On Prayer

July 28th, 2019        Proper 17

Luke 11:1-13

It is another difficult, awkward question that Jesus addresses in today’s gospel. Prayer is something that is central to our life as Christians. It is an intimate topic – the question “How is your prayer life?” can feel just as intrusive as “How is your sex life?. It’s a similar question, because it goes to the very heart of how each of us personally relates to God, at the very depth of our soul.

And because it is such an intimate topic, it is different for each one of us.

Some of us pray naturally and easily, talking to God as we talk to a close, trusted friend, sharing whatever burdens we have on our hearts in the sure confidence that our words are falling on loving, caring ears.

For others, prayer can feel difficult. We are burdened by voices of doubt and insecurity, voices that tell us we are not doing it right. For some, those voices are the voices of others, a church tradition that has taught us that God is holy and so vastly above us, that our words must be inadequate. The mystical tradition, that teaches us to immerse ourselves fully in God through disciplined prayer, has brought many blessings to the church: but it can make prayer seem like a huge mountain we have to climb.

For some of us, it is the voice of our own doubts that get in the way. If God is the very ground of the universe, our concerns can seem so small and banal. Or it feels naive to pray: we know we don’t always get what we ask for, we know we can pray up a miracle, so it feels dishonest to bring our concerns. God’s will will be done in any case. And so we complicate it for ourselves.

I find it interesting to hear that the disciples apparently had their own issues with prayer. Because they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. After all, prayer is not new to them; they are Jews, raised in a tradition of intimate prayer that goes back to Abraham, steeped in the language of the psalms. But it may be that they were hearing some of the same voices we sometimes hear: the voice of the Pharisees, telling them that as simple fisherman they don’t have the education or the discipline to pray properly; the voice of a complex, multicultural age, just beyond the borders of sleepy Galilee, making old certainties seem naive.

If this is where the question is coming from, for the disciples, maybe for us, Jesus’s answer is a breath of fresh air. Because what we have made so complicated, he makes so wonderfully simple.

He gives us, of course, the daily prayer that Christians have said through the centuries. Now we get our Our Father from Matthew’s gospel; Luke’s version, which we heard today, is a bit different, stripped down to its bare minimum, but unmistakably the same familiar prayer.
And it teaches us, in five short sentences, to pray.

We begin by reminding ourselves who God is. “Father, hallowed be your name.” God is the one we are invited to address with the intimacy of a child speaking to a parent; but at the same time, God is the holy one, the One whose name must be kept holy, the One who is so vastly above us that we must never take God for granted.

And that’s really all we need to say. “Father, hallowed be your name.” In five words, we have said the essential thing about God. Notice what is not here: there is no “God, you are so great, so wonderful”. There is a place for the praise of God, but interestingly, Jesus doesn’t seem to count it as essential. We don’t need to butter God up, to wheedle and cajole. All of that just gets in the way. The wonderful thing about the prayer Jesus teaches us, is that we are allowed to just get to the point.

“Your kingdom come.” The first petition, and the essential one for Christians. Jesus, who came preaching that the kingdom of God had drawn near, is telling us to keep praying for that one thing. That God might rule, in our world, in our lives, in our hearts. When that happens, everything falls into place, there is no need to ask for anything more.

“Your will be done”, we add, and this is really just another way of saying the same thing. Whatever we ask, whatever we want for our lives, no matter how passionately we want it, we learn to frame it with these words. It is how Jesus ended his most heartfelt prayer, in the garden of Gethsemane, when his very life was on the line: “but not my will, but your will be done.”

And now we turn to ourselves and our needs. Jesus teaches us to pray three things, which are rooted in three basic facts about ourselves. And again, there is no beating about the bush here, no polite formulas: we are told simply to ask for what we need in trust, to keep it simple.

We are needy. “Give us each day our daily bread.” We are dependent creatures. We need to eat every day, and if we don’t get the food we need, we will perish: a fact that was probably much more present to a Galilean peasant than to us in these days of plenty. Jesus teaches us that there is no shame in being needy and dependent, it is the way we have been created, and with God we can be honest about our needs. And at the same time, we are encouraged to ask for what we really need, not for what we want, not for the proverbial new Porsche or whatever our heart hankers after, but simply for the basic need we share with all other humans.

We are faulty. “Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Again, there are no extra words here, no grovelling about our unworthiness or the like, just the simple acknowledgement that we sin, that we mess up and are dependent on forgiveness, just as much as we need our daily bread. We need forgiveness from one another; and we need forgiveness from God, and we can ask for it, without shame or hesitation, from the one who knows us and loves us.

Finally, we are vulnerable. “Do not bring us to the time of trial.” The time of trial. Not so much temptations to sin, though it can be that, but more the recognition that human life is uncertain, and we are vulnerable. That we can find ourselves in situations beyond our strength, situations that can break us. Again, Jesus invites us to name our vulnerability to God’s loving, understanding heart, and to entrust our uncertainty and fear into God’s hands.

These five short sentences outline our entire relationship with God. Ultimately what Jesus teaches us about prayer is all about relationship, about being able to trust God. And so he goes on to simplify his teaching about prayer even further. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 12 Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

What the whole business of prayer boils down to is God’s relationship to us, the relationship of a loving parent. Like a child pleading with a parent, we’re not always going to get what we want, but we can still trust that God knows our needs, and has our best interests at heart.

And that, in the end, is why we need to pray. Not to tell God what we need, because God knows that already better than we do. But to remind ourselves of that key core relationship we are invited into. Without prayer, our relationship with God remains abstract: God is a theory, the ground of our being, the Spirit that breathes through the universe. Well, God is all of those things. But God is also a truth we are invited to be in relationship with, a relationship like that of a child to a loving parent, sharing what is on our hearts, and knowing ourselves heard, and understood, and loved.