One of his disciples said to Jesus, “Teach us to pray.” It is a simple request. Perhaps you are perfectly comfortable praying, but many church people are not. As the Presbyterian theologian Robert McAfee Brown wrote: “Prayer for many is like a foreign land. When we go there, we go as tourists. Like most tourists, we feel uncomfortable and out of place. Like most tourists, we therefore move on before too long and go somewhere else.”
The premise of this sermon is that we could all benefit from thinking about what prayer is and how to go about it, that we may stop feeling like tourists in a foreign land and more like pilgrims in the house of prayer.
First of all, we need to stop feeling guilty about our prayer life. I confess I sometimes feel that way. I recently went to the dentist, and the hygienist asked me how I was doing with my flossing? I replied, “Well, I feel about flossing much the same way I feel about prayer. I know it is good for me, and that I should do more of it.”
Why do so many people think of prayer as a chore or a religious work required by our faith? Or feel intimidated that they don’t have the proper words or know the proper forms.
I can share with you some of my own thinking about this. I was raised in the Episcopal Church and all the prayers I heard as a child in church were from the Book of Common Prayer, one of the finest flowers of the English language. I can still recite some of them. For example, The Collect for Purity goes like this:
Almighty God, unto whom all hearts be open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of thy Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love thee, and worthily magnify thy holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is a beautiful prayer, isn’t? And it is typical of the prayers I heard in public worship. Along with the King James Bible and the works of Shakespeare from about the same period the Prayer Book represents the English language as a thing of great beauty.
And that is one of the problems we have about our prayers. Because if we hold up the finest examples of prayer from public worship, with its soaring language and subordinate clauses, as the model for our personal prayers we get intimidated. These prayers were written by learned pious men who spoke several languages and were poets and preachers. Our prayers can’t compete with theirs in beauty and art.
But they don’t need to compete. Jesus’s lesson on prayer is the antidote for this intimidation. His advice is simple and straightforward. That is the first thing to remember about prayer: keep it simple. It doesn’t have to sound like The Book of Common Prayer.
The disciple wanted Jesus to teach them to pray. They wanted the manual? What are the directions? You know how it says on a bottle of shampoo under “Directions: Apply product to hair. Lather. Rinse and Repeat.”
Simple, right? Likewise, Jesus answers the question how to pray by saying, “Ask, Search, Knock (and Repeat.)” You’ve got to keep at, be persistent. And he gives them a simple template as an example, which is The Lord’s Prayer. It is a simple prayer that we may have said so often we take it for granted.
Let us take a closer look at it:
The first part of the prayer is the most important. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.” Hallow means to honor as holy. This is where prayer begins: in awe and wonder at the holiness of God. And what is God’s holiness? God’s holiness is God’s defining attribute. It is God’s separateness, otherness. It is God’s godness. God is not a thing among other things, but the One which transcends all things. God is Paul Tillich’s “ground of all being” Thomas Aquinas’s “Prime Mover,” Karl Barth’s “wholly other,” Alcoholic’s Anonymous’ “Higher Power.”
Our impulse to pray to that which is beyond ourselves is rooted in our humanity and our capacity for awe and wonder. The great rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote,
We do not come upon wonder only at the climax of thinking or in observing strange, extraordinary facts but in the startling fact that there are facts at all: being, the universe, the unfolding of time,” he writes in his book on prayer: God in Search of Man.“ We may face it at every turn, in a grain of sand, in an atom, as well as in the stellar space.”
“Hallowed be your name,”
Then Jesus asked them to pray: “Your kingdom come.” When we pray for God’s kingdom to come, we declare that we do not believe that the kingdoms of this world are ultimate. The church pins its hopes on Jesus Christ, who “makes all things new”(Revelation 21:5). The coming of God’s kingdom is the ultimate revolution. It is not just our world repaired, but entirely recreated. The one who prays for God’s kingdom to come works for the transformation of the world even as we wait for God’s kingdom, which will never be identical with our hopes and dreams.
Then Jesus tells them to pray: “Give us each day our daily bread.” This prayer reminds us that we are creatures and must rely on God’s provision for our bodily needs. Daily bread is the bread which God must supply each day. Like the manna in the wilderness we cannot store it to provide for ourselves.
Then Jesus tells them to pray: “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” This reminds us that the forgiveness that we ask for is the very same forgiveness that our neighbor asks from us, and the petition makes clear that the two must go together (Matthew 18:23; Ephesians 4:32). If we are not able to offer this forgiveness, how will we ever understand the forgiveness that God offers to us, free of charge, in Jesus Christ?
Then Jesus tells them to pray: “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” This prayer reminds us of the perilous spiritual situation in which we stand. God himself tempts no one (James 1:13), but this prayer asks God to spare us from the testing of our faith.
The Lord’s Prayer is a model for prayer. It encompasses the several types of prayer. I have an acronym that can help you remember the different types of prayer. It is ACTS, which spells acts and reminds us that we should act on the things we pray for.
The four kinds of prayer are Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication.
“Many prayers begin with Adoration, which is a prayer that asks for nothing but simply praises God and expresses our love for God. Often such prayer brings us to a realization of God’s majesty and power and our humbleness in relationship to it and we are drawn to Confession, which is prayer that expresses to God the things for which we are sorry and need forgiveness.
Thanksgiving is prayer that expresses gratitude to God for all the blessings we have received at God’s hands. Supplication is prayer that asks God for something to be accomplished, whether for ourselves, which is called Petition, or for others, which is called Intercession. (From A Course in Basic Christianity, R.L. Floyd, 1997.)
