Teach Us To Pray
A reflection on Luke 11:1-13
“I don’t know if I believe in prayer,” he said, “but I do believe in the God who listens to our prayers.”[i] This was the conclusion of a colleague who found himself in a debate with a shocked church member. She was struggling with the idea that there might be times when God does not supply what we might truly need. She was the sort to supply well-meaning phrases like, “God never sends us more than we can handle” to struggling friends. My colleague knew otherwise, having talked with other church members who were broken down to their core. Like the young woman who had repeatedly prayed for an end to her sexual abused by a family member as a girl and it hadn’t stopped until she left home. Or the man who prayed for his son’s cure from cancer, and wanted to know why it didn’t work. People who felt deep down that there must be something wrong with them or how they prayed, since they believed that God was faithful.
But when this woman heard her pastor say, “I don’t know if I believe in prayer,” she was left wondering what he thought the point of prayer was. If it isn’t to tell God what we need in order to receive it, what’s the use? Why pray? How could a pastor say such a thing?
Passages like the one today muddy the waters on prayer – for, on the surface, it appears that we should simply ask persistently, and we’ll get what we ask for. “For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks the door
will be opened.” Doesn’t it sound like the righteous will receive everything they need?
Except that Luke’s stories of Jesus praying belie that kind of thinking. Jesus himself had an unanswered prayer: “Father, take this cup from me.”
Luke’s telling of the gospel story, more than any other, emphasizes the role of prayer in Jesus’ life. The disciples pick up on this and want to know how he’s doing it. Is there a special technique they should be using? They had all prayed before – the traditional prayers were taught to them as children in the synagogues. But they saw how deeply it affected Jesus – deeper than it had ever affected them – and they wanted some of that peace and conviction.
“Jesus was praying at a certain place,” the scriptures say. Now we know that Jesus moved around a lot. It may be that there were certain places that he came back to repeatedly. Places he liked to pray. Luke doesn’t get specific. But the phrase “certain place” also tells us that there was a quality to Jesus’ experience when he prayed, a quality of certainty.
These days, we sometimes hear people talk about feeling “centered”, and I wonder if that begins to get to our point here. This “certain place” was more a state of being, perhaps centered, perhaps mindful, perhaps settled or quieted. He was not rushing through his
prayer. He was not juggling a million thoughts in his head. He was present, in a certain place, when he prayed.
When the disciples ask him to teach them, he offers them a very specific prayer. It sounds like The Lord’s Prayer, with pieces missing. You’ll find some of the missing pieces in Matthew. The rest were added when the Prayer was printed in the Didache, an early
church document containing the teachings of the church for those who were preparing for Baptism.
If we are looking at the mechanics, the prayer starts out focusing on the person of God. "Father, hallowed be your name.” This is the place to start, with praise and awe for who God is, recognizing the holiness that is so beyond us. Hallowing the name of God comes from the Hebrew tradition of honoring the unspoken and unspeakable name of God. You may be aware that repeatedly in our Bibles, where it says “LORD” (in all caps) in the Old Testament, what is actually in the Hebrew is a sacred name that is never pronounced. The Jews still regularly say “Adonai” (Lord), “The Holy One” or even “Ha Shem,” which means, “the Name.” God is beyond us, in holiness.
And yet, we are in direct relationship to God, as our parent. This holiness is beyond us, and yet it is closer than our breath and renders us holy. Recognizing God’s holiness, we also recognize our holiness. Some of the fragrance of praise we offer drifts back on us, the holy priesthood, made in the image of God.
Next, we pray “your kingdom come.” Throughout the book of Luke, Jesus preaches the “kingdom of God.” Notice, he does not preach Christ crucified, as Paul will. He does
not preach repentance, as John the Baptist had. Jesus preaches a new order, fashioned
by the hand and the will of God, which would require repentance and would result in his crucifixion, but was manifest healing and forgiveness and justice in the world.
The rest of the prayer focuses on the needs of the group – the “us.” Although we pray together in worship, I think many people are accustomed to thinking of prayer as an individual activity with an individual purpose. But here, Jesus lesson on prayer quite clearly centers us in a community of faith or even the community of humanity. Both of Luke’s books – the gospel and the book of Acts – show the community of faith to be the primary mode of self understanding. When individuals went off on their own, it was a threat to the integrity and safety of the church. They shared all things in common and in the shadow of the Roman and Jewish authorities, they forged a group intimacy that supported them and their faith in the kingdom of God.
The first of the petitions is “Give us each day our daily bread.” Simply bread. No more than what is necessary. The humble community prays for sustenance like manna in the wilderness – daily providence, nothing more. No stockpiles. Not praying for the best or the biggest, just enough – and enough for each person in the community.
Then “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves for give everyone indebted to us.” That debtors’ imagery is so hard to make sense of, for we tend to think of sins more as personal violations than IOUs. But the image might make more sense if we consider them in light of the Hebrew laws of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor. In the year of Jubilee, which was to be after seven cycles of seven years, all debts were canceled, slaves were freed, the land was given rest, and people returned to their family land with the hope of a new beginning. No one knows if this ever really happened, but it was a powerful message of God’s intentions to let us rest and begin again after our own mistakes and those of others have taken us far from the simplicity and innocence of birth. This is a new kind of community, in which the last and least likely will be invited to come first. This is also the kingdom of God that Jesus preached. With the kingdom of God comes an end to pride, to debt and obligation, to slavery, to honor and shame. That is forgiveness.
