When I was four or five years old, my mother took me Wheaton Plaza Shopping Center, in Wheaton, Maryland, to see Santa Claus. Any four-year old will tell you: this is a very big deal. And it was even more so for me, because I wanted a new two-wheel bike, with monkey bars and a banana seat. I was hoping to have a good talk with Santa about it.
But this particular year, I was coming to Santa Claus harboring a dark secret: I was a chronic thumb-sucker. Nothing my parents could do would make me stop. They put hot mustard on my thumb. They put nail polish on it. They yelled at me. Nothing worked.
Anyway, I went to Santa to tell him what I wanted. He listened very politely to what I had to say and then replied, “Well, I’m going to try, but first you have to stop sucking your thumb.”
I was stunned. How did he know?! He really DOES know when you’ve been bad or good.
To make a long story short, when I left Santa’s lap, I went cold turkey. I never sucked my thumb again. And Santa kept his part of the deal. I got the bicycle I wanted.
I think that, in a nutshell, is how so many of us look at prayer.
We see God as a heavenly Santa Claus. We go to him when we want something, and expect that if we’re good, we’ll get it. And when we don’t, we’re angry, or disappointed, or hurt.
But when we do that, spiritually, we may as well be five-years-old, sucking our thumbs, and asking for a new bike.
The gospel today reminds us: prayer doesn’t work that way.
One of Jesus’ disciples asks him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And what follows is not only a lesson in prayer, but a lesson in how to have a relationship with God.
It begins with approaching him not as a king, or a deity. No. It begins with approaching him as a friend – as Jesus puts it, as if asking a friend for bread.
St. Teresa of Avila said that prayer should be like a conversation with a friend who knows you even better than you know yourself.
How many of us do that? How many of us see God as a companion on the journey through life?
We don’t just go to a friend when we want something – to get something, or to borrow money, or maybe to borrow the weed whacker.
We go to a friend for joy, for comfort, for affirmation, and for love.
We go to our friends because they enrich us and challenge us. And we want to give to them some of what they give to us. They share our hardships with us, and our joys, and they make us laugh.
They enable us to be our best selves. And so it should be with God. Our relationship with Him needs to be constant. We can’t take Him for granted.
Jesus then tells us to be persistent: to ask…to seek…and to knock.
Asking and knocking isn’t much of a problem. In the first reading from Genesis, we heard how Abraham asked God to spare Sodom – and he was persistent about it.
The writer Anne Lamotte says that one of the most famous prayers in the world is just three little words: “Help help help.” We are forever asking things of God.
God, help me pass this test.
God, help me get a new job.
Please, God, help the doctor find what’s wrong.
Help. Help. Help.
But in the middle of asking, and knocking, Jesus tells us to seek. “Seek and you shall find.”
What is it we are looking for when we pray? What are we hoping to find?
I think that the seeking — the search — goes deeper, and further, than we may realize.
When a father prays for his sick child to get well, when a wife prays for her husband to find a job, when we as a people pray for peace…what are we truly seeking?
It may be something we can barely name. Life. Or hope. Or freedom from fear.
But we are assured that if we seek, we will find. What we need will be given to us.
And you’ll notice that Jesus doesn’t promise something that can’t be delivered. He doesn’t tell us “your wish is granted.” He tells us, instead, to realize “how much …the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
And here we find what we are truly seeking – what lies at the heart of every prayer.
This is what we are asking for.
This is why we stand at the door and knock, why we go to our knees and ask.
It is the Holy Spirit.
What Christ promises isn’t a new bicycle on Christmas morning. It is grace. It is the Holy Spirit – to sustain us, and uplift us, and help us to endure. The Holy Spirit empowers us to accept God’s will – even if it isn’t our will – and to get up from our knees, and go on, and face another day.
But how to begin?
We begin with what we heard in the gospel, the Lord’s Prayer — probably one of the first prayers we learned as children, and the first the disciples learned as followers of Christ.
Or consider the psalm this Sunday, psalm 138:
“The Lord will complete what he has done for me…forsake not the work of your hands.”
I think that may be as profound a prayer as you can find. It says: “God you have created me. Do not forget me.”
It doesn’t get any simpler than that.
It is a beautiful way to place ourselves before Him. To ask…to seek…to knock.
As we receive communion this morning, let’s ask God to remember us. And let’s ask ourselves: what is it we’re seeking?
Then we can go to our knees and begin to have a conversation with God – God our Creator, our Father, and our friend.