You see you don’t have to be nervous about prayer. If Ben Stiller can do it when he is trying to impress his in-laws, how hard can it be to make it part of your daily routine?
The text from Luke obviously has to do with prayer, starting with the familiar words of what we now call the Lord’s prayer. I played basketball in high school and at the beginning of every game while we were still in the locker room, we would say the Lord’s prayer together. Don’t know if it was superstition or the fact that it was in the South, but it was a thing that united us. We said the Lord’s Prayer and the 23rd Psalm after the death of my grandfather with all 25 of us crammed in the hospital room holding hands. There’s something about those familiar words lifted in corporate prayer that shifts our focus to what truly matters, and it’s not preseason rankings, even though we in the SEC may disagree.
The Lord’s Prayer provides the basic framework. And just as the memorized lyrics of a hymn or recalling a Bible verse can help us through the darkest valleys, so can the remembered words of a prayer. At the very least, they’re a good way to pierce the darkness toward the Source of light.
As we read Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, along with a parable and commentary from Jesus about persistence in prayer. Luke’s version of the prayer is shorter than the more familiar one from Matthew 6, containing only five petitions instead of the seven in Matthew. But the included five are all important petitions: the first two — “hallowed be your name” and “your kingdom come” — are spiritual, and the other three — for daily bread, for forgiveness of sins and being spared the “time of trial” — ask for help with daily life.
Another difference between the two passages is that in Matthew, Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer as a model as a part of a larger discourse about praying in general, whereas in Luke, he gives it in direct response to a request from one of the disciples, who says, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” We have to wonder why the disciple made that request. After all, the disciples were all children of the synagogue. They had grown up going to worship and hearing public prayers. So didn’t they already know how to pray? Maybe they wanted to hear it directly from the horse’s mouth.
Jesus starts his prayer with a surprising address to God. He says, Abba. The word typically is translated as “Father” and that bothers some people. Certainly the nature of God cannot be summarized in a purely male image. Let me suggest that Jesus does not use the word Abba to describe the nature of God so much as to describe our human relationship to God. Rather than as Father, Abba is better translated Papa or Daddy or Dad or like I call my father, Padre. It is an intimate, family form of address. When Jesus starts the Lord’s Prayer with “Abba,” he means we are to come to God in prayer as though we have an intimate, personal relationship with the Creator of the Universe.
“Hallowed be your name.” In Hebrew a person’s name was more than just how the person is identified. One’s name referred to the whole character of a person. The Psalmist writes, “And those who know your name put their trust in you.” That means more than knowing God’s name is Yahweh. As William Barclay observes: “It means that those who know the whole character and mind and heart of God will gladly put their trust in him.”
Then Jesus says, “Your kingdom come.” Jesus talks extensively about the kingdom of God. In the Gospel of Luke alone it shows up 38 times. These references are usually parables, metaphors, and analogies, not descriptive prose. Although Jesus refers to the “kingdom of God,” one never gets the sense it is a place.
In Romans 14:17 Paul offers a definition when he writes, “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy, in the Holy Spirit.” God reigns in this world where peace, joy, and righteousness prevail. As individuals, we experience the reign of God when we do what is right and when we experience the resulting inner peace and joy.
Saints Origen and Jerome, early leaders of the church, translated this phrase, “Give us what is necessary for daily existence.” We might add, “And, Lord, help us understand the difference between what we really need and what we just want.”
Maybe the prayers the disciples heard didn’t translate easily into meaningful personal conversation with God. Indeed, in Matthew 6:5, Jesus referred to “hypocrites” who stood and prayed in the synagogues “so that they may be seen by others.” The fact that Jesus responded by giving this prayer as a model suggests that he understood that praying is something with which people need help but it’s not something that is innately difficult. Anyone can pray. Not just the holy. Not just Mrs. Smith who sings in the choir and is the most Godly person you know. ANYONE can cry out to God. Just because you’ve been going to the church you’re whole life, doesn’t mean your prayers count any more or less than someone that has never darkened a door of a church. God judges the heart.
