Pray Like This
Lectionary Texts: Luke 11: 1-13
First United Methodist Church, Wharton
Sunday, July 24, 2016
- You Made ME Pray?
So, I’m going to ask you a couple of questions to think about. Why do you pray? How do you pray? When do you pray? How often do you pray? Are you comfortable praying? What if I asked one of you to come up here and pray out loud in front of everyone? The truth is, very few of us (me included) feel like we are not as good at praying as we ought to be, that somehow our prayers may come up a little short.
Several years ago, Memorial Drive United Methodist in Houston had invited Dr. Walter Brueggemann to come and give a lecture. Now I don’t know how many of you know of Dr. Brueggemann, but he is considered one of the most influential Old Testament scholars in the world today. There is also a book of his prayers that is probably my favorite. Well, my parents were the ones picking him up from the airport, so they asked if I would like to go with them. Oh my goodness…I never imagined that I would get to spend close to an hour in the backseat next to Walter Brueggemann just talking. So, my dad invited Dr. Brueggemann to go to dinner with us. We assumed that he would want to go to the hotel, to be by himself. Instead, his reply was “I would love to go to dinner.”
So we go to dinner, just the four of us. We enjoy conversation over the appetizer and salad. And then when our main courses come, there is that strange moment of awkwardness where we wonder whether or not to pray out loud and who might do it. So, my dad looks at me and says, “Shelli, why don’t you return thanks.” My look must have been one of both appalling disbelief and sheer terror. So, I prayed. I don’t know what I prayed. I don’t even remember the words. I swear I was shaking. After all, sitting next to me was this world-renowned Bible scholar who has published several books of prayers! So I get to the end and without taking a breath after the “Amen”, I turn to my dad and say out loud. “You made me pray in front of Walter Brueggemann?!?” We’re all like that. There’s always someone that prays better than we do.
And why do we always assume that the pastor should be the one praying out loud? It’s not that I can do it better. In fact, there is no class in seminary on praying out loud. But you know as well as I do, that if a person even hints at being called into full time ministry, the response is, “Good, you can say the prayer!” But we all pray in our own ways.
- Can You Teach Us To Pray?
So, who taught you to pray? When I was little, I remember kneeling beside my bed with either my parents or my grandmother and praying. I would thank God for simply being God and for creating me and giving me life and then I would tell God how grateful I was for all the people and animals in my life, by name, including the perfunctory list of the thirteen cows on our family ranch that were the part of the herd that was counted as mine. I’m not convinced that my prayers were that profound but I at least remember praying.
So most of us probably really identify with that disciple that had the nerve to ask to be shown how to pray. In fact, he probably helped us all out a bit. I say nerve because he was a devoted, faithful Jewish disciple. From the womb, this man had prayed—table prayers, Sabbath prayers, morning prayers, night prayers, wedding prayers, graveside prayers. These were praying people. So you can imagine their conversation with each other. “If we ask him, he’ll think we’re fools. He’ll think we’re dim wits or something.” But the disciple asked anyway. “Lord, you may think this is ridiculous question, but teach us to pray. Teach us to pray like you.”
And Jesus knew all this, I think. He knew that people struggled to experience the real Presence of God and because of that, they also struggled with how to acknowledge and live with that Presence in their lives. He knew that we struggled continuously with doubts about God and about what God wanted from us. He knew that we struggle with what prayer should be. So he begins where we are—in the midst of that silence that is God. He began by showing the disciples what was at the very core of his own life—his relationship with God. Because remember that Jesus had made prayer an integral part of his life. How many times do we read of him “withdrawing to a deserted place to pray” or “going to the mountain to pray” or “spending the night in prayer with God?” He prayed before he chose the disciples, when he fed the five thousand, and on the night before he was led to his death. He even prayed on the cross, a prayer of centering and forgiveness. Even at the beginning of this passage, Jesus was praying.
