Saturday, July 28, 2007

Teach Us to Pray

Seventeenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
28-29 July 2007
Holy Cross Parish, Hutchinson, KS

“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”.

It would be hard to imagine more of a press than what Abraham puts on God in our First Reading today. He ventures to bargain even with the Lord: if there were 50 good people in Sodom? …if there were 40 would you destroy it? …30? …20? Would you destroy the good along with the bad if there were 10 good people left in Sodom? Abraham serves as an example of that closeness and dependence on God, which Jesus tries to urge people to in the Gospel of St. Luke today: ”I tell you, if he does not get up to give the visitor the loaves because of their friendship, he will get up to give him whatever he needs because of his persistence”.
“Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you”.

What is prayer all about? What is petitioning God in prayer all about? What is there to gain out there by asking something of God? Fame or popularity? Fortune, maybe? What can we ask for and expect to receive from our good God?
There are folks out there who would like you to believe there is some kind of material recompense already in this world waiting for one and all. All we need do is ask. That’s not this Sunday’s message, however. Neither is it a good rendition of what the Old Testament promises to God’s Chosen People nor do such claims have much to do with the New Testament and what Jesus promises to those who follow Him. If you will, look from one end of the Bible to the other and see how many examples of selfish prayer requests you can find that were granted by God. Lord, let me win the lottery and I’ll cut you in for 10%... No! Try, on the basis of the Holy Scriptures, to convince me that God favors his beloved on this earth with material prosperity, health, success in business, politics and love, just because they ask insistently… Or better, don’t waste your time as the Christian life, life with God, is something quite different.
Remember too, Abraham didn’t ask for himself; he didn’t bargain with God seeking something for his own benefit. He asked on behalf of Sodom; he bargained with God for the sake of the good people, like his nephew Lot and his family, which he supposed might still live in that city so infamous for its many sins. Abraham’s was a prayer for God to be Himself, to be just. Abraham’s prayer was inspired by a certain familiarity with God. Jesus in the Gospel is coaxing and cajoling people to turn to the Lord in their need and ask just like Abraham did. Ask for what? How does today’s Gospel conclude?
“If you then, who are wicked, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him?”

What are the good gifts Jesus is talking about? What is the object of our asking God if not to place ourselves in a position of complete dependence upon Him?
Lord, teach us to pray! The disciples asked and He responded: Say, Our Father. That is, enter into God’s life! Receive the gift of the Holy Spirit! Let the Trinity dwell in you! Be caught up into the life of the Holy Trinity! Make your life one with God!
Among the books I’m reading this summer 1 comes to mind written by a nun on prayer. Sister insists without wavering that faith is the key and that faith is what is lacking in the lives of lots of people who seek to pray. I don’t know why that idea took me somewhat by surprise. Jesus kept hitting hard throughout His ministry on that very notion: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed you could say to this mountain, be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you…” “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?”
The Catechism defines faith as follows, saying: “To believe” has thus a twofold reference: to the person and to the truth: to the truth, by trust in the person who bears witness to it. We must believe in no one but God: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Come to be a person of prayer by coming close to God in faith and thereby put your life and things in your life in right order. I guess that diet, exercise, reading and a social life all help to round us out, but without a relationship to God in Jesus Christ it would hardly make a complete human picture. The other day in the newspaper, they tried to gently break the news that although eating tomatoes was healthy there was no evidence that tomatoes were a cure-all for cancer and other diseases and a guarantor of long life. Without faith, without a life of prayer, such bad news could be a real downer. Seriously, “Our Father”, why does Jesus urge us to child-like trust in our Heavenly Father if not to give us the context we need to face life in this world (with or without organic tomatoes)?
Life lived within the community of believers, life in the Church believing what the Church believes and teaches, Sunday Mass, regular Confession, our fixed times of prayer each day (morning offering, meal times, examination of conscience and bed time prayers), a devotion to Mary, the Mother of God, and taking time for some part of her Rosary, I don’t think it’s too much to ask. Many lay people seem naturally to be able to incorporate daily Mass into their schedule. I’m acquainted with a group in Jamaica, called Mustard Seed which cares for abandoned children (often handicapped physically or mentally, these days frequently HIV positive from birth) and one of their principles for all who volunteer with them at Mustard Seed is that 10% of each day (2 ½ hours) belongs to God. Catholic or not if you come to Kingston to serve you spend that much time in the chapel before the Blessed Sacrament each day, as do the children, who seem to understand that they’re doing something important before God. Two and a half hours!
An older priest friend of mine was sharing his deep concern with me this summer for those who turn their back on the Catholic Church and look elsewhere because they feel neglected or even hassled by the Catholic Church, the Church in which they grew up. Invariably they make their home in some group whose approach to life is more black and white, and always more emotional with no small amount of hype. My priest friend thought that better preaching on Sunday might help matters. I’m sure it would. Myself, I guess I’d be tempted also at every instance to encourage people not to be so standoffish in their relationship with God; I’d be inclined to coax and cajole people like Jesus in today’s Gospel to be asking God more, to be begging Him, reaching out to Him, “Our Father”, establishing that relationship of absolute dependence upon the only One worthy of our trust, Whom we have come to know in and through Jesus, the only One who is light and life for the world, the Way, the Truth and the Life.
You’ll invariably run into people who are convinced that life is so different nowadays that the “faith of our fathers” so to speak has to be looked at differently. Often, well-meaning people not that much a part of the Catholic Church wonder when the Church is going to modernize; they ask this without even really thinking about what they are asking or knowing the point of the question. Granted, our ancestors didn’t know high definition TV; they had no cell phones, no laptops, traveled less and had more job security. But Jesus came once and for all. Better health care and nutrition or not, life is not really that much different today than it was a hundred years ago or even more. You can’t really presume when you start out that your life expectancy on the charts will translate into a life any longer than that of your parents or grand parents or that modern day health care will secure you more quality of life or less pain than your arthritic grandmother had. Young people die all the time today too. Faithfulness a whole life long in marriage requires the same faith today as it did for them. If you live life on your own terms, without prayer and without God, the consequences are what they are. That has never really changed.
Lord, teach us to pray! Say “Our Father”. Ask, Seek, Knock! Depend upon God for that which goes beyond our daily bread! Life with and in Him, which translates into the good life without end in God!
They tell us that there’s all together too much emphasis put on youth, health and beauty. I would agree, but without forgetting that what we see in the child, the youth, the young adult is God’s gift and a reminder, albeit through the looking glass and somewhat darkly, of that which God wills for us and for all eternity. Get your act together, get things straight, and turn to the Giver of all good gifts! Say “Our Father”!

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