July 25, 2010
Almighty God, the breeze of your love and grace is ever blowing; may our hearts be lifted by that breeze, and may it inspire these words and those who hear them. Amen
Do you remember how you learned to pray? Perhaps it was as a child, learning to say grace before meals: “God is great, God is good, now we thank God for our food…” or prayers before bed: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep…” Perhaps you learned to pray the rosary, or maybe you memorized the confession and the Lord’s Prayer in confirmation class. If you were raised in the Episcopal Church, as I was, the words of the liturgy may have seeped into your consciousness, “we acknowledge and bewail our manifest sins and wickedness which we from time to time have most grievously committed,” whether you understood them or not. Or if you grew up in a family where church going and prayer were not part of your routine, your first prayers might have been born out of desperation, “Help me, God,” or “Take care of her God,” or even, “I’m sorry, God!” or from a heart overflowing with relief and love, “Thank God he’s okay!”
Prayer is one the most elemental parts of our lives as people of faith. In our corporate worship we join in prayers to praise God and to ask God’s blessings for ourselves and others. As a parish we regularly pray for forgiveness, for healing, for strength, for patience. In our private prayers we ask for guidance, for God’s presence in our lives and for help in living as God would have us live.
As fundamental as it is to our lives though, in many ways, there is nothing harder than prayer. It’s often described simply as “talking with God,” which seems easy enough, right? But prayer requires us to open ourselves up, to bare our souls to God, and to let go of our need to be in control. At times, rather than being a source of peace and comfort, prayer can raise our anxiety levels. We wonder if we are praying enough, if we are we doing it “right”. We wonder what should we pray for and what it means when our prayers aren’t answered or at least not answered as we’d like them to be. We wonder if prayer still matters.
20th century preacher George Buttrick captures our ambivalence about prayer when he writes, “If God is not, and the life of man poor, solitary, nasty, brutish and short, prayer is the veriest self-deceit. If God is, yet is known only as vague rumor and dark coercion, prayer is whimpering folly; it were nobler to die. But if God is in some deep and eternal sense like Jesus, friendship with Him is our first concern, [our]worthiest art, [our] best resource and sublimest joy.”
In today’s gospel we get Jesus’ own take on prayer. Throughout the gospel of Luke we find Jesus praying: he withdrew to deserted places or to mountaintops to pray, he prayed before he called his disciples and when he fed the five thousand; he prayed in the garden before his arrest, and from the cross. Prayer was an integral part of Jesus’ life, and his disciples had witnessed this as they traveled with him.
Of course, as religious Jews, his disciples were no strangers to prayer themselves. No doubt they began their days with the shema, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” blessed their food before eating, and prayed before they fell asleep at night. And yet, in watching Jesus immerse himself in prayer, they saw or felt or sensed that there might be yet more to know and so they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Jesus replies with a prayer that is simple, straightforward, and covers all the basics—in a way a template for how to pray in general. The strength of this prayer is testified to by its persistence through the ages. In this prayer Jesus gives us a vocabulary, words to address God—Father he said, but we might just as well say Mother or Parent—the point is that we are to address God intimately, as one with whom we are in relationship, as one who loves us as a parent loves a child, indiscriminately and unconditionally. And then, hallowed: holy, sanctified be your name; your kingdom come. In the ancient world, where God’s name was too holy to be uttered, this invocation envisions God’s power and dominion in a world that then, as now, must often have felt out of control.
It is only after our relationship with God and God’s dominion in the world are acknowledged, Jesus tells us in this prayer, that we are to petition God to meet our needs. And in those petitions—which are corporate “we” not individual “I” we ask for the essentials, for those things we need to sustain life: food for the journey, forgiveness for our sins—those thing which take us away from God—and notice this: that forgiveness is hinged on our forgiveness of those indebted to us; and finally faithfulness—let us not be put to the test O God, because we surely will fall short.
This form of prayer Jesus gave to his disciples and to us, of course, is not the only way to pray. But in its beautiful simplicity it holds out for us something even more important than the words it employs; it holds out for us the promise that we often seem to be seeking when we question the reasonableness, the usefulness, the validity of prayer. In this prayer, Jesus invites us into relationship with the God who created us, loves us, and who desires, even needs our prayers. Jesus invites us into intimate relationship with the God who is Holy, the one in whom the power and glory reside, and then Jesus assures us that we can—should—ask that Holy One for those things we need, and we should be persistent, shameless even, to use a more precise translation of the Greek, in our asking. Jesus invites us to pray and then to release those prayers as we might release a helium balloon, letting them go where the spirit will take them, letting them become fuel for God’s action in the world.
When we enter into that kind of relationship with God, with Jesus, with the Holy, in and through prayer, then prayer, no matter what words we use, or whether we use words at all, indeed becomes for us our “worthiest art, best resource and sublimest joy.”
 George Buttrick, Prayer (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1942) 15. Emphasis mine.