July 28, 2019: Teach Us To Pray
July 28, 2019 Rev. Rhonda Blevins, DMIN
Teach Us To Pray
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: 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.” 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 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!”
Two young boys were spending the night at their grandparent’s house the week before Christmas. At bedtime, both boys knelt beside their beds to say their prayers when the youngest one began praying at the top of his lungs: “DEAR LORD, I PRAY FOR A NEW BICYCLE, AND A NEW PLAYSTATION 4, AND A NEW FLAT SCREEN TV . . .” His older brother leaned over, nudging the younger brother saying, “Why are you shouting your prayers? God isn’t deaf.” The younger brother replied, “No, but Grandma is!”
Have you ever wondered if God is deaf? Have you ever felt that maybe you need to go outside to pray because your prayers aren’t making it past the ceiling? That maybe you are not doing it right, or an even more disconcerting thought, that maybe there’s no one there to hear your prayers? If so, you’re in good company. This sentiment goes all the way back to Jesus and even further. One of Jesus’ disciples, we are told in the Gospel of Luke, asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” Before that, John the Baptist’s disciples asked the same thing of him. “Teach us to pray, we’re not sure we’ve got this right.”
Jesus then offers the instruction in prayer we read a moment ago, what the church has adapted and formalized over time into what we now call “The Lord’s Prayer.” This is one of two places in scripture where we see Jesus offering this teaching—the other place we find a form of this prayer is in the Gospel of Matthew, where it is included as part of the “Sermon on the Mount.” Matthew’s version of the prayer is a little closer to the prayer we recite every Sunday. The main variation these days in the Lord’s Prayer is whether we ask to be forgiven sins, trespasses or debts. I’m told Presbyterians say “debts” because a Presbyterian would rather be forgiven a debt instead of a trespass any day.
Parishioners often have this same request of their pastors today, “Pastor, teach us to pray.” In fact, Joe and I have been talking about offering a class on prayer in response to recent requests. Perhaps it is no irony that the Gospel lesson from today’s lectionary brings us to this passage—to the question as relevant today as it was over 2,000 years ago when Jesus walked and talked, and indeed, taught his disciples to pray.
Let’s dive into what he taught.
The version of the Lord’s prayer from the Gospel of Luke is a bit less formalized. It reads like Jesus is saying conversationally, “Prayer? OK. Here are some things you want to include in your prayers:
· Father, hallowed be your name. Reverence is always a good place to start.
· Your kingdom come. This is our primary goal—this is what we’re working toward together. Keep this as your first and primary request.
· Give us each day our daily bread. I’m talking about sustenance for today. Not for tomorrow. Not more than you need. Enough. Enough for today. Period.
· And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. We recognize where we have fallen short, even of the first three parts of the prayer. We’ve lacked reverence, we’ve been focused on our own desires instead of God’s kingdom. We’ve been greedy and sought more than we need for today. We ask God’s forgiveness, and we recommit ourselves to God’s purposes.
· And do not bring us to the time of trial. Recognizing our propensity to stray from God’s causes, we ask God for help to stay focused on things that really matter—eternal things—instead of the many distractions this world offers.
If I’m imagining this scene with Jesus teaching his disciples, this conversation continues. Jesus says, “Guys, these are the basic, timeless things to include in your prayers, but look, there is no magic formula to use when you pray. Prayer doesn’t require some herculean effort. It’s this simple: Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.”
This is the part of Jesus’ instruction I want to focus on for the remainder of our time together, because I believe this is actually the crux of what Jesus was trying to get his disciples to understand.
As I attempt to teach about prayer, I can only teach what I know. So allow me to share my own journey of learning about prayer.