III. Pray Like This
So, Jesus says “Pray like this,” and he gives us this prayer—our greatest prayer. It’s also a strange prayer in some ways. It is prayed by all Christians but never mentions Christ. It is prayed in all churches but it never mentions church. It is prayed on all Sundays, but it never mentions Sunday. It is called the “Lord’s Prayer” but it never actually mentions “Lord”. It doesn’t mention any of our beliefs or our doctrines or the way our church is organized. It doesn’t even mention the life beyond this one.
What Jesus provided in answer to the disciple’s request is more than just a formula for prayer. Jesus provided words to address God, words to praise God, and, finally, words to petition God. The prayer begins by imploring God (and perhaps reminding us that this is God’s place) to take charge of our life and our world, to bring about justice and peace as only God can do. The very first word of the prayer—“our”—reminds us that we’re not alone. Prayer is never “mine”; prayer is always “ours”. We enter into this ongoing conversation with God and all of Creation.
As we continue through the prayer, the remaining petitions have to do with basic human needs, those things that are the very sustenance of our life—food, relationships with others, relationship with God. They have to do with life. The prayer does not include petitions for stuff, or comforts, or for things to get easier for us or even for us to become better people. It doesn’t even ask God to make things clearer or more sensible to us. It is a prayer that brings us into life with God. It is a petition for those things that only God can provide and that we cannot live without. It is an opening to the awareness that God made us, that we are God’s, and that God’s desire is not for us to be right, or to be good, or to be pleasing, but to be who we were meant to be. 20th century priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said that “we are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.” Praying is part of that experience.
- Minimum Daily Requirements
The prayer that Jesus taught us to pray has nothing to do with knowing the right words. It really is more about persistence. Jesus continues in this passage by reminding us to keep asking, keep seeking, and keep knocking. Far from characterizing God as some sort of celestial Santa Claus who always brings good little boys and girls the things for which they ask, Jesus seemed to assume that God is already in motion, that God has already answered every prayer, and that God has already opened every door that needs to be opened and is standing at the threshold inviting us to enter. So praying opens our lives to the presence of the God who is always and already there and gives us the realization that God provides life’s minimum daily requirements so that all we need to do is open ourselves to being with God.
The truth is, most of us starve ourselves for God. We search and search for meaning and neglect to realize that there is but a bountiful feast laid before us for our consumption. And yet, we continue to live on the junk food that we have created in our lives. So, we have missed the meaning that we so badly needed. We just have to become aware of how badly we need nourishment, how badly we need God.
In her book, The Breath of the Soul, Joan Chittister tells of another disciple who expressed the desire that his master teach him how to pray. “Then here is how,” the Holy One said as he plunged the head of the disciple into a bucket of water and held it there while the disciple struggled to be free. “Why did you do a thing like that?” the disciple demanded to know as he came up out of the water gasping for breath. “In order to teach you,” the Holy One said, “that when you get to the point where you know you need God as much as you need air, you will have learned how to pray.”[i]
Well, that was a little more dramatic than what Jesus did, but I actually think that they were trying to get the same point across. We are not called to pray; we are called to a life of prayerfulness, a life in which every breath we take and every move we make is attuned to the breath and movement of God that is already a part of us. And in that way, prayer comes with responsibility. As we enter that realm of God, we, too, are called to be a part of creating a world of justice and peace, of forgiveness, of providing bread for the hungry, and a shunning of those things that temptingly pull us away from where we’re called to be. Prayer, then, opens us to love and that, too, becomes a way of sustaining our life.
- A Life of Prayer
The truth is, the moment we seek the presence of God, we are already IN the presence of God. And the moment we want to pray, the instant we think about praying, we are already at prayer. Sometimes prayer is described as a set of techniques, as if a “practice” of prayer will make us better at it. But what does it mean to be “better” at it? Does it mean more of our prayers are answered the way we’d like them to be? Does it mean we get better results? Does it mean that it’s more meaningful to us? Or does it mean we’re more comfortable doing it?
Maybe it’s not supposed to be that comfortable. Did you know that the words “pray” and “precarious” are from the same root word meaning “to ask”? If something is precarious, it’s sort of that shaky experience where we don’t really know the outcome of something that’s really important. That sort of describes prayer. Listening to God and speaking to God are precarious acts of faith. We don’t know the outcome. Instead we find ourselves COMPLETELY dependent upon God. We lay ourselves open for God to intervene in whatever way God will. And that moment of intervention is called grace.
