“Teach Us How to Pray”
What more familiar passage could we have than our gospel for today: the Lord’s Prayer!? But before we look at the Lord’s Prayer, let’s think about prayer more generally, because the Lord’s Prayer is related to us in the context of the request by the disciples, “Teach us to pray.”
This passage implies that one must be taught to pray, so today in our worship, we, like the disciples before us, come to Jesus asking, “Teach us to pray.” For this lesson, I am grateful, because the concept of prayer, particularly leading corporate prayer in worship, has been a trickly one for me.
In the first place, how can I (or any person) even begin to pray for anyone else? At best I can stimulate reflection, and offer some guidance as to where that reflection might take someone.
In the second place, I wonder about prayer as communication with some distant, powerful being called God. What kind of god needs our prayer to act? What can we add to the all-knowing deity’s knowledge? What can we say that is not known by God already?
Of course, the solution to my problems with prayer hinge very much on the definition of prayer
It is easy to say what prayer is not.
- Prayer is not some Harry Potter-style magic where you say certain words and specific things happen.
- Neither is it Santa Claus–style bargaining; ie. be good and you get what you ask for; be bad and you don’t. Unfortunately, we have been taught from an early age that prayer is like a shopping list that we present to God.
I would rather think of prayer as more an invitation to sense the connectedness of the whole of life and the ‘always present God,’ rather than some ‘elsewhere God.’ The characteristics of this kind of praying would include:
• listening in silence,
• getting insights into ourselves and possibly others,
• and connecting us to each other.
The Danish philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, once commented: “prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.” In other words, prayer doesn’t change things; prayer changes people, and people change things.
Prayer is not about asking for things; rather it is all about reimagining the world! Reimagining relationships! Reimagining possibilities! Now if this is all new to you, then like Jesus’ disciples, you may be in need of some tutoring in the subject of prayer.
Some clue as to the role of prayer is provided by our usual order of service. As the liturgy unfolds, our prayers invoke God, and then our confessions allow us to set aside the barriers that might otherwise prevent us from openness to the Word of God. After we have listened to Word, prayer follows as our response as we reflect upon the application of the Word to our lives, the lives of others, our community and our world, which then is summed up in the Lord’s Prayer. In turn, our prayer is followed by the offering because, having heard the word, and reflected upon it and opened ourselves to God in prayer, this is our time to offer ourselves to the God who has offered the divine self to us.
In our prayers we are not telling God what we want; rather, we are placing our wants within the context of God’s will for the world. Knowing that God’s will may be different from ours, we begin and end the Lord’s Prayer as we are told Jesus prayed in the garden: “Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done,” and we offer ourselves to this purpose.
This last bit is important, for when we pray, “Your kingdom come; your will be done,” to whom do we attribute the responsibility for this happening? Is this phrase a request that God bring this about? Does it rest on God’s action? If so, of what need is human involvement? Taking all that Jesus ever said, the emphasis of his teaching was on the responsibility of human beings for their actions, both outer and inner. So based on Jesus’ teaching, we may understand this prayer not as a petition asking God to act, but rather as an affirmation of one’s own intentions to participate in the Kingdom by individually doing the will of God.
There is a human role which must be fulfilled, without which the kingdom remains only potential. To actualise the kingdom requires both God and human working together. When we are only praying and not doing, or only doing and not praying, God seems to be asleep or absent.
The church that prays for healing is usually the one that is willing to change the bandages, empty the bedpans and keep the all-night vigils. In our social concern and our work for justice, we are doing what we ask for in prayer. Our work is an extension of our prayer, not a substitute for it, and vice-versa.
To pray in Jesus’ name means to position ourselves to look at life as he did: to stand not above the poor, the sick, the oppressed and the lonely, but beside them. If we keep at it – and here’s where the parable, that follows the prayer in Luke, comes in – if we keep at it, we find that the desires we wanted to lift up to God have been converted. “Give me, give me” becomes “Make me, make me.” Prayer changes things – even us – and then, thus changed, we change the world!
Always our prayers arise out of a context. Even when we repeat the familiar words of the Lord’s Prayer, if it doesn’t apply to a concrete context in our lives it, we are simply making irrelevant sounds. Perhaps the following understanding of the Lord’s Prayer from group of refugees in El Salvador may help. They have taken the Lord’s Prayer and earthed it in their experiences of living in this world. Here is the result of their reflection on this prayer:
Our Father…To say Father, implies that we recognise ourselves as God’s children, called to build a new earth of sisterhood and brotherhood, not a hell of violence and death.
may your name be holy…That in God’s name, let there be no abuse, no oppression and no manipulation of the conscience and liberty of your children.
May your rule take place…Not the rule of fear, force or money, or seeking peace through war.
Give us each day our daily bread…The bread of peace, so we can sow our maize and beans, watch them grow and share them together as a family.
Pardon our debts, for we ourselves pardon everyone in debt to us…May our relationships not be based on self-interest.
And do not bring us to trial into a trying situation…Let us change lament for songs of life, clenched fists for outstretched hands, and the weeping of widows and orphans for smiles.
This is not the reciting of some well-known words in auto-pilot, like so much of the saying of the Lord’s Prayer in its traditional form, today. This is basic existence, real life, stuff, and so is the story which Luke adds to this prayer story.
It begins with the arrival of an unexpected guest seeking hospitality, but there is no food in the house, so a neighbour is asked to help out. It is for the needs of others that we are told to ask, seek and knock and keep knocking on God’s ‘metaphorical’ door.
This is what makes this story, important. This is what makes the refugees’ reflection, important. This is what makes the Q people’s prayer important. This is what makes what we do and say every week, important. Amid the basics of life, and remembering others needs, we are invited to reimagine the world, reimagine relationships, reimagine possibilities, not for our benefit, but for their’s. Because ‘prayer doesn’t change things. Prayer changes people and people change things’. Amen!
There is a fair amount of doubt as to whether Jesus said the words of the Lord’s Prayer. What we have as the biblical Lord’s Prayer most likely comes from a document the scholars call ‘Q’, (the first letter of the German word for first). It was a document available to the authors of both Matthews and Luke, the only two places in the Bible where the Lord’s Prayer is found.
During their life together as a community, the ‘Q’ people chose Jesus as their founder and they started writing their wisdom down. In particular, they composed and recorded angry sayings, condemning those who rejected them, and importantly, they began to institutionalise prayer as a response to their situation.
One result of their work was the prayer we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer, named that way because they took bits and pieces of Jesus’ teachings and wove them together, so every time they said these words, it reminded them of Jesus, their founder.