On Learning to Pray

The disciples were walking with Jesus and they said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”

It might surprise you—or horrify you perhaps—that this preacher, whose tenure is twelve long years, who grew up in the faith, whose father was appointed an elder, and who sat through countless courses in seminary, is just now learning to pray.

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always prayed—as if it were some dutiful task of obeisance put before me by a person of higher rank.  Like any good soldier obeying the chain of command, I marched out myriad prayer words and phrases used by those before me (what I learned in ‘basic training’) and loosely tied them together and sent them encoded to higher places.  Sometimes I was even proud of my poetry or the clever spin I managed on an overused holy protocol.  But most times I was simply content to have accomplished a prayer at all—and I knew that God forgave bad prayer—and perhaps there was no such thing in God’s eyes anyway.

In our family we pray before meals, before bed, and at church.  I’ve begun to think about those prayers instead of just saying them.  Do you ever think and take trouble over your prayer life?  What I have noted is that my prayers start more with thanksgiving than doxology.  “Heavenly father, we thank you for this day”—that is my most frequent opening prayer line.  Thanksgiving.  My mom was always big on manners—saying your please’s and thankyou’s—so I come by it naturally.  The irony of it all is that I can be five minutes removed from complaining about the awfulness of the day and then sit before the finished supper and let that line fly out of me without one sense of shame and insincerity.  The God who hears and knows all must suppress laughter on a regular basis when receiving my devout lip service.

I don’t know if it’s wrong to begin a prayer with thanksgiving rather than doxology.  Is there a wrong or a right in these matters?  Is there a good or a bad?  I do know, however, that Jesus in both Matthew and Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer begins with doxology (i.e. praise) to God.  “Father, hallowed be your name.”  This is not surprising, for Jesus was a Jew, and proper Jewish prayer etiquette strongly suggested you begin prayer with doxology and move to thanksgiving and petition.  I think they might have been on to something.

Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer is simpler you might say—certainly shorter—than Matthews.  This would likely please St. Benedict who said in the sixth century, “Let prayer be brief so that it can begin.”  You can ponder that for a moment while we note the various omissions in Luke’s model prayer.

  • Luke’s version, as does Matthew’s, addresses God as Father—but gone is Matthew’s locating of God “in Heaven.”
  • Luke’s version, as does Matthew’s, prays for the kingdom to come—but gone is the qualifying phrase “may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”
  • Luke’s version, as does Matthew’s, prays for bread—but Luke does not just pray that God give us bread on this day, but rather that God give us bread on each day.
  • Luke’s version, as does Matthew’s, prays that God not lead God’s people into a time of trial or temptation—but gone is Matthews, “but deliver us from evil (or the evil one).”

Interestingly, the omissions, when looked at closely, appear of one kind.  Luke’s version is more tethered to earth—there is no request for a great deliverance (a flight into heaven if you will).  No placing of God in the heights.  No separation between the will of God above and the will of God below.  The request for bread is not for the short term until God sweeps us all away, but for the long term.  Luke is staying a while—right here—on this green planet of God’s good creation.  And so the prayer—in its brevity—covers the needs for life here—relationship with God in doxology, prayers for the kingdom, and requests for sustenance, forgiveness, good will to others, and protection.

“When you pray, pray then in this way…”

I’m learning to pray.  I have a desire to learn now—just like the disciples who asked Jesus along the way—“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  I confess that I never had this desire before—at least not in this way.  Perhaps because I always thought I knew how.  But casual dutiful prayer only gets you so far.  And I need to go farther.  The complexities of life require a little more rigor—a little more intentionality—a little more discipline.  I have stuff to pray for now—big stuff—stuff that makes me lose sleep at night.  I am in pain.  I am reminded in greater and greater ways that things are broken in this world, and I am powerless to fix them.  I am so week and small and insignificant.  There is no human in all of God’s creation that can help—none to hear my case, none to make it right.  My only recourse is to beg God for assistance—to grovel and plead—to wake up in the middle of the night and bang on his door for a loaf of bread.  And when I hear no response to bang all the harder and hope that persistence gains me a hearing.  God please hear me.

