As a high school teacher, I still hear occasional “knock knock” jokes, although they are always either inappropriate for school or if they are appropriate, they’re just punny and not hilarious. Some people like “knock-knock” jokes, and some “knock-knock” jokes are better than others. But what happens if no one says, “Who’s there?”
That’s exactly how it is with God: if God is speaking and we’re not listening, how can we do what God wants us to do?? And if we ask God for something but don’t stop to listen for an answer, how can God answer that prayer??
In our Gospel reading today, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. Over the years as priest and spiritual companion I have met many people who ask the same thing. They want to know how to pray—not with words that someone else has written, necessarily, although those can be very useful. Overall, they’re not looking for the right words, they want to know how to enter more fully into the mystery of what it means to pray. But that’s how Jesus answers when the disciples ask him about prayer. “When you pray, say . . .” (v 2).
Jesus’ answer is a short example of prayer, a prayer without a lot of fancy words, in normal language – much like we might speak to a parent. He even uses the intimate language of a young child calling on his Daddy. Then he tells us a few stories to help us understand what prayer is about and what makes prayer effective. The first one is quite easy for some of us to imagine. A man comes to your door in the middle of the night. He says that he just had some unexpected guests drop in and there is nothing in the house to feed them. Could you spare a few pieces of bread? Maybe a little coffee?
Once, many years ago, I had this fantasy of living out in the country, a good 15 miles from the nearest grocery and miles away from having cable access or pizza delivery. It was a living hell because of those deprivations, and of course, the winters on the lake were unbelievably long and cold. During those 4 years I learned that people really do go their neighbor’s houses and ask for things like an egg or a cup of sugar. Since I was working as a sous-chef and was also in charge of cooking for my family, there were many times when I was in the middle of a recipe and realized I was missing an ingredient or two. So, I did what others had already done to me: I asked to borrow the missing ingredient, promising to pay them back when I could get to the store. But here is the unwritten code of borrowing: by asking for a cup of sugar from someone, we are bestowing them with permission to ask for help when they need something. And it all starts with having the courage of actually walking over to the house and knocking on the door.
God works the same way, only a lot of times when we knock on the door, we don’t actually want God to be home! We knock timidly, awkwardly, wait a few seconds and then leave. That’s because that unwritten agreement works with God as well, meaning, we’re afraid that if God answers our prayers, God might someday come knocking on our door wanting something. And that is a scary thought!
Jesus is recorded in all the Gospel accounts as having spent a lot of time praying, sometimes even all night. Like you, I’ve spent a few sleepless nights stressed out about family members, worried about their safety and salvation, and other times I’m awakened inexplicably by something and all I can do is focus on praying for whoever it is who needs my prayers right at that moment. Jesus was really good at this very thing; he wasn’t afraid to lose some sleep seeking God, waiting for God, listening in the silence.
Of course, we all know what God asked of Jesus. If we were to pray that often, that fervently, that persistently, what might God ask of us? Or asked another way, what might God accomplish through us?
The second way Jesus explains what prayer is about is by asking a few rhetorical questions about what we give to our kids when they ask us for something. The clear implication is that God, as parent, will do at least as much as we would do for our own children, though clearly God has a bit more to offer.
But Jesus also tells his Disciples that whenever we ask, we will receive; that whenever we knock, the door will be opened. I have wondered about those verses all my life. I’ve seen a lot of my personal prayers go unanswered, many requests denied, many doors I prayed might open remain sealed shut. So….what the heck is Jesus telling us here?
I had an “Aha!” moment recently as I struggled with this. Jesus tells us that God will give us the Holy Spirit when we ask, that God’s Spirit will be there when we knock, that when we seek God, we will find the Holy Spirit.
And that appears to be the answer to my questions: to pray means to seek God– not God’s help, not God’s gifts, not God’s indulgence. To pray is to simply open oneself to God. To pray is to knock on the door of the neighbor and seek your neighbor as a person, not to ask to borrow something, or for food for your guests. To pray is to enter into relationship with God, to offer ourselves to God and to allow God to become a part of our lives.
If you go to your neighbor and they do not know you, they are less likely to lend you a loaf of bread or a hammer or an egg. To go to a neighbor that you have come to know over the course of time, well that is a different story. That’s a neighbor you could call at midnight because you’ve run out of beer and your college buddies are dying of thirst!
Anyone who has musical training knows the importance of breathing; and when I first started getting serious about becoming a musician, I spent a fair amount of time working on breath control. Anyone who has ever worked out in a gym also knows the importance of breathing. Certain exercises require specific times to inhale or exhale to actually engage the muscles of the body appropriately. Prayer is exactly like breathing: we can’t be taught to do it, we just do it. Even though it’s instinctive, we can still become better at doing it.
Before another summer slips away, maybe it’s time to take breathing lessons, spiritual breathing lessons. Maybe we all need to take time to seek God in prayer, and to do less praying for specific things, naming our needs and wants and then going about our day? The first step in prayer is to seek God, to ask for the Holy Spirit in our lives, and to offer ourselves openly, honestly, just as we are.
So, the next time we come knocking on heaven’s door, let’s not ask for a loaf of bread. Let’s open our hearts enough so we are open to friendly visit with our God—not for any reason other than to grow in that relationship.
That is what Jesus did. That is how he prayed and why it sounded so different from anything the Disciples had ever heard before. We are invited by this same Jesus to pray in this same way.