July 24, 2016
William G. Carter
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray."
To be a disciple is to be a student. So it’s good to hear that the twelve disciples of Jesus were still teachable. They see Jesus praying, wait for him to say Amen, and then say, “Lord, teach us to do that. Teach us to pray!”
It’s a striking request, for a couple of reasons. According to the Gospel of Luke, Jesus was always praying. On the day of his baptism, he was praying when the heavens opened and the dove came down (3:21). It was his custom to slip away from the crowds to pray (5:16). The night before he selected the first twelve disciples, he went up on a mountain and spent all night praying (6:12).
Another time, in the middle of a prayer, he looked up at the twelve and asked, “Who do people say that I am?” And then he told them how he would suffer, die, and be raised (9:13). Shortly after that, he took three of them up a high mountain where his appearance changed – his clothes were dazzling white, his face was transfigured – and it happened, says Luke, while Jesus was praying (9:29).
His was a vital prayer life. Jesus was always praying – and the twelve said, “Teach us to pray.” They wanted something of what he had. They knew he could teach them.
But it’s a striking request, because every one of them was a Jew. They had a book of prayers called the Psalms. They committed these prayers to memory. With the prayers inscribed in their liturgies, the Jewish disciples had prayers for every occasion: when you rise to begin your day, when you lie down to hand over the night to God. If you need help with an enemy, the Psalms offered the prayers. If you wished to thank God for safe passage through the mountains, or an abundant harvest, or the success of a child birth, the Jews already had the prayers. They knew the life of faith is filled with prayers, prayers for every possible occasion.
But these twelve were looking for something even deeper. “Teach us,” they said to the Master. “Teach us to pray.”
So he gave them the words. “Father…Abba, Daddy…” He addresses God with affection. “Hallowed be your name.” Hallowed is Holy, apart from us, guarded and distinct. God can be addressed with affection, but God stands apart from you, holy and completely Other.
“Your kingdom come . . .” This is the heart of the prayer, a request that the God who rules over the solar systems and the barn swallows would also come to rule over the situations that we know: the broken bones, the wounded hearts, the fierce injustices. We want the God who rules over everything to rule over us.
Then it gets specific: “Give us each day the bread we need for today.” That is a request as old as the story of manna in the wilderness. (Exodus 16). God sends food from heaven for the Israelites as they wander in the wilderness. It comes every day, twice on the day before the Sabbath. But it cannot be hoarded or else it rots. It is only bread for today. We need it. We don’t have it. We ask God for it.
“And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Luke takes the edge off of Matthew’s version of the prayer. In Matthew, the forgiveness we request sounds conditional on our ability to forgive. Recall: “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” But in Luke, Jesus assumes that we are already forgiving others, in the name of a God we wish to forgive us.
“And do not bring us to the time of trial.” That sounds ominous, as if the Father to whom we pray is the One who can also test us. It’s like that story in the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel. After Jesus is baptized, the Spirit of God hurls him into the wild places to be tested by the Devil. God sends him to confront evil on its own turf. That is going to be a decisive test! Do you want God to test you? Jesus says, “Pray that you are delivered from this.”
Here is how to pray, says Jesus. With simple words, with direct speech, focusing on the life and death issues before us every day, always praying for God to come and rule over us and our lives.
Yet the instruction is not complete. It’s not enough to merely write down the words, to recite them every day, and to mumble them when prayer becomes a habit. Jesus goes on to say some more.
Suppose you find yourself in need of daily bread, he says. A friend has come to stay with you, and both of you need the food. Now, suppose you went to a neighbor, knocked on the door, and said, “Can I get borrow some food for my guest and my family?” The neighbor is not going to turn you down. He’s a Middle Easterner. Generous hospitality is the name of the game. He’s not going to yell, “Go away, I’ve already gone to bed for the night” – especially if you persist in asking.
With this, Jesus leans over the pulpit to wink and say, “And how much more generous is God than your sleepy hospitable neighbor?”
He is still talking about prayer. Prayer is something more than saying the words. We have to stay at it, we have to persist. We have to make it real. Prayer is asking for bread, not cake. It is staying at matters of great urgency, not flaying at thin superficialities. It is swimming from the shallow end of our need to the depths of God’s great mystery. To a great extent, when we pray, we are always in over our heads.
Even the apostle Paul - schooled as a rabbi, trained in scripture, well experienced in the grace of God – could exclaim in one of his letters, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). He’s clear about that. We don’t know how to do it perfectly. We ask for small needs to be met by a God who directs the comets and plants the giant sequoia trees. We ask for justice when we are busy perpetuating injustice.
Sometimes life is so confusing. At the peak of the Civil War, with North against South, gray against blue, brother against brother, President Lincoln stood to say, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other… The prayers of both could not be answered, that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.” Or as the prophet Isaiah speaks truth, “God’s ways are not our ways.”
We don’t know how to pray perfectly, because we often make it all about us. “Lord, give me this. Lord, give me that.” Prayer is not about getting what we want – it is about opening ourselves to what God wishes to give us. God desires to rule over us: thy kingdom come! God creates us to live in peace: forgive us our sins, including the sin of being incapable of forgiving others, much less ourselves. God calls us to live holy lives: Lead us not to the test, Lord.
We pray for God to provide what God has already desired to provide. Prayer is so much more than reciting a little formula or asking for magic. It is participating in the holy life of God, staying with the divine joy that carries us even when life looks bleak and the road ahead is foggy. Prayer is daring to go into the deep end, where the mysterious waters of grace are way over your head, and trusting that whatever happens, you are met – you are loved – and there will be daily bread upon your table. Not because you put it there, but because God is behind it, giving it to all who ask.
“Teach us to pray.” To learn about prayer is to learn all over again about God. God is generous, providing everything that the world needs to flourish. God is creative, planting dandelions in the cracks of concrete, giving life where no one expects to find.
And God is inclined to love us. “What father,” asks Jesus, “will give a snake to the son who asks for a fish? Or a scorpion to the daughter who asks for an omelet?” No father would do that, no mother could do that. Not if the parent loves the child.
Now we are getting to the heart of it. To pray is to participate in a relationship. It is entering and re-entering the dominion of God’s Love that lies at the center of all things. It is drawing near a Table we did not set, to appreciate a sacrifice that we did not make, to receive a mercy that we did not imagine, to welcome the Breath that filled the lungs of Christ into our lungs, into our bloodstream, into our very lives. Prayer is communion with God, the verbal sacrament before all other sacraments. We ask God to fill our silences and inhabit our words, until God’s desires for us are greater than our own desires for ourselves.
Want to learn how to pray? Do you really want to learn? Stay at it. Ask, knock, keep asking and knocking. Search for God until God finds you. Be willing for God to change you. Know in advance that, as you pray, God’s Spirit will work in you. This is the essence of the relationship.
So here is a parable from the early Christians who went to the desert. There were two leaders, Lot and Joseph. Both were honored as spiritual leaders, and given the name “Abba” – Abba Lot and Abba Joseph.
Abba Lot came to Abba Joseph and said: Father, according as I am able, I keep my little rule, and my little fast, my prayer, meditation and contemplative silence; and, according as I am able, I strive to cleanse my heart of thoughts: now what more should I do?
The elder rose up in reply and stretched out his hands to heaven, and his fingers became like ten lamps of fire. He said: Why not become fire?
Now that is where prayer promises to take us: to fill us afresh with the Spirit of God.