And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’ — Luke 11:5-13 (NRSV)
“Mama, can I have this toy?” “Susie, can I wear your blue skirt today?” “Dad, can I borrow the car keys?” “Mrs. Jones, can I have an extra day to do my book report?” We have been asking for things ever since we took our first breaths. Even that was asking for something — pick me up, wrap me warmly, hold me close, make me feel safe. We go through life asking for things, usually expecting that the requests will be honored and whatever it is we wanted will be forthcoming. If the answer is “no” we often feel let down, sometimes betrayed, sometimes angry, but then, there are times when we say “no” to someone else’s request and our reactions range from irritation at their asking in the first place to guilt for not being able (or willing) to do what is requested. At the bottom of it, though, everyone asks for things and everyone reacts to others’ asking things of them.
“Hey, can I borrow….?” Bread was a staple then as it is now. Bread was more than just something to eat, it was also something to eat with. Back home, the first time we visited a friend (or a relative) who had moved into a new (or new-to-them) house, we always took a gift of bread and salt. It was traditional. If someone died, one of the things that usually found its way to the home of the bereaved was bread in one of a number of forms. If we’d have been out of bread when breakfast time came and there were guests in the house, Mama would have had me run to one of the neighbors to borrow some, and they would undoubtedly have done the best they could knowing the shoe could very well be on the other foot one day (or already had been). That was life when I was growing up, and, in a sense, that was the same kind of world that Jesus knew. Neighbors helped neighbors, no matter if it were a bit inconvenient or whether they had been a bit short-sighted to eat up all their daily bread before the next batch was baked for the next day.
Asking was what it took. People often say, “Call if you need anything,” and, to their credit, most of the time they really mean it. The problem I found with myself, though, was although I meant it when I said it to someone else, it was extremely hard to actually ask for help when I needed it — whether it was from my son, friends, my employer or anyone else. It just plain went against the grain, my illusion of being able to handle things myself. It’s an exercise in humility — just as granting a request is one in an exercise in compassion and generosity.
It’s not hard for me to ask God for things; I seem to do it all the time. The thing is, what is it I am asking for, why do I feel I need to ask for it, and what do I hope to gain from it? Sure, I’ve sent up arrows of desperation when the rent was due and the paycheck was not going to cover it, or sitting in a hospital admittance cubicle while I heard my then-10-year-old screaming in the emergency room just beyond (he’d slid down a steep hill and gotten a bad concussion), or when I’m late for work and all the stop lights between home and the office seem to be interminably red. I’ve even sent more than one up when I got a diagnosis I was anticipating (but not really expecting, if you know what I mean). But I found that more and more I asked for courage to face whatever I had to, the strength to deal with it no matter what, and the grace to ask for help when I needed it and receive it with gratitude. I learned something very valuable from that: I can ask and then leave it in God’s hands. Oh, I took it back several times and worried and fretted and had anxiety all over the place for a short time, but lo and behold, the peace came back after I simply told God I couldn’t handle it and I was giving it back to God.
I am no saint; I realize it and anyone who knows me will say the same. Still, I can and do pray for people and situations they find themselves in, and I know God hears me. Not all my prayers get positive results, but I also understand that God isn’t Santa Claus. I can’t give God a list and expect everything wrapped up and waiting for me according to a calendar. Oh, I can give God a list, but that doesn’t mean I will get it all, any more than I got everything I asked for when I was a kid and Christmas was coming. The important thing is to ask wisely — for daily bread, for good friends, for health and well-being of all, for peace, for wisdom.
I think that if I can manage that, the asking wisely thing, I’ll be a little closer to what Jesus had in mind. And if my neighbor asks for some bread in the middle of the night, I’d better keep a little extra in the larder — just in case.