I admit that praying, for me, is one of the hardest parts of the Christian life. I’m not referring to public praying in worship, but to personal prayers, those that Jesus referred to when he said, “But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret …” (Matthew 6:6). I love the old Cokesbury Hymn, “Sweet Hour of Prayer,” but it’s a challenge for me to put that amount of time in, I guess maybe I would make it if all of the times I prayed were added together. I struggle with prayer. My mind wanders. I get sleepy. I have a running to do list flashing through my head. One of the students, BJ, challenged me with this, “Pray for us daily. More than once.” So I’ve got to set aside some time to pray, and be intentional about it.
It’s helpful to think about prayer in the context of spiritual gifts. In more than one place in his letters, Paul talks about different Christians having different gifts — talents and abilities that can be put to work for the church. Paul lists such things as the gifts of prophecy, serving, teaching, preaching, giving aid, acts of mercy, discernment and others, and he says that they are given in different measure to different people. We suspect the same is true of prayer. Some people have the gift to be “prayer warriors” like Beth Keith. She puts out a prayer chain email asking for prayer for members of this faith community. Nonetheless, whether we’re “good” at prayer or not, the mere act of it draws us closer to God.
My Dad recently wrote a blog, questioning real prayer versus the phrase, “I’ll be praying for you!” He writes, “This phrase sometimes comes across as a Southern way of saying, “Goodbye.” “I’ll be praying for you,” is it a greeting, prayer, or an unfulfilled intention? So how do I do better? I think one way is to personalize it. What I mean is that prayer is a relationship expressed in words, a give and take, with much more listening than me spouting off a list of what I or others need. What’s really crazy is for us not to listen to God. It’s the difference between a soliloquy for an audience of one and a divine-human dialogue. Therefore, prayer is an art, practiced and spontaneous, speaking and listening to God, both/and, not one without the other. It is meant to be more than a conversation-ending pleasantry, “I’ll be praying for you.” It’s supposed to be a real conversation!”
I’ve mentioned to some of you, I’ve been reading Anne Lamott’s book on prayer, “Help, Thanks, Wow.” She says all prayer can be summed up in these words. In a recent interview, she said about Help, “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.”
She says about Thanks, “Thanks is the prayer of relief that help was on the way. It can be [the] pettiest, dumbest thing, but it could also be that you get the phone call that the diagnosis was much, much, much better than you had been fearing. The full prayer, and its entirety, is: Thank you thank you thank you thank you thank you. But for reasons of brevity, I just refer to it as Thanks. It’s amazement and relief that you caught a break; that your family caught a break; that you didn’t have any reason to believe that things were really going to be OK, and then they were and you just can’t help but say thank you.”
She says about Wow, “Wow is the praise prayer. The prayer where we’re finally speechless — which in my case is saying something. … When I don’t know what else to do I go outside, and I see the sky and the trees and a bird flies by, and my mouth drops open again with wonder at the just sheer beauty of creation. And I say, ‘Wow.’ … You say it when you see the fjords for the first time at dawn, or you say it when you first see the new baby, and you say, ‘Wow. This is great.’ Wow is the prayer of wonder.”
On the way she sees prayer, “Prayer is not about saying, ‘Oh, I think I’m going to pray now.’ Or, ‘Oh, I see I’ve made a notation here to pray at 2:15.’ It’s about getting outside of your own self and hooking into something greater than that very, very limited part of our experience here — the ticker tape of thoughts and solutions, and trying to figure out who to blame. It’s sort of like blinking your eyes open. It’s sort of like in the Wizard of Oz, when Dorothy lands in Oz and the movie goes from black and white to color, and it’s like having a new pair of glasses, and you say, ‘Wow!’ “
I think of prayer as a turning towards God. Or being in tune with God. If we walk and talk with God, consistently with a mind on prayer, how much would we see the world around us differently? It’s a turning towards God out of desperation, out of gratitude, at the awesome grandeur of God.
This has been of help to me, the words of Romans 8:26-27, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Augustine echoes this, “In affliction, then, we do not know what it is right to pray for. Because affliction is difficult, troublesome, and against the grain for us, weak as we are, we do what every human would do. We pray that it may be taken away from us. However, if he does not take it away, we must not imagine that he has forgotten us. In this way, power shines forth more perfectly in weakness.”
