Teach Us to Pray, Part 1

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” —Luke 11:1-4

Jesus taught his disciples to pray in two different places in the gospels. We find this lesson in the 6th chapter of Matthew— right in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. But in Luke (the gospel I just read from), we find it later, in the 11th chapter. In Matthew, the lesson comes unbidden. In Luke, it comes at the request of the disciples.

To understand this request, we need to realize the difference between Jesus and his cousin and precursor, John the Baptizer. John was into self-denial and strict forms of prayer. Jesus was accused of being his opposite, and it seemed that he gave his disciples a great deal of leeway in the way they practiced their religion, and they weren’t encouraged to learn prayers by rote. But Jesus’ followers had become a bit jealous, apparently, and longed for the kind of direction from Jesus that John was giving his followers. And so one day they made this request: “Lord, teach us to pray.”

It’s possible that this instruction in prayer only occurred once, and that Matthew and Luke simply included it at different points of the story of Jesus’ life. Or it’s possible that Jesus taught this prayer twice—once to all of his earliest followers in Matthew 6, and another time to his closest followers only, in Luke 11. The two versions of the prayer, after all, do have a couple of significant differences, even though they’re essentially the same.

And the placement in the gospels is one of those differences—one that still influences the attitudes about prayer found in churches today. If you’ve ever attended a Roman Catholic mass, an Episcopal eucharistic service, or a Lutheran communion service, you’ve probably noticed this, but didn’t relate it to a particular theology. When they say the Lord’s Prayer, it occurs quite late in the service: just before they take communion. That’s because in the early church, non-members could attend the opening of the church service—which included the reading of scripture and the sermon— but were dismissed before the prayers and the Lord’s Supper. This reflects Luke’s placement of the Lord’s Prayer: later in the gospel, and only taught to the closest disciples. In our church, we tend to prefer Matthew’s placement: earlier, and intended to be heard by everyone. And so when we say the Lord’s Prayer, it’s just after the service opens.

But because this twice-prayed prayer has always been so important to Christians—just about all Christians, regardless of where in our worship service we place it—and since it’s so important to the life of our church and the daily prayers of so many of us, I’ve decided to preach more than just one sermon on it. Today’s message, therefore, is the first of a series. So let me begin by asking:

What is prayer? There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people who pray. But we can all probably agree that the gist of prayer is simply communicating with God.

That communication can take a lot of forms—from speaking, to listening, to filling your mind, to clearing your mind, to doing God’s will. In the Roman tradition, when members of a monastery or a convent do their everyday work, they do it for God, and they consider it prayer. Along those same lines, my favorite poet, who isn’t at all Roman Catholic—a Kentuckian named Wendell Berry—once wrote these words:
Work done in gratitude,
kindly, and well, is prayer.
But for all these variants, speaking to God—either aloud or silently—is the first thing most of us probably learned that prayer was.

But how do we speak to God? Well, obviously, we just start talking, as we would with a 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 in my heart or what’s on my mind with my closest friend. To speak, as the disciples did in the first verse of Luke 11, of learning to pray seems like it’s just complicating things unnecessarily—perhaps even dangerously. It’s almost like those pharmaceutical commercials we see on TV that convince us that we have diseases we don’t actually have, and would never have heard of, if not for the commercial we just watched. So I do agree with this, that praying is simply sharing what’s within me with God.

If I pray only according to my mood, however, expressing joy when I’m happy, sharing sorrow when I’m sad, or asking questions when I’m confused, then prayer is just sort of a therapy… which isn’t a bad thing, really… but I’ll always approach it from the standpoint or my own agenda. Is it possible that there’s another, more important agenda than my own when it comes to prayer? And the answer is probably Yes. There’s God’s agenda.

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’ve run out of words, when my heart feels empty, when my mind is reeling. If my definition of prayer is simply a conversation that I initiate, and which I direct according to whatever mood I happen to be in at the sweet hour of my prayer, then there are times when prayer is simply going to be impossible, because I don’t even know what to pray at the point of pain or confusion or frustration or anger.

And this is when I realize that prayer doesn’t really belong to me—or at least not just to me—and should not 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. At first glance, it appears that this is another of those differences between Matthew—where Jesus begins the prayer, “Our Father,”—and Luke—where the prayer begins simply as “Father”—but that isn’t the case at all. Though Luke doesn’t begin the prayer with “our,” he uses “us” and “our” throughout the prayer, reminding us that this model for all other prayers is a prayer of community. Whenever we pray, we are swept up into something greater than ourselves. It’s not just a church we become part of when we pray, it’s the thing indicated when we refer to God as our heavenly Parent. Since we’re all children of the one God, then we are never an orphan, never an only child, never estranged from those who love us. We are family.

And you know one of the functions of a family that’s important here? Just think about an infant. The best it can do is babble at first, and then slowly (or in some cases, suddenly) it begins to form words and then combine those words into sentences. This happens with family as an example, and the delight of its parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles as encouragement and reward.

And the language it uses to do all these things we call its mother tongue. Language is one of God’s gifts to us, and I think we appreciate it most when we try to learn a new one that’s not our native language.

We’re the kind of church that doesn’t ask its members to memorize prayers, and we don’t have lots of liturgy in our worship service. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have a mother tongue to learn. Both our founding churches—the Congregationalists and the Christians—avoided a lot of liturgy. But both embraced the Lord’s Prayer and the Bible’s prayer book—the Book of Psalms—as a guide to the language of prayer.

Next week in the park, I’m going to be talking about how the psalms might be our guide as we practice the language of prayer. And then for the rest of August, we’ll look at the Lord’s Prayer. We didn’t get past the first word of two of the prayer today, so we have our work cut out for us. But we really covered the most important part of the prayer this morning: God loves us. God is our heavenly Parent. And because God is our Parent, we are part of a large family. Just as an earthly parent delights in the cooing and babbling and first words of a little baby, so God delights in all our prayers, eloquent or simple. So it’s not to be heard by God that we should think seriously about the language and content of prayer. It’s for our own. For there are times when our own mind is too full of confusion, or our own heart is empty, and we find we have no ability to pray. It is then that the words of the Bible—the Psalms or the Lord’s Prayer—can take the wheel and express what we cannot.
—©2019 Sam L. Greening, Jr.