I know you have stuff too.  Plans get put on hold sometimes—dreams have to wait—there are oppressions and inequities.  We all got stuff.  And casual, dutiful prayer only gets you so far.  But prayer isn’t all about stuff.  Stuff brings you to pray—unmet needs, deep heartfelt wants, fears, insecurities, anger, and resentments—broken world stuff.  But it’s not only stuff.  It’s something else.  It’s the need to be known in the midst of it all.

Shannon and I have celebrated eleven years together.  Compared to some reading this we have a lot of catching up to do.  Regardless, eleven years is a long time—a lot gets shared in eleven years—holidays, birthdays, relocations, career changes, achievements in education, births of children, memorable vacations.  And burdens—they get shared too—broken world stuff.  The world isn’t fixed because you get married.  Shannon and I discovered some time ago that there are some burdens so deep and personal and complicated that only the one or the other of us can understand the sting of their presence in our lives.  Not even our parents can understand—though they love us with all their hearts—and so we only discuss them together—her and I.  We only have each other.

But even then, what do I know of Shannon?—eleven years of observation and anecdote.  Despite the flowery sentiments present in Hallmark greeting cards, I am not the life that animates her, I have no understanding of how she was knit together, I cannot know the way she experiences love and loss.  There will always be mystery there—no matter how long we are together.  She also cannot know me—not as I have been known.  And I am proud of her and I.  We still long for each other’s company.  I have no greater friend in all the world.  But we are limited.  There are horizons we cannot see beyond.  There are moments when we each need to be known in ways beyond what the other is capable of.

So I desire to learn how to pray.  Because God is the only one who completely knows me and can unravel and straighten the knotted ball of yarn that is my own depravity and godlessness.  God is the only one that sees clearly the ‘imago dei’ present within me—and knows how that image has been tainted and damaged.  God is the only one that knows what I was meant to be.  God knows the pain we all have from being mired in broken world stuff.  Prayer to God is an outlet for us to consider, and turn over, and examine that broken stuff and to see our own sinfulness, and to have moments of clarity, and glimpses of purpose, and vestiges of hope—and to feel known.

Flippant dutiful prayer seldom plumbs the depths of broken world stuff—that takes a different prayer language, a different intention, and a different involvement.  But how do you get there?—“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples”—and I am just now learning—because I have the desire.

I want to be careful though.  Prayer is not self help therapy.  There are no seven habits of highly successful pray-ers.  There is no purpose driven prayer strategy  There is no the prayer millionaire next door book to set you on the path to success.

It is so hard to speak of spiritual growth—we say it takes a different language, a different intention, a different involvement, a little more rigor, a little more discipline—we say doxology then thanksgiving—and we give the impression that prayer is something we can accomplish well.  That it is a magic power that through hard work and dedication we conjure and bend to our will.  There must be something wrong with the way I practice prayer then.  Maybe I’m just slow on learning the ropes.  Maybe I’m blind to the alchemy.  I don’t think that’s it—that can’t be it.

I want to learn to pray—but I don’t want to accomplish it.  I know I can’t accomplish it.  It’s not me.  I’m not praying to come into contact with my own internal power that sets the world to rights and takes away my heart ache.  I’m praying to the one who always has loved me—and I am drawing close to the one who thinks of me every moment of my life and delights in me.  I am answering an invitation I received a long time ago—that somehow got set aside, quite on accident, in the folds of a seldom read book and placed on a neglected shelf.  Until now, when that shelf mysteriously dislodged that book, and that invitation slipped to the floor—and I found it again, and I remembered and I wanted to pray.

And I am ready to learn.  You don’t accomplish prayer.  It is far too relational.  Yes there is rigor, and intention, and discipline—but only as expressions of love to the one you have come to see, and be near, and to experience being known—the one who invited you.

I am ready to learn—because I need to feel God’s presence.  I am beginning to throw away the illusion of autonomy and the enthronement of self.  God is the end of life, the fulfillment of life, the essence of life, the coming of life.  And God is in me.  And I am staying a while—right here—on this green planet of God’s good creation.  And so my prayer—in its brevity—covers the needs for life here—relationship with God in doxology, prayers for the kingdom, and requests for sustenance, forgiveness, good will to others, and protection.

“When you pray, pray then in this way…”

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