I often don’t know what to pray, but I can turn toward God and listen to worship music. Some people walk outside in the garden. Some people draw or do arts and crafts to get out of themselves. To get out of their own way. God will show up. Prayer is not about a particular technique or some sort of magic words, but the means of nurturing our relationship with God. The most important factor in praying is the recognition of the One to whom we pray.
I can’t talk about prayer without being thankful for all of yours. When I had brain surgery on May 10th and woke up not being able to speak and unable to use my right hand or arm. I remember writing Mike a note a week and a half after the surgery with my left hand asking how long would it be until I recovered. You were some consistent and persistent pray-ers.
This is a clip from Bruce Almighty that’s self explanatory…
We don’t know how prayer works. Why does God answer some prayers versus others? How did I get a miracle when 45 year old Charlie Summey who was diagnosed after me with a brain tumor died last Saturday? It seems as if there’s no rhyme or reason sometimes. But like a friend said we mourn with his family just as we rejoice with yours. It’s not about asking why so much as who? If our God is a loving God and we believe in the power of prayer, than we can trust in the words ask and it will be given, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened. Just turning towards God with our hearts set on God and drawing nearer to God is enough. I know that God is with us. I feel that to the very core of my being. God journeys with us through our seeming answered prayer and our seeming unanswered prayer alike.
Barbara Brown Taylor writes in an article in “Christian Century,” about some monks she encountered on her journeys, “Four times a day, a bell rang in the courtyard. As soon as it did, the brothers stopped to pray. The rest of us were welcome to join them, but it was not required. If we did not show up, then they would pray for us, as they prayed for everyone else in the world – for those who were present along with those who were absent, for those who were inclined toward God along with those who were not, for those who were in great need of prayer along with those who were not aware they needed anything at all. Prayer was their job, and they took it seriously. They prayed like men who were shoveling coal into the basement furnace of some great edifice. They did not seem to care whether anyone upstairs knew who they were or what they were doing. Their job was to keep the fire going so that people stayed warm, and they poured all their energy into doing just that.”
Persistent prayer is not so much for God, but for us. For the strengthening of our faith, for the drawing closer to the One who created us and numbered our steps, for a lifting of our eyes to make the impossible possible. May we live that out. In Jesus name.
Let us pray…God we know there’s no magic words, but we know that we humbly come before you, seeking your will and your kingdom on earth. Guard our hearts. Guard our lips. May we earnestly seek to draw closer to you. Guide us and lead us in all that we do. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Let us pray…Holy and Gracious God, we earnestly come before you seeking your will for our lives. Even though we may not always understand it, we trust in you. For those that are sick, please surround them with your healing power. For those that are hurting, please surround them in your grace and comfort. For those dealing with uncertainty, please surround them with your peace that surpasses all understanding. For those that it’s been a long time since coming to you in prayer, help them to know it’s a conversation. Give them the words. And reassure them there’s no pressure. For all of us, spur us on that we make prayer an integral part of our personal lives and of the life of Gator Wesley. We ask these things in your holy name and we pray as you taught your disciples to pray….
3 thoughts on “Sermon on Prayer”
Wow! and Amen!
Narcie, I read a tiny bit of this sermon this morning and am just now finishing reading it. Tears are in my eyes. The power of prayer is really so amazing!! And… Sometimes we get it and other times we do not. We find it hard to ask for those “personal” prayers when others around us seem to be in need. I am sorry we weren’t there today to actually hear your words but I certainly felt them. I continue to pray for you and your family, as I do my own and so many others because I believe we could all use a little prayer most every day. I feel blessed to be surrounded by so many other prayer warriors too. Enjoy the beauty that surrounds us and be thankful!
Thanks for the Word, Sister! I finally bought “Help, Thanks, Wow” for my iPad after reading your sermon. I’ve been needing some new inspiration on prayer with some recent health challenges myself. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it: You always inspire me. Much Love!