Teach Us To Pray

Sitting in a sterile conference room, the speckled green carpet below and the high back chairs loosely arranged around circular tables, I walked into the session on meditation at the Lubbock Regional Interfaith Conference several years ago; the session was taught by a Buddhist monk and a Presbyterian minister. To open the hour-long discussion, the monk asked if anyone struggled to meditate and nearly every hand in the room quickly shot up, and knowing laughter filled the room. We all struggled and we are all okay admitting it because, for most in the room, it was a new practice. In this vulnerable, shared moment where a group of twenty strangers openly admitted to be being bad at something we valued and knew would have a positive effect on our lives, we instantly became closer. This group became closer because we were willing to admit our weaknesses and then engage in intentional practice together.

If you are here this morning, meditation may or may not be part of your life, but prayer is probably is, but if I posed the same question that the monk did that day, “who here struggles to pray?”, I have no doubt that we would all have to, timidly or otherwise, raise our hands. Some of you may be more comfortable with the ways in which you struggle to pray, and for others, it feels like a sign of doubt or a failure of faith. For some of you who struggle to pray it’s the difficulty of finding your “style” of prayer and others might struggle with why one would even pray to begin with. Prayer is something that is such an intimate part of the Christian life, that it is easy to assume that no one else struggles and it’s difficult to admit when our prayer life feels worn out. But whatever our assumptions or expectations about prayer, it is true that everyone struggles to pray occasionally, and this is as true from behind the altar as it is all the way to the very back pew.

In our familiar gospel passage today, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray. After he finished his own prayers, the disciples asked Jesus to teach him to pray and in Luke’s version, we get a truncated version of the longer Lord’s prayer than we get in Matthew. It’s a prayer that is familiar to most of us today, and although the form is a bit different, we will recite it later in this service. After that, Jesus then goes into a parable about being persistent in our prayers, and how we ought to openly ask God for what we need.

Now, it isn’t an odd question for disciples to ask for instruction on something as foundational as how to pray; it’s an important part of a life of faith, and the disciples wanted to learn. And the disciples, it is important to remember, are enigmatic of all Christians. Just as they sat at Jesus’ feet and hoped to learn how to pray, so we also need to learn and relearn how to come to God in prayer.

When we think about the Lord’s Prayer, it’s important that we not only learn how to pray, but why we ought to pray as well. As we pray the prayer our Lord taught his disciples that day, we pray to the Father who desires to be in relationship with us. We pray for God’s kingdom to come, for God’s will to be done; we pray for our daily needs and for the forgiveness of our sins. We ask for God’s protection as we rest in the hope of the resurrection. When we take a long look at the Lord’s Prayer we see that the prayer our Lord taught his disciples that day points toward the future, but remains firmly rooted in the present.

This prayer is not some magic formula or a necessary incantation of the right words – our Lord’s Prayer considers the world as we see it and the world that we hope to for God to bring about.  And we learn that in our own prayers, we can do the same. In our own prayers we can hold all of the immeasurable injustices in the world today, and still firmly believe in the hope of the kingdom of God to come. As our Lord taught us, we can be aware of all that we need in our daily lives, yet still be oriented toward the needs of others.

But the Lord’s Prayer is less of a prescribed prayer and more about the motivation to pray. Jesus, with the parable that follows the Our Father, teaches us to be persistent in our prayer; remain diligent in prayer and your faithfulness will be rewarded. We also learn that there is no room for shame in prayer; in our prayers we should ask God for whatever we need. And of course, God already knows what we need, but we are changed by acknowledging our needs and asking God for them to be met.

Because prayer is about a relationship with the God who wants to be in relationship with us. Prayer, despite how this passage is often implemented, isn’t a transactional event, but prayer, rather, is a rhythm of life. There is a focus on this text that typically rests on the “ask and it shall be given” portion, and this forces people of faith to bank on God as a vending machine: we ask God for whatever we want and we get it if we have enough currency of faith. But I think that the focus instead should be on the line, “how much more will the Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.” We have to articulate our needs to God; I think God desires to know what we want, even, but prayer is not transactional and God is not a vending machine. In prayer, God will give the gift of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit can carry and lead you to whatever you may need. What we have here in “ask and it shall be given” is not the promise to receive whatever we articulate in prayer, but the promise of the God who wants to be in relationship with us never abandoning us; God’s Holy Spirit is freely given to help lead us to those things we need to make it through this life.

When it comes to prayer, I think it’s important to admit that we struggle. It’s important to name times when our prayers feel like they fall flat, to our own ears or to God’s. If we are going to grow in prayer we have to talk about prayer: what works for you may not work for someone else, and what used to work for you may no longer be working to bring you closer to God or to where God’s Spirit might be leading you. It’s important to admit these struggles, but just as important is not giving up. Prayer is one of those things that’s easy to put down and forget to pick back up, but it is such a vital part of a life of faith. Prayer is not important because of  some sort of arbitrary moral Christian duty, but because the God who created us to be in relationship wants to be in relationship with us, and prayer is the best way to do so.

So, in your prayer life, if it feels dry, try something new; if articulating words in prayer feel difficult, pray in silence or pray while walking. If contemplative, silent prayer feels oppressive take up journaling or painting, let your artistic side guide you in prayer. Whatever you do, or however you go about it, continue to go to God in prayer and rest in the knowledge that God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are with you and will guide you in all your days.

A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Proper 12C on Luke 11:1-13, July 28, 2019.

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