. So, for now, I pray. A lot. I start out talking to God, praising, asking for things, giving thanks. Then I listen.

When I listen, I can so clearly hear a voice saying that it’s all going to be alright. First I ask if it is my voice that is saying that. My voice doesn’t say things like that. My voice is more likely to say, “Yeah, this sucks, you’re screwed.” So, maybe it is God’s voice (I feel weird saying I can hear God’s voice. I don’t want to come off crazy or self-absorbed).

I really, really want to lean in to the idea that it is all going to be alright. Who doesn’t?

There are a couple problems with this for me. One is that, far more often than I’d like, God’s version of alright and mine don’t look the same. Frankly, right now, I desparately want them to be the same. I want God to be on my side, to want the same things for me that I want for me. And that’s not usually how it works. ‘Cause God is smarter than me. But while I wait for God’s version of alright, I cling to my version. And it hurts. A lot.

Another problem is time. God’s time and our time are different. Kairos and chronos. I want things to be alright in Earth time, my time, RIGHT NOW time — chronos. But I have a feeling that when God tells me things will be alright, God is talking kairos. I don’t like that. It’s too nebulous, too “wait and see,” too out of control.

I just want everything to be okay, the way I define okay, and I want it now. I’m not going to get that. So how do I lean into the uncertainty of God’s plans for me in God’s time? How do I give up control and follow? What will it look like for me to do that? Who will I become?

I have no control, but I desparately want it. I want to be able to fix the broken things in my life, the broken people, and myself. But I can only fix one of those things, and even that I can only do with God’s help.

It is all going to be okay.

It is all going to be okay.

It is all going to be okay.

Write it on my heart.

Turn it into my mantra.

Trust that this is true.


This is why it is called Good Friday

This cross is in the office of Father Stan Rother who was murdered by a death squad in Santiago De Atitlan, Guatemala in 1981.

For most of my life, I didn’t understand the importance of the crucified Christ. I mean, I got the salvation piece of it, the fact that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice for our sins and through that act, all people were forgiven (as much as anyone can understand that). What I didn’t understand was why anyone would want to dwell on the crucifixion, why the crucified Christ is what hangs in Catholic churches and is depicted in so much artwork. It was, as the Bishop George Carlin says in Dogma, “so depressing.” What is so good about Good Friday? I would wonder. It is about death and suffering. Jesus died. That’s awful. I wanted to skip ahead to Sunday — I wanted to get to the happy part without the rest of the stuff in between.

Then I had the privilege of traveling to Guatemala. I spent two weeks travelling with Witness for Peace, bearing witness to the tragedy, violence and pain of the 36 year war there. Our group met with people from a village called Rio Negro. The World Bank wanted to dam the river they lived on. The people refused to move. Over the course of a few weeks, 440 people were slaughtered. Men were massacred in the church. Women and children were marched up a hill and killed in unspeakable ways. The members of the village that survived were relocated to a plot of land right across the street from the very military officers who ruthlessly killed their family members. The farmland the government “gave” them was hours away by bus, leading to a lifetime of poverty for a people already starving.

We met a man who was going to testify against the military officers who he watched kill his family. He had to travel with an accompanier because of the threats on his life.

We visited the Guatemala City graveyard, where those who are poor rent graves until they can no longer afford them — then the bodies are thrown out. The rich have tombs that have electricity and running water. Immediately behind these tombs lies the Guatemala City dump where people live and die with less material wealth than those buried in the grand tombs.

We went to the reclamation project — a group of people dedicated to unearthing and identifying the victims of the massacres and disappearances in Guatemala. They did their work in a house that was wall to wall boxes of bones. Out by the pool lay shoes, hats and clothing of massacre victims. Many of these people will never be named, their families never totally sure what happened to them after the policia or the military came to take them away.

It was there, among the people of Guatemala, that I understood the importance of the crucified Christ. I sat down on the steps of a chapel and it all became crystal clear. People must know that Christ suffered. That is what we share with God. God shared in our pain. God knows what it is like to hunger for both food and justice. God knows what it is like to be persecuted for speaking out, what it is like to be tortured, what it is like to suffer and what it is like to die. God knows. God understands. God takes it on himself.

Christ was crucified with the people of Rio Negro 34 year ago. Christ is crucified with the people in Syria, the Congo, Afghanistan and anywhere and every else there is war and famine. Christ is crucified every day, with us, with our pain and our suffering. God is with us every day as we weep and gnash our teeth.

But this is not the end of the story. The story doesn’t end with pain and misery. It doesn’t end with anger and exile. The story continues. But that is on Sunday. Today, Friday, we sit in the suffering. We remember the suffering of Christ and of all of the people who have suffered and are suffering. We remember. We pray. We love. We hurt. And then we wait. Because Sunday is coming.

The Lords Prayer from Guatemala by Julia Esquivel — Read this. Fair warning, it will probably make you cry. In fact, I hope it does. Because it is still Friday.