The last of the petitions in the prayer is: “do not bring us to the time of trial.” The early church, for which Luke was writing, faced the test of loyalty to the emperor, or really, a trial of their own faith. Would they be forced to choose between their lives or their faith in Jesus as the only Son of God – for the Emperors all wanted that title. No one wanted to be faced with that trial – and collectively, they named that fear in their prayer.
And that’s it. That’s the prayer. Then Jesus tells the parable about persistence in prayer. This man knocks on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night for bread, because guests have arrived and it would take hours to make them something to eat. It would have been un-thinkable not to offer the guests anything, in a culture that saw hospitality as the necessary shield from the harshness of Iron Age reality. The word for persistent might better be translated as “shamelessly.” The man shamelessly begged his neighbor for help, abandoning his pride – and honor in that culture was held in as high esteem as hospitality. And so we are to pray shamelessly, audaciously, for God loves us and will give us what we need. Or so it would seem. Until it doesn’t. Because prayer isn’t magical. There isn’t a perfect way to pray to get what you want. God is not a vending machine.
And in verse 13, we find that Jesus isn’t promising we will always get what we want. However, he says, we will always get the Holy Spirit. We will receive God’s active presence to transform. But what is the point of that? Sometimes, we need a cure. We need a miracle. What then is the point of prayer? Why bother asking for anything, if God is simply going to give us what God is going to give us and that is all?
Perhaps you have been praying fervently for yourself or a loved one. Perhaps you are wrestling in your gut with that question. I know I have experienced times of unanswered prayer. Sometimes the answer was “it isn’t the right time,” sometimes it was “it isn’t the right thing.” But how can you argue, for example, that an end to child abuse isn’t the right thing and the time isn’t right now? How can those answer tend to a tortured soul?
So, if the purpose of prayer isn’t to get what we want or even desperately need – even after Jesus tells us to beg shameless for it, what is the point? As I pondered this passage, two things came to mind, two purposes for prayer: first, to connect us and second, to
So, first, to connect us – to connect us to God, to each other and to ourselves. Above all else, our faith is about a relationship. One theologian has said that faith is a “feeling of absolute dependence.” We are dependent on our Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Empowered and given a share in the process – to create, to help transform the world – we are still awaiting the Kingdom of God. But that God who created us and sent us Jesus loves us deeply and longs for us to know it. God longs for us to know that, just as a mother cries over and kisses her newborn from head to toe, so God loves and cherishes us. In prayer, we have an opportunity to value that relationship, to focus on God, as the early phrases of the Lord’s prayer do, but also to be aware of being with God, blessed and strengthened.
We also have brothers and sisters – the world is full of them – and in prayer, we are drawn into community with them. In the Lord’s Prayer, we see that in the “us” passages – give “us” our daily bread, forgive “us” our sins. When we pray together, we are also made aware of one anothe'rs needs. The Sixth Century monk Dorotheus used an image to describe this growing connection of believers. He saw the Christian community as “a circle, with God at the center and our lives as lines drawn from the circumference toward the center. . . the closer the lines crowd in toward God, ‘the closer they are to one another; and the closer they are to one another the closer they are to God.’”[ii]
So we are brought into connection with God and one another, but I think we are also brought into connection with our true selves. We can be nothing other than who we really are when we come before God. The longer we spend in prayer, staying open not only to ourselves and others but to God’s voice, the harder it is to keep up our own false stories about ourselves and the false stories others have convinced us of. Prayer connect us to our true selves, our God, and our sisters and brothers.
Finally, prayer changes us. It is true that God answers prayer, but it is also true that God doesn’t always answer as we would want. So it seems that prayer is not about getting what we want, but shaping us to want what we need. As another believer reflected on the matter, “We start by praying for what we want and then end up praying to be made worthy of what we receive.”[iii]
Still, there are times when we don’t get what we need. Most people experience a time of suffering. You may wonder what you are doing wrong – is your prayer technique off? Did you do something wrong in your life? Is this God’s punishment? Are you unworthy of God’s protection, healing, transformation? What’s the story? And you may stop praying, then, hurt and confused.
Don’t stop. Because prayer might be the avenue through which God provides you the strength to deal with not getting the answer to your prayer. No one can say why your deep need is not met. But God is faithful in suffering, yes? The God who came and suffered death on the cross is not only familiar with your suffering, but present with you in it. Prayer is to connect us and to change us, empowering and strengthening us by that connection to the heart of God.
"I don’t know if I believe in prayer,” my friend said. “But I believe in the God who listens to our prayers.” All praise and thanks to the God who loves us, transforms us and longs to
give us what we need. Amen.
[i]Lose, David (2010). Shameless. Working Preacher. Retrieved from http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspz?post=1570, retrieved 7/25/13
[ii] Norris, Kathleen (1996). Cloister walk. New York: Riverhead Books
[iii] Tippett, Krista (Producer). (2013, March 7). The loses and the laughter we grow into, with Kevin Kling. On Being. [Radio show/podcast]. Retrieved from http://www.onbeing.org/comment/1421354
Erin Sharp, LMFT, MDIV, MS
Occasional educational pieces, reflections on life, maybe a sermon or two, and sometimes some poetry by others that I stumble upon...
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