Former Sewanee chaplain Tom Ward has given me permission to share a wonderful sermon that he delivered recently at Otey Parish. A former English major, Tom compared the disciples asking Jesus how to pray (Luke 11:1-13) to the young aspiring poet who asked Rainer Maria Rilke for advice. The resultant letters, published as Letters to a Young Poet, reveal that Jesus and Rilke thought along similar lines. Indeed, Rilke sometimes resorts to religious imagery, declaring that a true poet responds to an inner call and his life becomes one of witness.
Tom has given a lot of thought to prayer and currently leads a centering prayer group that meets weekly. I attended it this past week and can testify to its power. In the passage that led to Tom’s reflections, Jesus teaches the disciples the Lord’s Prayer in response to their request, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” Then he tells them to imagine themselves as a persistent individual who needs something at an inconvenient hour:
And 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; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And 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.’ I 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.
“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. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If 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!”
In his reflection, Tom alludes as well to a passage comparing God to a judge who is so worn down by a persistent petitioner than he finally agrees to grant her justice. After the sermon, Tom noted to me that Jesus could have a sense of humor when describing God. “All right, already,” one imagines an exasperated God saying.
I have edited the sermon slightly to shift it from an oral to a written presentation.
By Tom Ward, Former University Chaplain at Sewanee
One day almost 120 years ago, in the fall of 1902, a 19-year-old student at a German military academy named Franz Xaver Kappus sat under a chestnut tree reading the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke and thinking about what he was going to do with his life. As he did, the chaplain of the school happened to walk by and mentioned that Rilke had been a student at the school some 15 years before.
Before the day was out, Kappus had determined to write Rilke and seek his counsel about his vocational decision. Should he follow the path of least resistance and enter the military? Or should he be led by his heart’s desire to be a poet.
Kappus’s initial letter led to a seven-year correspondence between the two, which in turn became Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. In the first of these letters, Rilke writes,
You have asked me if your verses are any good. You have asked me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work
Now (since you have asked my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you. No one.
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign of witness to this impulse.
In the gospel for today, Jesus is praying.
The gospels show Jesus at prayer many different times and on many different occasions. Mark tells us that Jesus went out to pray in a deserted place while it was still dark. Luke shows us Jesus at prayer before every major event in his life—from his baptism, to his transfiguration, to the Garden of Gethsemane before his crucifixion.
As we can imagine, the disciples observed all of this and wondered what Jesus’s prayer was like. Did he pray the prayers of the synagogue when he was all alone this way? Or did he have some special way of praying that was unknown to them. They wanted to know.
Also, they had heard that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. So they asked Jesus to teach them.
Jesus gave them the prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer, which most of us pray more than we do any other prayer.
Scholars tell us that the word that Jesus used in reference to the God of Israel was the Aramaic word “Abba,” which is best translated not as “Father” but as “Daddy” or “Papa” or some other more informal word that denotes intimacy. In teaching them this prayer, Jesus was inviting the disciples into that intimate relation with the transcendent God that he had.
In turn, you and I were baptized into this same intimate relationship with Abba. The Spirit descended upon us at our baptisms as it descended on Jesus in his baptism The Spirit, as it did with Jesus, dwells within us and stirs us to prayer.
That is the first and most important point. Prayer is our relationship with God, a relationship in which we respond to God’s initiative. It is our intimate response to Jesus’s invitation to intimacy with his Abba and ours.
If your spiritual journey is anything like mine, you can look back to a time when your prayer life was like Franz Kappus’s relation to writing poetry. You were attracted but unsure. In other words, you were like the disciples observing other people at prayer and wondering was was going on with them. You compared your spiritual journey with that of others.
Then, perhaps, you became aware that there was a different dimension to this relation with God—that it could be intimate and personal and meaningful, the way that Rilke describes the inner life of the poet. “Go into yourself…Dig into your life….Build your life in accordance with this inner necessity.”
Something like this is what Jesus was teaching the disciples with today’s parable. If we really want prayer, we’re going to have to go beyond the conventional, formal norms.
We going to have to go beyond the words to the personal reality the words represent.
We’re going to have to pray as if we are waking God up.
We’re going to have to pray as if our very life depends on it.
We’re going to have to become persistent. Shameless.
Lest we think that this teaching was not at the heart of Jesus’s message about prayer, we might remember another of Luke’s parables. In Luke 18:1-8, Jesus tells a story so that the disciples would not lose heart while praying.
In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was also a widow who kept coming to him and saying, “Grant me justice against my opponent.”
For a while the judge refused, but later he said to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she will not wear me out.”
Jesus’s point: Be like this widow. Be persistent. Shameless. Keep on keeping on.
After hearing these parables about persistence in prayer, we might get discouraged and begin to think our elation with God depends on us and our effort. The good news is that Abba initiates this relationship with us. He wants this relationship more than we do. He wants to fill us with God’s love. “Everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
As Paul tells us, “We do not know how to pray
as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
It is Abba’s good pleasure to give us the kingdom, so let us ask, seek, knock. Let us pray without ceasing.