One of the practices highly recommended to clergy is having a spiritual director. My director is a professor I had in seminary. He is wise and insightful, and always helps me not only see the bigger picture, but also see goodness in what sometimes feels like darkness. But perhaps my favorite thing about him is the way he prays. You would think with such a spiritual, learned man, his prayers would be profound and flowery – worthy of the kind of prayers we find in our own Prayer Book. But instead, his prayers are the opposite. They are awkward and fumbling. You can hear long pauses in them as he struggles to articulate what he wants to say to God. He uses everyday language, rarely capturing the phrases we normally hear in prayers. The first several times I heard him pray, I was admittedly a little disappointed and, when I’m really being honest, a bit judgmental. But in time, I began to see his prayers differently. His prayers may not be artfully constructed or perfectly paced, but his prayers are never canned or artificial. His prayers may not be theologically intricate, but his prayers are honest, vulnerable, and capture the deep profundity of whatever you have just shared. His prayers are not pretty, but they are real and raw – more real than most prayers I have heard.
Of course, I am not the first person to wonder, worry, or wander through prayers. Today, the disciples ask a simple favor of Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” The disciples at this point have seen Jesus pray many times. They see how good he is and they see how important prayer is in his life. In fact, in Luke’s gospel, Jesus is regularly found in prayer.[i] They watch Jesus enter into prayer with God for months, and they long to be able to do that too. And so they come to Jesus, and they vulnerably submit their request: teach us to pray.
Their request is full of implications. First is the admission that they do not have the first idea about what they are doing. Maybe they learned some prayers in temple, or maybe their parents prayed with them. But they realize in watching Jesus that they do not actually know how to pray themselves. Not really. Second, they see a real connection between Jesus and God that somehow is revealed in Jesus’ prayer life. Perhaps they see how prayer strengthens him in his weakness and how he is more vulnerable with God than even with them. They long for that kind of connection with God too, but still, they are not sure how the whole thing works. Finally, a deeper implication is at hand in the disciples’ request. Perhaps they are not only asking Jesus how to pray, but also wanting to know what is actually happening in prayer. Perhaps they have tried praying on their own – for an illness, for a new job, for a broken relationship – but the prayer did not work. They want Jesus to teach them the right way to pray so that the results they desire are fulfilled.
And so, Jesus responds. Jesus gives them the ultimate prayer – the prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer. The prayer Jesus gives them is so beautiful and powerful, that two thousand years later, people who never go to church seem to know this prayer. This is the prayer we pray when we pray the rosary, when we end our days, and at the end of every Eucharistic Prayer. This is the prayer we pray when we have no other words. This is the prayer we teach our children to pray and we sing in our own unique Hickory Neck way.
But if you look at Luke’s version of this prayer, the prayer sounds a little more like one of the prayers my spiritual director might pray. As one scholar says, “Pious convention has conditioned most of us to repeat this prayer so quietly and reverentially that we fail to recognize how we are risking an aggressiveness incommensurate with bourgeois manners.”[ii] In other words, the Lord’s Prayer is kind of pushy. There is no flowery language or even polite deference or usage of the word “please.” Instead, Jesus just tells us to ask for a bunch of stuff: give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us. And every week or even every day, we say the same words – give us, forgive us, lead us, deliver us. And if we keep reading Luke’s gospel, after the prayer, we hear Jesus saying that our prayerful life with God is akin to being a pushy friend who through their shameless relentlessness[iii] is able to get a friend up out of bed in the middle of the night.
So why in the world do we teach our children this prayer when the prayer is so flagrantly pushy? Next week Ella and Charlie will be receiving their First Holy Communion. First Communion is not really the norm in the Episcopal Church. As a priest, I first encountered First Holy Communion on Long Island, where the Episcopal Church was highly influenced by the Roman Catholic tradition. Though the Episcopal Church’s theology is that any baptized person can receive communion, some families prefer their children to understand what Holy Communion means before receiving instead of learning to understand communion through experience. There really is no wrong way to approach Eucharist, but if we are to do a First Holy Communion, one of the things we require candidates to do is learn the Lord’s Prayer. In part we do that so that there is at least one part of the Eucharistic service they have memorized and in which they can fully participate.
But there is another reason we have candidates learn the Lord’s Prayer. We want candidates to learn the Lord’s Prayer because the Lord’s Prayer teaches us about what our relationship with God is like. Our relationship with God is not flowery or picture perfect. We may have moments of poetic beauty with God, but when our relationship with God is at its deepest, we cry ugly, full-bodied tears, we rage about injustice – both personal and in the world, we confess our shame and sorrow for the awful things we sometimes do, and we laugh and rejoice with the kind of dancing we would only do in the confines of our homes. We do not use language with God containing the formality of language we use with strangers; we use language with God we would use with a friend who knows all our foibles and loves us anyway. All of that is not to say the poignant prayers of the Prayer Book cannot inspire faithfulness; they can and do. But we teach the Lord’s Prayer to our children so they know we can say unsure, vulnerable, real words to God.
That is what Jesus is really teaching the disciples. Jesus does not tell the disciples to “ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you,” because he is saying prayer is a vending machine for our every wish. Jesus tells us to ask, search, and knock, because prayer and our relationship with God is active and relational. As one scholar asserts, Jesus teaches us the Lord’s Prayer because he wants his disciples to know, “prayer is not a meek, contrived, and merely ‘religious’ act; [prayer] is the act of human beings who know how hard it is to be human. Real prayer cannot be faked. [Real prayer’s] only prerequisites are sufficient self-knowledge to recognize the depths of our need, and enough humility to ask for help.”[iv]
This week, I invite you to take a cue from Jesus’ own relationship with God. Maybe you will start with a prayer like my spiritual director’s – one that does not lead with preplanned words, but instead tries to authentically say the words on your heart; not a structured collect, but a raw conversation with God. Jesus gives you permission to ask for those things you need, the forgiveness you desire, the protection you long for, and the deliverance you seek. Jesus invites you to just be you – to be a human with the God who loves you and made you in God’s image. And if all that fails, then you can say the Lord’s Prayer. You can rest in the assurance that although Jesus’ prayer sure sounds pretty, his prayer is one of the most honest ones you can offer – the small step you can take in connecting back to your Lord and your God. Amen.
[i] James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 289.
[ii] Douglas John Hall, “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 288, 290.
[iii] Wallace, 291.
[iv] Hall, 290.