St Andrewís, Catford

21 October 2001

Year C: Week 29


Asking God in prayer


There were once two small boys who were staying away for the weekend with their grandmother. Like some other grandmothers I know she was inclined to be extraordinarily kind and indulgent towards them.

The boys had been well brought up in a good Christian family so naturally, when it was time to go to sleep they both dutifully knelt down by their beds to say prayers.

The older one said his prayers silently; but the younger one asked God in a very loud voice to give him a large number of items Ė it sounded like a shopping-list for a toyshop.

When they had both finished his elder brother said to him, "Thereís no need to shout, you know. The Lordís not deaf!"

"I know" replied his younger brother, "Ė but Grandma is!"

This is an opportunity to take a closer look at the whole business of asking God for things Ė what is sometimes called Petitionary and Intercessionary Prayer: Petitionary when we are asking for things related to ourselves; intercessionary when we are asking God for something on behalf of others.

Now, one of the first questions that people want to ask is "Does it work?", "Will it do any good?"; and because the question is such an obvious one people are afraid of asking it for fear of being thought silly or lacking in faith.

But being afraid to ask questions is never a good policy. Itís far better to ask questions than not to do so; and providing weíre willing to listen to the answer, and accept that the answer may not be quite as simple as we would have liked, then we shall almost certainly learn something useful by asking. The most successful children in class are those who ask their teachers intelligent questions, not the children who sit silently at the back looking and feeling bored because they canít be bothered to think. And the teacher, if he is a good teacher wonít be afraid to answer any question whether itís about Papermaking, Prayer or Potholing,"I donít know Ė but Iíll try and ask someone who knows more about it than I do"

After all, the younger brother in the story had at least found one way of getting what he wanted when he said his prayers. We may not think that thatís the proper use of prayer, but at least the young man had discovered an important fact, namely that, if you want something, whether itís a present or a piece of information like "please could you tell me the time", or "how do I get to Catford from here" your chances of getting an answer are infinitely greater if you ask someone than if you donít. Their answer may well be "Yes" or "No" or "ask me again later", or (in the case of Catford) "Iím afraid I donít know, Iím a stranger round here"; but if you donít ask at all, the likelihood of getting an answer is precisely zero.

Now in the case of asking God for something, whether itís healing or guidance or something material people often remark that "if God knows everything about me already, whatís the point in asking? Why doesnít he just give me what I need to have or tell me what I want to know?"

Well, perhaps the answer to this question may lie in trying, just for once, to see things from Godís point of view as well as our own. Think of our own experience as fathers or mothers and then apply that experience to God himself. Isnít it true that as parents we attach a lot of importance to our children learning to ask for things rather than just expecting them to happen? And we take it a stage further in teaching them to "ask nicely", and a stage further still by learning to say "thank you" if the request is granted, or not to throw a tantrum if it isnít. Thatís four important lessons which are only learnt by asking for things. If we parents tried to anticipate everything our children wanted or needed without their having to ask, which is what some people seem to expect God to do, just think what deformed personalities they would grow into.

Of course itís true that we as parents, and God as our Father in heaven do have to anticipate some of the things our children need and give them before they ask. We donít wait for our baby to ask to be taken to the doctor for his immunisation jab. We just take him and "get him done". So, of course our heavenly Father, as the old prayer has it "knows our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking" and freely gives us a great many of our needs before we even become aware of them. But the principle is still there: learning to ask and ask nicely, saying thank you and accepting the response "no" or "not yet" are things we can only learn by learning how to do them, and then doing them until they form a habit.

Jesus asked a lot of things of his heavenly Father and he taught his disciples to do the same. In the pattern of prayer which he gave us, the Lordís Prayer as we call it, there are no less than seven requests built into it. If he hadnít meant us to pray then presumably he wouldnít have given us a prayer at all; and if he hadnít meant us to ask God for things then he wouldnít have made the pattern he gave us consist largely of that type of prayer.

But Jesusís teaching about prayer didnít just begin and end with giving us a pattern to follow. He stressed the need to persevere in the lesson for this morning; he told us to pray for quite ordinary things like daily bread and deliverance from what is harmful.

He set us an example by often getting up very early, going into a silent place and praying until daybreak. In his prayers he attached particular importance to the fact that what he was asking for should be perfectly in line with his Heavenly Fatherís will ("not my will but thy will be done"). He certainly didnít look on prayer as a short-cut to loving and doing our duty to either to God or to our neighbour. Our duty towards someone may easily involve a lot more than just remembering them in our prayers, good though that may be. Visiting Auntie Maude from time to time in the Old Peopleís Home is an equally important, though even more tiresome than just remembering to say "God Bless Auntie Maude" in our prayers. After all, he told his apostles to heal the sick, not just pray to God for them.

There are very many more questions that we can, and should, ask about prayer Ė but thatís really all thereís time for this morning. The important thing to remember is that asking questions is an essential part of being a disciple or a learner. Ask your parish priests the question that you want an answer to. Thatís one of the things they are there for. If the answer doesnít seem satisfactory then ask one of your fellow Christians whom you know to be a person of prayer. If they canít help, maybe the answer lies in some book of which many thousands have been written on prayer. Failing that it may be a good idea to be willing to travel some distance to ask an acknowledged expert and ask him or her. I am myself proposing to go up to County Durham in the next few weeks to ask a particular question about prayer of someone whose writings I have read and believe, as a result that he may have something useful to say.

After all, if you were seriously ill, you wouldnít think twice before going and seeing a specialist who was reputed to be able to cure you, even though he worked on the other side of the country. One thing is quite certain: the more you enquire the more your learn; the more your learn, the more you practise; and Practice, as the saying goes, "makes perfect".

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