What Shall we Pray?
Sunday, 24 July 2016
He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples." (Luke 11:1)
I think it was Mairi Byers at Annan Old who told me this story when I was Convener of the Education Committee of Presbytery. She’d been leading a prayer group back in the 1990’s and there were a few young people involved. One was a teenage girl. When she was called on to lead prayer she was diffident about doing it. She didn’t know what to say. Mari advised her to just to say what she’d think, in her silent prayer, and say it aloud. So she closed her eyes and began, “Hi, Babes”. I’m not sure I’d get away with that. Then again, why not? Why is one form of words better than another, as long as it expresses our relationship with God. How do we decide how we should pray?
That’s what lies behind the unnamed disciple’s request to Jesus. How should we pray? In reply Jesus gives the Lord’s Prayer and I want to spend some time thinking about that prayer and about prayer in general. First off, let me deal with a canard I heard once. I’ve heard it said that prayer is the only way people can talk to themselves without anyone suggesting they’re nuts. Of course that’s not the way we see it: prayer involves talking to God. But there is a degree of truth in it. Sure, prayer is directed toward God, but there’s also a degree to which, in prayer, we are talking to ourselves.
“Forgive our sins, as we forgive those that trespass against us”. Of course. We all want forgiveness - that is, after all, the heart of the Gospel. When we speak those words we are reaching to God to forgive us, but more than that. We are recognising that we need forgiveness. We are reminding ourselves that we are - none of us - perfect. We are reminding ourselves that wee all mess up from time to time. We are reminding ourselves of those times when our thoughts have betrayed us and we’ve judges other folk too harshly, or taken pleasure when they’ve come a cropper in some way. We’re reminding ourselves of those times when our words have been cutting, or when we’ve spread gossip that has ultimately hurt somebody. We’re reminding ourselves of the times when we’ve done stuff we know was wrong.
“Forgive our sins”. In reaching out to God for forgiveness we are also reminding ourselves that we need it. Then the kicker: “as we forgive those who sin against us.” As we are forgiven we are meant to forgive others. No more, no less. That’s so necessary. If we accept the forgiveness of God but don’t forgive others, that way lies self-righteousness. That way lies the judgementalism that so often disfigures the Church. That way lies a harsh ungracious dogmatism that doesn’t reflect the grace and mercy of God that is what the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about.
“Give us, today, bread for today”. We are meant to come to God with our needs. That’s our needs. Not our desires. God will give us what we need - not necessarily what we desire. When we say these words we are reaching for God to fulfil our basic needs. But more than that. We are reminding ourselves that there are those that don’t have those basics. We are reminding ourselves that, in a broken world like this one there are folk who don’t get enough to eat. We are reminding ourselves that in this world where things are not all right, there are people who don’t have the basics for survival; don’t have shelter from the rain and the wind; don’t have warmth when the winter comes.
Perhaps we’re reminding ourselves too, in asking for no more than we need, that the prime cause of poverty and hunger, the prime cause of homelessness and want, the prime cause of so many of the world’s ills is greed. It is the desire not only to have more than we need, but the desire to have more than we had yesterday, to have more than others; to be a “success” in a world that desires splendour and power. It’s so easy to get caught up in that. Maybe that’s why the line that immediately follows the one about our daily bread is “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from Evil”.
When one of his disciples asked Jesus how they should pray, Jesus gave them these words. Did you notice I didn’t start at the beginning? I’m getting there. “Hallowed be your name”. Sure, we’re speaking to God, but we’re also speaking to ourselves. we are reminding ourselves whose presence we’re standing in. We’re reminding ourselves we’re speaking to the most powerful being there is - the being who made everything that is, who made the whole of time and space and everything in them. We’re reminding ourselves that we are speaking to the divine: to that ultimate other that is beyond us and infinitely greater, more just, more compassionate, wiser than we are. Yet all that stands after the words that start the whole thing off and give it its most essential meaning: “Our Father”. Behind all that power, that awesomeness, that glory and wonder there is a love so simple that the smallest child can understand it.
What are we supposed to do with that love? “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”. We are supposed to play our part in that. We are supposed to play our part in making the world a kinder, more gracious, more forgiving place - a place the love and mercy of God revealed in Jesus Christ. We are supposed to play our part in being God’s answer to all those who cry out for the most basic needs of human beings. To play our part in making sure that folk get enough to eat and a roof over their heads. To play our part in making sure that folk don’t freeze to death and that there’s a place of refuge for them when they’re in danger. When we come to God in prayer we’re coming not just with a shopping list of things we want God to do. We’re offering ourselves as part of God’s answer.
Thats not easy. There are so many distractions and things that get in the way - doubts, worries, “Aye we tried that and it didn’t work”s. That’s why, perhaps, the Lord’s Prayer is so short. Does that seem odd when Jesus then goes on to talk about being persistent in prayer? Does it seem odd in the context of Abraham’s persistence in prayer. Maybe that’s a reminder that prayer isn’t just about talking to God. It’s about spending time with God. It’s about listening for God in our daily lives. It’s about bringing the stuff that’s going on around us to God and listening for his purpose in it. It’s about allowing our minds come closer to the mind of God, about letting our hearts be warmed by the love of God, about our souls being touched by God’s Holy Spirit.
Prayer is about letting God shape us. It’s about letting the love of God so fill us that it spills out into the world around us. Does that sound airy-fairy? When you’ve spent time with someone you love and loves you, doesn’t that make a difference to the way you treat others. When you’ve spent time with someone you love and who loves you, doesn’t that make you smile - and sometimes a smile is all someone needs to remind them they matter. When you’ve spent time with someone you love and who loves you, doesn’t that give you confidence? Confidence enough, perhaps, to make the difference you can in the world. This is what prayer is - spending time with someone who loves you. Hi Babes.
Father, when we pray may your love so fill us that we can carry that love out into a world that desperately needs it. When we pray, fire our souls to do your will in the world.