Learning to Pray

Pray then in this way. —Matt. 6:9

What is prayer?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people who pray. But I think the gist of prayer is simply communicating with God. That communication can take many forms from speaking to listening to filling your mind to clearing your mind to doing God’s will. But I think speaking to God—either aloud or silently—is the first thing most of us learned prayer was.

But how do we speak to God?
Obviously we just speak to God as friend to friend. God is the One to whom we can always pour out our hearts, the One to whom we can always say what’s on our mind.

Prayer, therefore, is simple. As simple as sharing what’s on my mind or what’s in my heart with a trusted friend. To speak of learning to pray is making things way too complicated. It’s almost like those pharmaceutical commercials that convince me I have a disease I don’t have and would never have heard of if not for the ad I was watching on TV.

I agree. Praying is simply sharing what’s inside me with God.

If I only pray according to my mood, expressing joy when I’m happy, sharing sorrow when I’m sad, asking questions when I’m confused… then prayer will be therapeutic in a way. But I’ll always approach it from the standpoint of my own agenda. Is it possible that there is another, more important agenda—that being God’s?

For me, the whole idea that there’s more to prayer than just me speaking from my heart or saying what’s on my mind is most obvious when I have no words, when my heart feels empty. If my definition of prayer is simply a conversation that I initiate, and which I direct according to my mood, then there are times when prayer is impossible, because I don’t know what to pray.
The Lord's Prayer in the 
language Jesus spoke
It’s at this point that I realize that prayer doesn’t belong to me and shouldn’t really depend on me to jumpstart it. Prayer is of God, and when we pray, we need to be aware of the fact that we are praying—even when we’re alone—with others. Thus when Christ taught his disciples to pray, he taught them to begin by addressing God in two ways that remind them that not only of who God is, but who they are. I pray, “Our Father,” even when I am the only one praying. Why? Well, first, because it’s what Jesus has taught me to say. But also I know that at any given moment, thousands of others are praying that prayer with me. Therefore, we all say “our” instead of “my,” because we are not alone.

And who are these others? Well, if we are all speaking to the same Parent and calling that Parent our own, then those others are my brothers and sisters.

And so praying as we’ve been taught—not just by the church, but by Christ himself—often has more value than we know. I can pray the Lord’s Prayer even when I am speechless. I can put my heart into the prayer Jesus taught me, even when my heart is empty.

This goes to show that there’s a language to prayer that should be both learned and practiced. Even if we like to think of prayer as our native tongue, it has to come from somewhere. My native tongue is English and I learned it from my parents. Language is a gift that is given to us as a heritage, and it is a gift that can be cultivated when we learn other languages. It is the rare person who can learn a language without living in the culture where that language is spoken, and it is even more rare to be able to maintain that language without practicing it on a regular basis. [1]

And so it can be with prayer. There are different ways of practicing the language of prayer, but for me, that language itself is found in the scriptures. I hope I’m not the only one who admits this, but when I repeat the Lord’s Prayer from memory, it can sometimes just be mechanical speech. But it need not be that way, for the Lord’s Prayer is so full of meaning, and such a catalyst for other prayers, that it and it alone could be the main ingredient in a life of prayer.

But the Lord’s Prayer isn’t the only prayer in the scriptures. There’s a whole book of prayers in the middle of the Bible. If you were to pick up a Bible right now and open it to the exact center, chances are you’ll open it to the Book of Psalms. And they, too, can be—indeed that have been and still are—what a life of prayer is all about.

For me, the life of prayer is, in fact, praying the psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. Those aren’t my only prayers. But they guide my prayer. I begin my prayer time with the words of a psalm, and close it with the words of Jesus every day. I even have a calendar that divides the Book of Psalms into 365 portions. I have my reasons and the years have their own cycles, but every year in early March I start anew.

By praying the psalms, I am not praying my own mood. I remember having been downcast on the day I read the opening words of Psalm 33: Praise the Lord! or feeling particularly smug and self-righteous and being forced by my own calendar to pray, Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. [2]

A day like today is noteworthy, because my mood—or better put, my opinions—and the Psalm seem to match up perfectly.
Why, O Lord, do you stand far off? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?
In arrogance the wicked persecute the poor—let them be caught in the schemes they have devised. [3]
But there have been days when I couldn’t spare a thought for those less fortunate myself, and these words reminded me that my easy life often comes at another’s expense. This is a good thing, for, as James Mulholland reminds us, “The point of prayer is not to get what you want, but to receive what you need… [to] seek God’s will rather than God’s blessing.” [4]

Those are difficult words to hear. Most of us have been trained from the moment we could speak to use prayer as a kind of wish list. For example, there’s the little boy who, as his dad was tucking him in to bed, prayed his evening prayer, ending it with all the things he wanted God to do. He prayed everything in a normal voice until he got to the very end. At the end he shouted as loud as he could, “And don’t forget my birthday’s coming up and I want a new Nintendo!

“You don’t have to shout,” his father said. “God’s not hard-of-hearing.”

