When I want to remind myself of the power of prayer, I go to the Astor Place Kmart on the lower east side of Manhattan. Sure, I could read Kierkegaard or Augustine, but I prefer the Kmart. Specifically I favor an area in the far back corner of the basement. It is devoid of windows or natural light with a back wall of clear glass that faces the dungeon-like dark tunnel of the Number 6 subway train. There, you will find the most unexpected of things — like a plant nursery.
Sprouting out of this dreary prison are tender green leaves of ficus trees and the vibrant gold blossoms of marigolds. A tiny plastic tab peeks out of each pot with an image of what that particular plant could grow into if it received proper light and care; a cruel irony, as there is little hope in this place that such care or light will be offered. Even amid the bleak circumstances, these tiny members of creation still struggle, every moment of every day, to tap into the energy around them so that they might grow into that potential.
In short, they pray.
Maybe they don’t pray in a way that we, as humans, understand. They don’t get on bended stems with folded leaves; but still, they pray. They pray in a most basic, organic, and powerful way that is not unlike the lessons on prayer that Jesus taught, which are found in the Gospel of Luke.
Luke’s lesson begins in Chapter 11, verse 1 with Jesus answering a disciple’s request: “Lord, teach us to pray.” In response, Jesus offers the familiar words of what Christians now call the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day, our daily bread” — a prayer that is offered for the fulfillment of basic physical, mental, and spiritual needs.
Humans, being the complicated and ornery creatures that we are, can’t seem to master this simple lesson. We lose track of what’s important and end up mired in prayers to receive a bigger raise, lose 10 pounds, or wake up looking younger or more beautiful. Worse, many of us won’t even ask because we don’t believe that we deserve to ask. We listen only to the world’s hateful, judgmental opinions, and our hearts grow silent, ashamed to reach out in prayer. Or, as Tennessee Williams wrote, “A prayer for the wild at heart kept in cages.”
If only we could take a lesson from Jesus and the Kmart plant nursery. The tiny marigolds don’t pray to be younger, thinner, or richer. They don’t question whether they deserve to pray. They ask for sustenance by stretching their roots down for water and minerals and straining their stems upward for light. Their quest is only to grow into the image on the little plastic tab – their divine potential.
Jesus goes on, in verse 5, to offer a parable about the manner and amount that we should pray. He gives the example of going to a friend’s house in the middle of the night to ask for food. While the friend may not get out of bed just because you know him, “because of your shameless audacity, he will surely get up and give you as much as you need.”
Some may interpret Jesus’ words as an edict to pray like a telemarketer. I don’t think Jesus intended us to push prayer to the point where God feels compelled to screen through caller ID. Instead, Jesus is presenting constant prayer as a statement of faith.
In this month of Ramadan, we remember the example of our Muslim brothers and sisters. No matter what their circumstances or demands, they faithfully answer the prayer call five times a day. It is a way to keep a continual connection with God. It is the ultimate sign of hope, just as the plants in the Astor Place Kmart never stop converting light (even dingy artificial light) into energy and life.
Certainly, there are times we want to give up — to stop praying. Perhaps when we feel that we haven’t been answered, or as Sylvia Plath noted, when we “talk to God but the sky is empty.” God answers, but not always in the way in which we expect. The Japanese poet Masahide explained it this way: “My barn having burned to the ground, I can now see the moon.”
We must be careful with our expectations. In verse 13, Jesus doesn’t say God will give us what we want. Jesus explains that God answers prayers through the spirit: “How much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It’s the spirit, the life force that God uses; the same spirit that quickened Mary’s womb, ushered in God’s blessings at the baptism of Jesus, and brought life and witness to the disciples at Pentecost. God will always answer our prayers, not necessarily through meeting our specific requests, but instead by providing life, blessings, and power.
Our environment is not that much different from that of the plants in the basement of the Astor Place Kmart. We live in a world that does not nurture or feed our deepest needs. It is a world of scarcity where clean water and sufficient food are had only by the privileged. We live in a shadowy world where the color of one’s skin, the person that one loves, or the God that one worships can get you killed. This is a gloomy world with little light or joy.
Even in these worst of times, we must remember that we still have the gift of life. Each breath we take represents hope; each prayer we raise offers us a glimmer of what we could grow into with proper care and light. For the wellbeing of our hearts, for the welfare of our brothers and sisters, and for the healing of this world, let us make prayer as Ghandi described it, “the key of the morning and the bolt of the evening.” Let us pray and never give up.
A trial lawyer, turned standup comedian and Baptist minister, Rev. Susan Sparks is America’s only female comedian with a pulpit. Currently, the Senior Pastor of the historic Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City (and the first woman in its 165 year history), she is also a professional comedian touring nationally with a standup Rabbi and a Muslim comic in “Laugh in Peace." Her book, Laugh Your Way to Grace was named one of the best spiritual books of 2010 and has sold over 15,000 copies. More information can be found at www.SusanSparks.com. Her ON Scripture post appears via the Odyssey Network, through a grant from the Lilly Foundation. Follow ON Scripture on Twitter @OnScripture.