The single most common topic I have been asked about in the course of my ministry, year in and year out, through crisis, through joys, through transitions, and change, young and old have approached me asking for one thing: teach me how to pray. The request is simple, yet complicated all at the same time. You see, when someone asks me how they can pray a reel begins in my mind, flashing all the experiences of prayer I have seen in my lifetime: the healing prayers that splayed someone to the ground in the Pentecostal church of my early childhood; the United Methodist prayers spoken extemporaneously from the heart; the hippy campus minister who always started prayer with silence so long you wondered if he had fallen asleep; the prayers written to accompany the prayer beads my fingers strung together; the stiff Episcopal collects that seem at the same time formulaic and beautiful; saying the Lord’s Prayer in Spanish, trying to keep up with the native speakers; silent prayers in the middle of the night as I seethed in my anger at God, with no words left; praying into a telephone that doubled as a speaker in the retirement home’s dining room; resorting to digital Pop-Up Prayers when a pandemic forced us into isolation. When asked, “teach me to pray,” where can I possibly begin?!?
When the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, Jesus’ mind seems to be all over the place too. Jesus begins his lesson with the actual text of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus says, “When you pray, say this…” But Jesus does not stop his lesson there. Jesus goes on to teach the disciples through three small vignettes.
In the first vignette, the disciples hear about the man who refuses his friend bread in the middle of the night because he has already gone to bed. The disciples learn through this funny battle of wills that their posture in prayer is to be persistently inquiring. In fact, the word used in our translation today for “persistent” is also translated by some scholars as “shamelessness.” [i] In the second vignette, the disciples are told in the instruction to ask, seek, and knock that God responds to their inquiries. They learn here that their posture in prayer is a posture of action. Prayer is to express their need to God, to search out God when they feel abandoned, and to cry out to God with a loud knock. The final vignette compares the care of a parent with the care of God for the disciples. The disciples learn that God’s love for them is greater than the instinctual, caring love of a parent for a child. The disciples experience that abundance when they enter into a prayerful relationship with God.
A vulnerable, active, abundant relationship with God sounds wonderful and easy enough. The problem is the relationship Jesus describes is not easy. We find it difficult to be continuously vulnerable, active, and overwhelmed by God in prayer. In fact, we find simply remaining in prayer with God difficult. When I was in seminary, I had a group of lay persons from my field education parish who met with me once a month to help me reflect on my ministry at the church. One of my committee members, Joe, was notorious for keeping me on the spot in these meetings. “So, Jennifer, how is your prayer life?” Joe would always ask me. The first time he asked me that question, I stammered through some sort of reply about corporate and individual prayer. But Joe wanted to know the specifics of what my prayer life entailed. Joe’s monthly prodding was the first real experience I had with accountability in my prayer life. Finally, after about a year of asking me about my prayer life, I asked Joe about his prayer life. Joe explained that the reason he always asked me about my prayer life was because he struggled with his own prayer life. His pushing me was a way of also pushing himself. He knew that if I struggled to keep an engaged prayer life, he could gain some camaraderie in his own struggle; and if I was feeling particularly connected to God in prayer, he would be challenged to engage God with more intentionality.
The mutual support that Joe was unknowingly creating is the promise of our Gospel lesson today. First Jesus gives the disciples words: the Lord’s Prayer. Once they own those words, they have an assuring entry into dialogue with God. And once the disciples have that entry, they are assured of God’s presence in the prayer relationship. God is the faithful friend, who gets up in the middle of the night to answer prayer. God is the responding God who will answer, be present, and open doors through the prayer relationship. God is the parent that our parents can never fully be because God’s love is more abundant than the disciples, as humans, can ever be. Jesus does not promise that God will respond to the disciples’ prayers in a particular or specific way. The disciples are not promised riches or earthly gain through a life in prayer. But Jesus does promise that God will respond, will stay present with the disciples, and will love the disciples abundantly.
Despite all the modes of prayer I have witnessed over time, perhaps the best advice is to start where Jesus does with the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus affirms for us today that if all you can pray is the Lord’s Prayer, then pray the Lord’s Prayer. The vehicle of the Lord’s Prayer has the power to take us to that point of vulnerability with God. The vehicle of the Lord’s Prayer has the power to push us to action, seeking God by asking for those basic needs, knowing that God provides beyond those needs. The vehicle of the Lord’s Prayer has the power to remind us of the abundance we already experience – of daily food, of forgiveness of sins, of salvation. Jesus’ words for you today are words of encouragement. Your relationship through prayer with God is going to require you to be vulnerable and to engage, but your relationship through prayer with God will be marked with abundance. And if you feel overwhelmed by that promise, then start today with these words, “Our Father, hallowed be your name…” Amen.
[i] James A. Wallace, “Homiletical Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr C, Vol. 3 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 291.