Lord, Teach Us to Pray
Teach Us to Pray
July 24, 2016 Maple Grove UMC
I want to begin by asking you to write down your answer to this question: If you could pray for only five things, what would they be? There’s a blank card inside your bulletin for you to write on and there should be pencils in the pews. If you could pray for only five things, what would they be? Take a moment and write down your five.
We’ll come back to that list later. This scripture, though, raises lots of questions about prayer:
- Doesn’t Jesus promise more than he can deliver? He says, "Ask and it will be given you; search and you will find." Really? I’ve asked for things and not received. Haven’t you? But notice what Jesus actually promises. He says, "How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!" At least in this scripture Jesus doesn’t promise we’ll get everything we pray for; he promises we’ll get the Holy Spirit--which may be disappointing in some ways but a pretty amazing gift, if you think about it.
- Lots of people ask, "That’s not the way we say Lord’s Prayer. Why not?" There are two versions of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible—this shorter version in Luke 11 and a longer one in Matthew 6 that’s closer to what we say in church. The ending of the Lord’s Prayer—"for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever"—is not in the Bible, but was added very early, probably already in the 1st century A.D.1 Contemporary translations of the Bible don’t have the old-fashioned language—the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’—that we say. I’ve often thought about updating the language of the Lord’s Prayer for worship, so it’s not so confusing and especially so kids can understand it better. But the Lord’s Prayer is about the only thing left that most Christians can say together, and I can’t bring myself to change it.
- And people ask, is it "debts" or "trespasses?" In Luke’s version, it’s both. Jesus says, "And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. In Matthew’s version Jesus clearly says "forgive our debts as we have forgive our debtors," and many scholars believe Jesus didn’t have sins in mind at all, but was calling for widespread debt-relief. 2 Think about that next time you pray the Lord Prayer!
But here’s where I want to engage this scripture today: the disciples come and say, "Lord, teach us to pray." The question suggests we don’t just naturally know how to pray; we have to learn to pray. And the way Jesus responds is surprising. He does not teach them a way of praying. He doesn’t teach them an attitude of prayer, or a posture for prayer, or how to express emotions in prayer, or a technique of prayer. What he teaches them is, well, a prayer, some words to repeat . . . and repeat.
This is surprising, I think, to Protestants, if not to Catholics, because we Protestants like prayer to be spontaneous and from the heart. We worry, "If you say the same thing over and over, won’t it become rote and meaningless?" Well, only if you let it. Jesus didn’t seem worried about that. In my experience, the more I pray the Lord’s Prayer, the deeper and more meaningful it becomes. There’s certainly a place for making up our own prayers to God, but to pray the Lord’s Prayer, as Rowan Williams puts it, "is to let Jesus’ prayer happen in you."3 Now that’s powerful, isn’t it—to let Jesus’ prayer happen in us.
Bible professor Justo González says that in Jesus’ time it was common for rabbis to teach their students a prayer to repeat. These prayers became a way to identify which disciples belonged to which rabbi.4 In one sense, then, what it means to a Christian, a follower of Jesus, is to be one of the people who pray his prayer.
It’s a powerful thing to have a prayer we can pray together with almost any Christian. I’ve visited hundreds of people in nursing homes, sometimes people I’ve never met before, often with limited ability to speak or remember things. But one thing we can nearly always do together is pray the Lord’s Prayer, and often it brings a tear to the person’s eye.
Maple Grove member Sean Gill was once in the hospital with blood clots. For a while he had a roommate named Darrell, an older guy with some life-threatening condition, raised in the church but not very religious. Because the curtain was drawn between them, Sean never actually saw Darrell, but they said a few words back and forth. In the middle of one night, someone down the hall started screaming that her daughter was dying. There was crying and moaning and nurses rushing around. It was frightening. Hesitantly, Sean said, "Darrell, are you awake?"
Not knowing what else to do, Sean asked, "Would you like to pray the Lord’s Prayer with me." And they did. And for that time, Sean says, "I wasn’t worried about anything. Most of us," Sean says, "yearn to feel the presence of Christ in our lives, especially those of us who doubt and are skeptical. But praying the Lord’s Prayer with that stranger in the middle of the night," he says, "I felt it." That is the power of "letting Jesus’ prayer happen in us."
"Lord," the disciples asked, "teach us to pray." One way of looking at it is that Jesus taught them not how to pray but, well, a prayer, words to repeat over and over. Another way to look at it is that Jesus taught them not how to pray but what to pray for.5 I wonder: what’s on the list you just made of your Top 5 things to pray for? If your list is anything like mine, if it’s anything like the prayer request cards we get every Sunday, it’s dominated by prayers about health and physical healing for loved ones. That’s what we tend to pray about. And don’t get me wrong--there’s all good. Jesus was a healer, and I will always pray for my own health and yours. But here is Jesus’ list of his Top 5 things to pray for:
- Our Father, hallowed by thy name. The Lord’s Prayer begins by praying not for ourselves, but for God, for there to be reverence and respect for God. There are, of course, specifically Jewish concerns about God’s name. But what might it mean for us to pray over and over for there to be reverence and respect for God?
- Thy kingdom come. This prayer is partly a confession. We may not know exactly what God’s kingdom is like, but we know this violent, selfish, racist, rude and consumer-driven way we live is not it. When we pray "Thy kingdom come," we are praying for an end to prejudice and retaliation, for a more equal sharing of God’s blessings, for all children to be safe and have excellent schools. And we pray for that kingdom to begin with us, now.
- Give us this day our daily bread. So we do get to pray for our own physical needs. But note that it is ‘daily’ bread we pray for—enough, but not very much. And this is a corporate, a community prayer: not give me my daily bread, not even give my family daily bread, but give us—all of us—our daily bread. It’s a big prayer.
- Forgive us our sins, it says in Luke’s version, for we forgive everyone indebted to us. Praying Jesus’ prayer is humbling. Every day we need forgiveness. Every time we pray we need forgiveness. And I don’t think it means God won’t forgive us unless we forgive others. God is always forgiving. But how can we receive God’s forgiveness if our hands are full of grudges and bitterness? Forgive us, Lord, for we are letting go of everything that’s not forgiveness.
- And finally, the last thing on Jesus’ prayer list is this: Deliver us from the time of trial, or Lead us not into temptation. Again, it’s a humbling prayer. We’re not praying for strength to overcome life’s toughest situations. We’re acknowledging that there are some things we’re just not up to, so please God, don’t even take us there.
Jesus has given us the gift of a prayer, words to pray over and over, so that he can pray in us. And he’s given us a prayer list—not to pray instead of own lists, but things not to skip over:
- For there to be reverence and respect for God
- For the world to be the way God wants it to be
- Not for my eternal security, but for our daily bread
- For forgiveness and the letting go of others’ debts
- And to not even get started down the road to trouble.
Shall we pray?
Our Father, who art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.
1 "The Lord’s Prayer," The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 2nd ed., ed. F.L. Cross & E.A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), 836.
2 See e.g., Obery M. Hendricks, Jr., The Politics of Jesus: Rediscovering the True Revolutionary Nature of Jesus’ Teachings and How They Have Been Corrupted (New York: Three Leaves Press, 2006), 65-66, 105-106.
3 Rowan Williams, "In the Place of Jesus: Insights from Origen on Prayer," The Christian Century (August 6, 2014), 20.
4 Justo L. González, Luke, Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 143.
5 See Hendricks, 102.