My earliest memory of praying: I must have been around 5-years-old—I’m bowed on my knees in the living room in the house where I grew up. My hands are clasped. There’s a Christmas tree over to my right, and I’m terrified. I’m scared that I’ve been a bad girl and I won’t get any presents for Christmas. Maybe my parents had threatened me to get me to behave, or perhaps the source of my fear was the lyrics from that terrible Christmas song, “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better not pout, I’m telling you why: Santa Claus is coming to town.” Whatever the source of my anxiety, I found myself in prayer. But I had the recipient of my prayers all wrong. I was praying, “Dear Santa, I know I’ve been a bad girl, but please, please, please bring me my red rider b-b gun,” (or whatever I was asking for that Christmas).
I suppose I got whatever it was I was asking for that Christmas, because I don’t remember a crisis following that prayer.
The crisis came later, when I prayed for a loved one to be healed and not die. And they died anyway. “What good is prayer?” I wondered. I think I gave up on prayer for a number of years, at least privately. That was my great secret as the good, Christian girl. I didn’t pray much. At least, I didn’t think I prayed much.
But let’s stop there, and define prayer, shall we?
Prayer, in my understanding of prayer at that time, was sitting down, head bowed and eyes closed (or some other proper position), and offering words to God, whether spoken or silently. Prayer meant words.
By that definition, I didn’t pray much. My words fell flat. I could never find the right combination of words to offer. My words never made it past the ceiling, it seemed.
I don’t think I’m alone in feeling that way. “Teach us to pray, Jesus,” is likely a direct result of the disciples feeling like their words fell flat too. To which Jesus said, “OK guys, here are some words to use in your prayers. But look, it’s not so much about words. Ask. Seek. Knock. Ask with your lips, certainly. But seek, with your mind. Knock with your heart. Commune with God with everything within you—pray with your very lives!” In fact, in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus cautions against using words: “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” (Matt. 6:7)
Since those early days, I have understood prayer to be so much more than words. In fact, words often get in the way. In my private prayer life, I rarely use words. I let my life speak (to use Parker Palmer’s words). My life is the living prayer I offer (or aspire to offer) every single day. Asking with my lips on occasion, I’m much better at seeking with my mind, and knocking with my heart than I’ve ever been at using words—at asking with my lips. And when I muster the discipline to turn to God more intentionally, I enter into silence—which, in part, serves as a holy remembering of God’s presence in whom I live and move and have my being.
Mother Teresa was once asked, “When you pray, what do you say to God?” “I say nothing,” she responded. “I do not talk. I listen instead.” Then the follow-up question was asked: “So, as you listen, what does God say to you?” Mother Teresa responded, “Nothing at all. God listens, too.”
Jesus’ primary teaching in this passage is to point his disciples to what many spiritual teachers call “prayer beyond words.” To the contemplative, prayer is “openness to and union with God’s presence; resting in God more than actively seeking to fully know or understand.”
Anne Lamott describes prayer as a turning to the light. I love what she writes here:
My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. If you say to God, “I am exhausted and depressed beyond words, and I don’t like You at all right now, and I recoil from most people who believe in You,” that might be the most honest thing you’ve ever said. If you told me you had said to God, “It is all hopeless, and I don’t have a clue if You exist, but I could use a hand,” it would almost bring tears to my eyes, tears of pride in you, for the courage it takes to get real—really real. It would make me want to sit next to you at the dinner table. So prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold . . . like sunflowers we turn toward light. Light warms, and in most cases it draws us to itself. And in this light, we can see beyond our modest receptors, to what is way beyond us, and deep inside.
I used to think the Apostle Paul was using hyperbole when he urged the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” Then I realized that our very lives become a prayer when we habitually ask, seek, and knock—when day by day we turn our lives to the light.
So dear Christian, today is the day I invite you to begin thinking of yourself as a prayer warrior. Maybe your words don’t seem magical. Perhaps your prayer efforts haven’t been herculean. But you live your life by turning to the light day by day, and in so doing you remain in union with God. Here’s the promise I leave with you:
Ask, and it will be given 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.
 Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, New York: Riverhead Books, 2012, 6-7.