“I know that,” the little boy answered. “But Grandma is.”

In December, we wrote letters to Santa Claus. The rest of the year we prayed to God. And when we got old enough, we’d learn how to work the system.

The Lord’s Prayer stands in stark contrast to most of our praying. Its agenda is different from our own. It acknowledges who God is and what our relationship to God—and, therefore, to each other—should be. Then it does something we never do anymore: reminds us of the holiness of God’s Name—something that we forget more and more with each passing year. What would our speech sound like if we took the prayer seriously, Hallowed be thy Name?

In this prayer, God’s Name is equated with the name we give to someone we love, someone we’re close to. The Bible contains many images of God, but this is the one Jesus wants us to carry with us—not an angry judge, not a warrior, but a loving Parent. And this is no one-time thing. Throughout the Gospels we see that when Jesus has something really important to teach us about who God is and what our relationships should be about, God is portrayed as a nurturer, and God’s children should care for each other just as God cares for us.

Most of the Christianity that surrounds us here in the South is salvation-oriented. We believe so that when we die we can go to heaven. But what does Jesus say? Here in the Lord’s Prayer, we pray for the coming of God’s Realm here on earth. And this is consistent with the Bible’s definition of redemption and salvation: God’s promise is not that we’ll die and go to heaven. It’s that creation—all of creation—will be restored to what God intended for it in the first place. The Bible gives us hundreds of images of what this would be like, but because we wilfully choose to misinterpret some of the images we read at the very end in the Revelation to John, we somehow ignore them altogether. Yet both Isaiah and Paul promise the redemption of creation, and make it clear that Messiah’s mission is to restore the here and now, not to give us license to ignore and abuse that which we’ll leave behind.

And the prayer for our daily bread reminds us that we depend on God—not to give us riches for a secure future, but to meet our needs today. I said a couple of weeks ago that I always looked at John Calvin’s interpretation of scripture, but that sometimes I disagreed with him. But it’s Calvin who I think best interprets the petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” for he believed that this was a prayer not just for our daily bread, but for “everything which… will assist us to eat our bread in peace.” [5]

Thus, if Bonhoeffer was correct (and I think he was) when he said that “whatever enters into the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer is prayed aright, [and] whatever has no place in it is no prayer at all,” then our prayers for justice and peace can rightfully be included in the pattern and method that Jesus taught us. [6]

Asking for forgiveness is naturally part of our prayer life. But Jesus here makes it clear that forgiveness isn’t just a prayer request. Wallowing in our contrition isn’t the goal. But making forgiveness an integral part of our lives is. Our genuine confession is met with God’s forgiveness. And because we are forgiven and restored, that should be our attitude toward others. God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on whether or not we forgive. But our refusal to forgive others is probably a sure sign that we are unable to either come clean before God ourselves, or to accept the fact that God has forgiven us.

The final petition of the Lord’s Prayer is the most difficult on many levels, and in a climate such as the one we live in, it’s probably harder than ever to understand what Jesus meant when he taught us to pray that God wouldn’t lead us into temptation, or, as some translations put it, into the time of trial.

It might help us to remember that Jesus had nothing good to say about material wealth. He may have passed judgment on many sins, but the sin of greed was the only one he truly compared to idolatry. Though many popular preachers today tell us that the person of faith will receive material blessings—we only have to name it and claim it, whatever that means—Jesus in the Lord’s Prayer tells us that we should ask God to keep our lives simple. We usually equate temptation with sex or gluttony or substance abuse. Jesus seems to have equated it with greed. So when we pray, “Lead us not into temptation,” what we’re probably asking for is that God won’t curse us with wealth. Don’t pray those words if that’s not what you want.

I’ve given a bit of an overview of the Lord’s Prayer. Perhaps if I’m here long enough I might do a longer series on it. We’ve already prayed the Lord’s Prayer this morning, so I’d like for us to look at something else that some Christians recite on a regular basis. Our church is in full communion with its counterpart north of the border—the United Church of Canada. And they have a creed that reflects what community would be like if we truly lived the prayer we all pray. Let’s turn in our hymnals to No. 887. If you’d like you can read along with me. Or if you’re not sure this is what you believe, you can just read along silently or listen…

We are not alone, we live in God’s world. We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit. We trust in God. We are called to be the Church: to celebrate God’s presence, to love and serve others, to seek justice and resist evil, to proclaim Jesus, crucified and risen, our judge and our hope. In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us. We are not alone. Thanks be to God. [7]
—©2017 Sam L. Greening, Jr.
  1. See the opening of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Prayerbook of the Bible for a more eloquent explanation.
  2. Psalm 51:2.
  3. Psalm 10:1-2.
  4. James Mulholland, Praying Like Jesus (New York: HarperCollins 2001), pp. 2, 7.
  5. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion 3.20.44
  6. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Works, Vol. 5: Life Together/Prayerbook of the Bible (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1996), p. 157.
  7. United Church of Canada, 1980.