Pretty neat and simple. But Rabbi Marc Gellman makes it even more simple when he is quoted as saying, “But really, when it comes right down to it, there are only four basic prayers. Gimme! Thanks! Oops! And Wow!” Now that is simple.
But does it fit my template? Well. let’s see: Gimme is Supplication (Gimme for me is Petition, Gimme for others is Intercession); Thanks is Thanksgiving, obviously; Oops is Confession; and Wow is Adoration. There you have it. Wow!
But Christian writer Anne Lamott breaks it down even more simply. She wrote a very good book on prayer called “Help, Thanks, Wow. The Three Essential Survival Prayers.”
In an interview with NPR Lamott, who is open about being in recovery, said about the prayer for help, the foundational prayer:
Well, I’ve heard people say that God is the gift of desperation, and there’s a lot to be said for having really reached a bottom where you’ve run out of anymore good ideas, or plans for everybody else’s behavior; or how to save and fix and rescue; or just get out of a huge mess, possibly of your own creation. And when you’re done, you may take a long, quavering breath and say, ‘Help.’ People say ‘help’ without actually believing anything hears that. But it is the great prayer, and it is the hardest prayer, because you have to admit defeat — you have to surrender, which is the hardest thing any of us do, ever.
The interviewer then asked her why people only pray when they need something:
A lot of the time we don’t know when we’re surrendering that we’re actually, at the same time, maybe establishing connection … to a power greater than ourselves — or something in the next concentric circle out whose name is not me. So, that to me is where help begins. You know, we’re often ashamed of asking for so much help because it seems selfish or petty or narcissistic, but I think, if there’s a God — and I believe there is — that God is there to help. That’s what God’s job is. (NPR interview. November 19, 2012)
And if God’s job is to help, how does God go about it? Does God answer our prayers? I believe God does answer our prayers, but often not in the way we expect or in the time frame we hoped. And sometimes God’s answer to our prayer is “No!”
Can our prayers change God’s mind? On a purely philosophical line the answer must be no, for God’s attributes include aseity, immutability, impassibility and eternity. The transcendence of God would imply that nothing we could do could change God.
But fortunately the Bible never read Aristotle or Thomas Aquinas and has several interesting stories about God’s mind being changed, including Abraham’s somewhat comic exchange with God that we had in our first reading (Genesis 18: 20-32). God wants to destroy Sodom, but Abraham raises the issue of the righteous being destroyed with the unrighteous, the good with the evil. And just for the record, the sin of Sodom has nothing to do with sexuality, and everything to do with their loveless lack of hospitality. Compare their behavior with that of Abraham in last week’s lesson when he welcomed strangers into his home. The story we have today shows Abraham dickering with God to save the righteous remnant. And God does change his mind.
And what about the relationship between prayer and action? Should we be working for the things we pray for? P.T. Forsyth says that a prayer is a promise. He writes:
Every true prayer carries with it a vow. If it is not, it is not in earnest. It is not of a piece with life. Can we pray in earnest if we do not in the act commit ourselves to do our best to bring about the answer? Can we escape some kind of hypocrisy? This is especially so with intercession. What is the value of praying for the poor if all the rest of our time and interest is given only to becoming rich . . .If we pray for our child that he may have God’s blessing, we are really promising that nothing shall be lacking on our part to be a divine blessing to him . . . . To pray for God’s kingdom is also to engage ourselves to service and sacrifice for it. To begin our prayer with a petition for the hallowing of God’s name and to have no real and prime place for holiness in our life or faith is not sincere. (The Soul of Prayer, p 27-28)
Can you bargain with God? I have a contemporary example that you might find interesting. You may have seen that Robert Morgenthau, the longest-standing attorney general of the City of New York died last week. I read his obituary in the New York Times. During WW2 his destroyer was attacked by Nazi torpedo bombers in the Mediterranean Sea. Cut in two by explosions, the ship went down with a heavy loss of life. Lieutenant Morgenthau, the executive officer, saved several shipmates, leapt into the water and swam for three hours in the darkness until he and others were picked up by an American warship.
“In an interview with The New York Times in 2009 after announcing that he would not seek a 10th term, Mr. Morgenthau ruminated on the night in 1944 when his ship was torpedoed by Nazi warplanes and went down with 47 of his shipmates.” “I was swimming around without a life jacket,” he recalled. “I made a number of promises to the Almighty, at a time when I didn’t have much bargaining power.” His deal? “That I would try to do something useful with my life.” (New York Times) I’d say he kept his part of the bargain.
The main thing Jesus teaches his disciples about prayer is to be persistent, the old word was importunate: “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Fred Buechner put it like this:
Be importunate, Jesus says — not, one assumes, because you have to beat a path to God’s door before he’ll open it, but because until you beat the path maybe there is no way of getting to your door. ‘Ravish my heart,’ John Donne wrote. But God will not usually ravish. He will only court. (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC. New York: Harper and Row, 1973, pp. 70-71).
Finally, Jesus assures the disciples that their loving Father in heaven will give them what they need. “Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? 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!”
How much more, indeed! Jesus himself embodies the love and concern that he promises the heavenly Father will have for his children. And when I am reluctant to approach the high and holy God, I try to remember that this same God, so far removed from us, reached out in love to be “God with us” in the humanity of Jesus Christ. That is why so many of our prayers conclude with “through Jesus Christ our Lord” or “In Jesus’ name we pray.” Because Jesus himself is the mediator between heaven and earth. He is the bridge between frail human flesh and the majesty of the Divine.
So you can pray to him and through him anytime you want with any words you want. Amen.
(I preached this sermon at the United Congregational Church of Little Compton, RI on July 28, 2019. To listen to an audio podcast of this sermon go here.)