Lord, teach us to pray…
It almost seems incredulous to me that the disciples have been with Jesus for such a long time, and they still don’t know how to pray? But then, I wonder if sometimes the idea of prayer, especially in prayer in public, or at least in a group setting intimidates us. For some folks this kind of thing is easy, and they have a gift of being able to pray off the cuff. I know it took me some 10 years of conscious work to really become comfortable with praying aloud in a group, and more on top of that to be comfortable leading a prayer in a group. In one youth group I attended, we used to open our meetings with a circle prayer – we would sit around in a circle and say something we wanted to pray for, and then squeeze the person’s hand next to us to pass it on. I was terrified. I would sit there shaking until it was my turn, when I would turn bright red and stutter something. Then it came time to learn to listen to what others needed, and then pray for them, while they prayed for me. Gradually, I learned how to pray aloud without a text in front of me. I honestly can’t fault the disciples for requesting:
Lord, teach us to pray.
I wonder if it didn’t go something a little more like this though: Lord, teach us to pray… like you do. We want our prayers to have power, emphasis. We want our prayers to mean something. You pray and things happen. People find healing, folks are restored to communities, their lives are given meaning again. We get discouraged when we pray and it seems like nothing happens. We get scared because sometimes the words don’t come, our tongues get tied, or our hearts are too heavy. When we don’t know what to say, when our minds are spinning so fast that we can’t even concentrate on one subject, when we feel like what we’re doing is coming up with a shopping list of wants and needs, when we don’t know whether we can trust you, when we don’t know how to listen to you.
O Lord, teach us to pray.
Anne Lamott writes that our two best prayers are “help me, help me, help me” and “thank you, thank you, thank you” and adds a third prayer: Wow! If you look at it like that, our prayers don’t need to be complex flowery bits of poetry. They are so much easier to phrase if they are simple and honest. Prayers filled with allegories, analogies, and metaphors are wonderful, they can help us discover a different image of God, they can reframe our way of seeing the world, but unless we are particularly gifted with language, that kind of thing can get in the way of our prayers, especially if we’re trying to live up to someone else’s contribution.
Lord teach us to pray.
Jesus responds: this is how to pray
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
This prayer that Jesus teaches his disciples is deceptively simple. It really doesn’t sound like much, but there is a lot packed into the several sentences he utters.
It’s shorter than the version found in the gospel of Matthew, or the version we tend to pray these days, but it is essentially the same prayer. It’s a prayer that has been passed down through our ancestors in the faith so much that it transcends Christian denominations of all sorts. It doesn’t matter if we are Christians who tend to pray using a prayer book, or if we are Christians who pray extemporaneously, off the cuff; or if we are Christians who pray silently, this is a prayer that unites us. It is a prayer that, I suspect we’re all taught early on in our faith journeys. It’s a prayer that we say so often, I wonder sometimes if don’t just rush through it, hoping that we don’t mix up the words too much, but not necessarily paying attention to that for which we are praying.
Through scripture, Jesus calls us back to this prayer, saying: this is how to pray
Father, holy is your name. Your kingdom come.
He reminds us to focus. He reminds us we’re praying to God, and for God’s dream to come true in this world. We all have lists of prayers that need God’s attention, but first remember God’s vision. Remember how God has been present in history. Remember the stories from our scriptures of God leading people out of a land of injustice, of God calling for people to take a leadership role in their part of the world. Remember Jesus healing, and restoring people to their communities. Remember the Spirit that blew in on that day of Pentecost and brought people together. Remember the ways and places God has worked in your life. Take the time now to listen for a moment, I won’t ask you to share today, so you don’t need to worry about that. But listen, think, pray: what does God’s dream look like to you?
Give us each day our daily bread
We need nourishment as we look forward for tomorrow, as we yearn for God’s dream to play out. We need something to sustain us and keep us going. We need food for the body, food for thought and soul food to keep up the work we do, bringing God’s dream into reality. We need strength, courage and hope to keep going. Note the pronoun: give US each day our daily bread. We’re not just praying for ourselves, we’re praying for our communities, and for people around the world. Take the time now to listen for a moment, and pray for the sustenance you need personally, as well as what we might need as a faith community, and what folks around the world might need to keep going on into tomorrow.
and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us
Forgiveness is about relationships, so we’re called to think of everyone and everything with whom we are in relationship: God, other human beings, animals, the earth, the water, ourselves. Intentionally or unintentionally we cross the lines, upset and cause harm, and live beyond our means. Still, we seek to live in right relationship, and so we pray for forgiveness and mercy for ourselves, so that we can continually try to live in a good way, but also extending that mercy and forgiveness to others. Once again, it’s not just a personal thing, but a communal prayer as well. It might just be the most difficult part of this prayer. So take a moment, to sit in the wonder and freedom of God’s forgiveness and grace. Then take a moment to invite God’s forgiveness and grace into a situation where we as a whole need forgiveness, and need to offer forgiveness.
and do not bring us to the time of trial
At this point in the prayer we usually ask God not to lead us into temptation, but here Jesus is praying more for our preservation from persecution and situations that might test our faith. There are times and places in our lives where we feel particularly vulnerable, and people around whom our courage falters. We also remember that for the most part, we are privileged and coercion isn’t a daily reality for us, where it is for folks in other places, and so we remember them too. It isn’t always easy to do what is right and faithful when we’re being threatened violence and death. So take a moment to pray for courage; for yourself if you need it, but also for those around the world, those in positions of leadership and respect, as well as those who face coercion and manipulation on a daily basis.
Jesus continues: This is how to pray
Be persistent, or a better translation: be shameless just like a person waking up his neighbour and friend in the middle of the night because of a dire need, don’t stop praying. If you watch The Big Bang Theory, we are being asked to be something like Sheldon, the genius who is woefully inadequate when it comes to social skills, and keep knocking at the door, trusting that the person on the person on other side will open the door. Jesus tells his disciples: keep asking, keep searching, keep thanking, keep praising. We are in a relationship with God, and like all relationships, if it is going to be healthy, we need to keep working on it. Prayer does just that. Prayer opens up the lines of communication, it gives us a chance to speak our piece, and it gives us a chance to listen. In the words of another preacher by the name of Martha Spong, “prayer works on us, it works on others and it works on God.”
As followers of Christ we are called to pray: for ourselves, for each other, for our world. We are called to continually deepen our relationship with God, to trust, to communicate, to listen, to be present, to keep working at it, and not to give up. No matter how beautiful or how plain, no matter if we express our prayers in words, laughter, tears, gestures or silence, our prayers matter. They have the power to bring about change in us, in others and yes, I truly do believe, even in God. So may we continue to seek God’s dream for this world, for this community, and for our roles in it. May we continue to hold each other in prayer, asking God’s grace, love and goodness to be present in and through our lives. May we continue to bring our needs, our hopes and our fears to the One who loves us deeply, and who listens to our prayers, and listen for a response. May it be so.
Lammott, Anne. Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead Books) 2012.