The great fourth century African bishop, Saint Augustine wrote an autobiography called The Confessions. When he talks about his schooling he has painful memories – literally. It was the days that believed in the old adage, spare the rod and you spoil the child. So Augustine was beaten by his schoolmasters not only for cutting up (which he did plenty of) but also for not doing his homework, for not getting a good grade, for doing poorly on a test. Even though young Augustine was not a Christian at the time he said his first prayer in school. “Dear God, don’t let them beat me again.” The older Augustine reflecting back on his youthful self and criticizes that prayer. He said that praying in that way made it seem as if God was there to do what young Augustine desired. Prayer, the older Augustine realizes is rather listening to what God desires of us. In fact, Augustine suggests that his difficulty in coming to faith might have something to do with this mistaken idea about God. If we imagine that we pray to God as some kind of cosmic Santa Claus who gives us what we want, we are worshiping an idol. If instead our prayer is to a God who gives us what is best for us, then the possibility of true faith emerges. Genuine prayer happens when we make the shift from “God, this is what I want you to do for me” to “God, what do you want me to do?” We have to mature as Augustine did from a childhood faith which is all about what I can get to an adult faith which is about what I can give. I’m reminded of the story of the mother who was pleading with her grown son to help her around the house. “Why should I?” he asked. “Because I carried you for nine months in my womb, I nursed you with my own body. I fed you when you were hungry. I washed you when you were dirty. I tended you when you were sick. I made sure you had good clothes to wear. I saw that you got a good education. I kept you out of trouble and made sure that you had every opportunity to grow up and be successful. That’s why,” said his mother. To which her grown son answered, “Yeah, but what have you done for me lately.” How often in our prayer do we forget how blessed we have been? We are tempted to complain, What have you done for me lately, God?
For instruction on how we, like St. Augustine, can improve the way that we pray we turn to the Scripture. As St. Paul told his young friend, Timothy, “Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for refutation, for correction and for training.” So the Bible can show us how to pray by teaching, refutation, correction, and training.
First teaching about prayer: we look at the parable of Jesus about the widow and a dishonest judge in St. Luke’s gospel. “Because this widow keeps bothering me,” the judge says, “I shall deliver a just decision.” The conclusion that Jesus draws: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him? Will he be slow to answer them?” If an unjust judge can be badgered into responding, how much more will the good God hear our prayer. So the first lesson on prayer from the scriptures is to keep at it. Even if things aren’t happening at the pace which we would like, God always comes on time. What might look like delay from our perspective is perfect timing from God’s. Pray in season and out of season. Never lose patience.
The second way that scripture is useful is in refutation. The epistle refutes a mistaken notion that we might have about prayer. It is tempting to think that prayer is a personal thing between me and God. St. Paul insists that our prayer is not meant to be kept inside our little heart, or even inside these four walls. Prayer is meant to empower us to bring God out into the world. “Proclaim the word,” the apostle insists and one way we proclaim the word is in prayer. When we are at prayer either in our own room or here in church, we must be aware that the world out there needs what we have. Some might need a reprimand for walking away from God. Still others might need to be encouraged as they struggle to live in God. “When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?” Jesus asks. Only if we bring the fruits of our prayer into our homes, our work, our schools, our world.
The third use of scripture is correction. Maybe the Old Testament lesson from the book of Exodus can provide the kind of mid-course correction we need to keep on the right path. When Moses was trying to pray he found it too difficult. He got tired. In order to continue to pray he needed others to help him. Church, we too need prayer partners to help us as well. When we find ourselves overwhelmed, the support of others will see us through. It might be a spiritual guide who keeps us on the right path. Perhaps a Bible study and faith sharing group will help. Or maybe a good friend who will be there to pray with me when I need it the most. There are no praying Lone Rangers. We need other people to pray with.
Finally, Paul says the scripture is useful for training. One of those little phrases that says a lot can be found in the gospel when Jesus says: “Will not God then secure the rights of his chosen ones who call out to him day and night.” By saying “day and night” Jesus is urging us to regularity in prayer. Sure we pray when there is some big thing happening in our life but the Bible is training us to pray not occasionally, not some time, not when we need something, but regularly, day and night. Having a set place and a set time to pray every day provides the basis on which a spiritual life can be built. When we are happy, we should pray. When we are sad, we should pray. When we are healthy, we should pray. When we are sick, we should pray. When the bill collector is knocking on the door, we should pray. When we have six good numbers, we should pray. Whether you’re tired or sleepy, pray. Whether you feel like it or not, pray. Whether you have too many things to do, pray. Whether you’re a saint or a sinner, pray. Pray together, children, don’t you get-a weary. Pray together, children. There’s a great camp meeting in the promised land.