So, prayer is not about finding the right words. There is no “rightness” to our prayers. There is no getting better at it. There’s really no sense of one of us being better than another. Because it’s about opening ourselves to however God comes, whenever God intervenes, and wherever God leads us. A prayer can be one of words or sighs, silence or cries. It can be a walk, a drive, or one of those incredible moments when you feel God’s presence so strongly that it is almost touchable. Remember, prayer is not our way of “summoning” God or begging God to intervene. It’s our way of entering what God is already doing.
Thomas Merton talked about encountering God in prayer as always “beginning again”. We sort of tiptoe into it, and totter a little on the edge because we are not in control. Think of prayer as creating a pathway for us to walk to a place that we do not know. But God will lead us there. That’s why we’re told to pray always. We are always walking with God. Praying is paying attention to that. Prayer is not mere words. Prayer is what happens when you listen and wait, in the midst of the words, for the very outline of heaven to emerge.
But this prayer that we call The Lord’s Prayer becomes so familiar sometimes that we forget to listen. One day I had a clergy friend that came out of the sanctuary after conducting a wedding service. She looked frustrated and I asked her how it had gone. “Well, that was a debacle,” she responded. “I messed up the Lord’s Prayer.” “What do you mean you messed up the Lord’s Prayer?” I asked. She responded, “I didn’t have the words in front of me and they just flew out of my head. I think what I said was a cross between the Apostles’ Creed and the Pledge of Allegiance.”
It’s funny, but, sadly, this prayer that is so much a part of all of us, maybe sometimes so much that we don’t listen to it anymore, that we forget that it is about more than the words that Jesus gave us. It is our way of not just talking to God but affirming that we are always with God. Next time you pray the Lord’s prayer, when you begin with the words “Our Father”, think about all of those that join you in prayer—in this sanctuary, beyond this sanctuary, throughout the world. Remember that God is not limited by time or space, so our prayers are not either. Imagine that you begin your prayer as a hesitant, somewhat precarious solo act and that as you pray, God adds accompaniment making it a glorious symphony.
And when you get to the end, when we join together in the “Amen,” that is more than your cue to look up and go on with your life. It is your affirmation that in everything that came before and in everything that will follow, God is present and accessible. It is the realization that if we pray like this, we will find the God who is already there. Our “Amen” connects us with all the prayers that came before and all the prayers that will follow.
As we said, the prayers are not about the words. These words that we use have been changed and translated many times through many centuries. You have to tap into them and let God lead you to the meaning. That’s what Jesus was trying to say. One of my New Testament professors in seminary was Dr. Virgil Howard. Dr. Howard was this sort of large burly man. He would come into class a little disheveled, plop down this leather briefcase that he had had for 40 years or so (and it showed it!) and begin to pray beautiful prayers. When we got to this Scripture, he prayed his words for this prayer, a paraphrase of what we read in our Bibles. Listen to the words:
God, You who are Father and Mother to each of us, but nearer than our own breath; Make yourself the center of our world and our lives: Reign over us and among us. Let your creative and life-giving will and dream for us happen right now and right here in our world; Make every bite of bread a taste of your loving presence; Don’t make us relive our failures day after day, and help us not to make others relive their own failures. And do not abandon us to our own violence, but show us the way out of the cycle of violence that threatens to destroy us. Because your Reign and your Power and your Glory are finally all that matter. Amen.[ii]
See, there are no right words. It you desire to pray, you are praying. If you think about praying, you are praying. And if you have no words, the prayer is already there. Amen.
Abwoon D’Bashmaya: The Lord’s Prayer in Aramaic, available at https://youtu.be/MAEIrp4MFBE
[i] Joan Chittister, The Breath of the Soul: Reflections on Prayer (New London, CT: Twenty-third Publications, 2009), 36.
[ii] Dr. Virgil Howard (1936-2006), “The Lord’s Prayer” (Paraphrased)