Want to make a mainline protestant uncomfortable? Ask for prayer. Out loud prayer.

Some of the most powerful experiences in my ministry have involved prayer. More specifically, they have involved other people praying or forcing me to pray. This is because I am Lutheran, and public and partnered prayer make me wicked uncomfortable (more on that later). When I was a youth director, my mission trips were insane. Ask anyone. They were awesome, but they were totally insane. One summer, my youth, a brave volunteer, and myself headed  CLE –> CHI –> MPLS. We were going to be really late getting to Redeemer Lutheran in MPLS, but that said that would be fine. They had a prayer service at six pm and they could let us in. We weren’t getting in until at least nine pm, so I was nervous. No way would a Lutheran prayer service still be happening after three hours. We arrived a little after nine and the church was unlocked. In the sanctuary there was a group of people drumming and praying. They prayed for us and our journey, for the lives of our youth and their families back home. We were all flabbergasted. Lutherans praying for hours? My kids couldn’t stop talking about it. They loved it. They wanted more.

A few summers later, we went from a coal town in WV –> Asheville –> Charleston. In WV, we were participating in a YouthWorks trip. At the end of the trip, there was a worship service during which the leaders were asked to lay hands on the kids and pray (yes, I know how wrong that sounds. Minds out of the gutter, please). I was TERRIFIED. I was going to have to be really, really intimate with these kids. Some of them I knew way better than others. I hate praying out loud with others. Too much intimacy, too much pressure, too many eyes on me (yes, I know that it’s not about me. But it is). All of those eyes on me meant I had to do it. So I went around and prayed for my kids and my volunteers, one by one. I was totally panicking inside, asking God for words. Please, God, give me words. And God did provide. None of the kids ever said anything to me about it, but I heard from parents afterward that the experience was incredibly powerful for my kids. It was one of the things they talked about most. And me? I discovered (again) the power of prayer.

This past Tuesday, in my Indigenous Ways of Knowing class, our teacher (a Lakota chief) opened up the class in song and prayer (as he always does). I realized that this has NEVER happened during my time in seminary. Maybe at my last seminary; that was a long time ago. But certainly not in the past semester (and if it happened at all at my last seminary, I venture a guess that it was not often). This seemed weird to me. Does it seem weird to you? I asked a professor about it and she said that there are some people who don’t think it is appropriate, that prayer is not what we are here to do. We are here for intellectual pursuits. ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!!! For real? I’m learning to be a pastor. I will spend a shit ton of my time praying (that is a mathematical term, btw. The vulgar system of measurement). Apparently, this is another thing we are already supposed to know how to do and/or will learn during teaching parish/CPE/internship. We pray before meals, giving thanks for the food and the hands that have prepared it, asking that it nourish our bodies. Shouldn’t we do the same with the information that goes into our heads? A little giving thanks for the people who have gone before us and shaped out theology and a request that it shape our brains for good gospel witness to the world?

This isn’t just about prayer in seminary. This is about prayer in our lives. Most mainline protestants I know are as terrified of one-on-one prayer as I am. We do it because we have to, and we generally only do it when someone is sick or dying or otherwise really needs our help. Often, we wait until we are asked. I am in this boat too. A few weeks back, a student from another denomination started class with an activity that involved one-on-one prayer. My partner was the professor. We nervously chatted the whole time. What is it about praying with another person that is so frightening?

This is what I feel like doing when asked to pray.

When we pray, we are naked. We are needy. We are vulnerable. Most people, particularly most leaders, don’t want to be seen that way. We don’t want to bring our open wounds into the public arena. We don’t want to ask for help from someone else (many of us have a hard enough time asking for help from God), we don’t want to open ourselves up that much. We want to be strong, perfect leader-types. But we aren’t perfect. We are just as broken as our parishioners, just as broken as the rest of the body of Christ.

Prayer, more than almost anything else we do, forces us to give up power. In prayer, the power is God’s. We have to let go of ourself and let God come through. We have to stop making it about us and make it about God and the other person/people in the room. Are we afraid our prayer will reveal how weak our own prayer life is? How tenuous our own relationship with God is? Many of us are afraid we might say the wrong thing. This is where depending on God comes in. And, if I say the wrong thing, chances are no one will notice. If I say a really wrong thing, I’ll apologize. It will happen. It is a part of our brokenness. That’s ok.

Whatever our problems with prayer might be, whatever it is that makes so many of us react to a mention of prayer with resignation, internal panic or the sudden desire to run away (or any combination thereof), we have to get over it.  Because prayer has a profound effect on those with whom we pray and on our own damaged souls.

Sometime in the next few days, ask someone to pray with you. I dare you. Be careful: if you ask me, I just might take you up on it. I gotta get over myself. True story. Maybe you do too.

A lesson from Rev. Hammer: