Teach Us How to Pray

Romans 8:22-27, Luke 11:1-13

Let us pray.

O God, teach us to pray today. Teach us to communicate and relate, to speak our truths and to listen. Help us to open our hearts to your presence among us. Still our busy lives and wandering minds and help us to deepen our relationship with you and with each other. Amen.

As I pondered the disciples’ words “teach us to pray” from today’s Gospel reading, I began to wonder: How does God call us to pray? What is prayer?

I heard a story recently, told by Philip Newell the former warden of Iona, a monastic community in Scotland. In the story, a young woman named Julie offers her services as a volunteer at Iona and arranges to stay there for seven weeks. As the warden, Philip welcomes her to the community and explained that she is expected to attend morning and evening prayers every day as part of the daily rhythm at the Abbey.

“I’ll attend,” the woman agrees, “but I want to make sure that you know that I have no religious belief.”

During her time at the Abbey, Philip often notices Julie working hard in the housekeeping department and showing up for prayer.

At the end of her seven weeks, Philip and Julie meet again and Philip asks her what the most memorable aspect of her stay was.

“I am still agnostic,” she replies, “but I really loved morning prayers.”

Is that prayer?

I heard another story this week from Rev. Rachel McGuire, who serves as an American Baptist pastor in Rochester, NY. In one of her sermons, Rachel tells the story of how she used to work with people living with AIDS. During her work, she met a man who felt that his body was poison and was never touched, because he was so afraid of being touched.

As Rachel worked with him, the man gently came to the point where he allowed Rachel to touch him. As she put her hand on his forehead, Rachel says it was like seeing a person who had been in the desert for a month have a glass of water — his entire body fill with satisfaction, like a thirst finally quenched, simply by touch, no words at all.

Is that prayer? What is prayer?

As I wrestled with that question this week, one last story came to my attention, one from Anne LaMott and the book she wrote on prayer called Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.

Anne tells how, to enhance her prayer life, she created a God box. Over time, the God box has varied from a pillbox to her car’s glove box to decorative boxes that her friends have given her. The container exists in time and space so she can physically put a note in, so she can see herself let go in time and space.

On a piece of paper, Anne would write down the name of someone with whom she is distressed or angry, or a situation she is obsessing over and then fold up the note, stick it in the box and close. Sometimes, Anne says, she would add words, like, “Here, you think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.”

Is that prayer? What is prayer?

This question is one that we wrestle with, and it is also one that the disciples wrestled with, which is exactly why they said to Jesus: “Teach us to pray.”

Yet this week, as I reflected on Jesus’ response to the disciples, it occurred to me that Jesus answered not only with the specific words of his prayer but with the entire span of his life. Throughout all of Jesus’ ministry, Jesus teaches us to pray.

Jesus disappears in the wilderness and deserted places, telling the disciples, I’m going off to pray. Jesus hikes to the top of mountains and pulls all-nighters.  Jesus cries out and weeps when his friend Lazarus dies. Jesus prays all the ways that we pray but there is also a sense that prayer and relatedness to God were in Jesus all the time.

A relatedness that was not dependent on a specific creed or doctrine, a relatedness that was present both with and without words.

We see this in Jesus when a woman touches his clothing and is immediately healed.

One pastor describes Jesus’ prayer life this way: “Prayer is happening to Jesus even when he is not paying attention. Right? This power of God moving through him that makes demons suddenly stop all their troublemaking; that makes a radiant presence so undeniable that these stubborn old teachers start following him around, saying, ‘What are doing? What are you saying? We want to know.’ Whole crowds start to fill with life. Food appears. Fish come out of the seas. Seas are calmed.”

Jesus teaches us that there are many ways to pray.

The disciples witnessed this and wanted to narrow things down, so they said to Jesus, John taught his disciples how to pray.  This wild relationship with God is a bit unstructured, teach us to pray too.

Give us words to speak.

Because sometimes, we just don’t know what to say.

So Jesus gives us the words to pray and, even though at the time the Scriptures were written in Hebrew, Jesus probably spoke the prayer in Aramaic, which was like a “street Hebrew.” The thing about Aramaic is that it has many layers of meaning. The book Prayers of the Cosmos by scholar Neil Douglas-Klotz helps us look a bit deeper into the layers of Jesus’ prayer today, which begins:

Our Father.

Abba. Dad. Mom. With these words, Jesus is referring to God in an intimate way, which was strange in Jesus’ day. God is one with whom we are close, one who cares for us and nurtures us and helps us grow into our fullness.   It implies a sense of close companionship.

It also conveys the notion of: the originating point, that which gives birth to life.

We could begin the prayer today saying Source of all life.

Hallowed be thy name.

These words convey a sense of awe, reverence, a setting apart, a holiness. They convey the deep goodness and trustworthiness of God.

Thy kin(g)dom come, thy will be done.

Let your Love guide our lives.  Let your Love rule our world.

This is a prayer that invites us to open our hearts to God’s transformative power.  This is not a small prayer for our individual petitions; this is a prayer that says, before I share my concerns, let me remember that in a world that is going to be healed by God.  We are each a part of God’s story of redemption, a story where all that is false and harmful falls away and creation is reconciled and made whole.

Thy kin(g)dom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give us this day our daily bread.

Now we remember that God is the source of everything we need. In the Aramaic, the word for bread implies not just bread and food, but also wisdom, understanding, all the things we need to live and grow.

God grant us shelter and truth and beauty.

Give us this day bread for the body and for the soul.

Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Forgive our sins.  Forgive our trespasses.  No matter which words we choice, they each lead us to the same place. Rev. Rachel McGuire, the pastor from Rochester, points out: We are bound up in all of those accounts. Some of us are literally crippled by debt; it keeps us from moving, functioning. Some of us are crippled with pain or hurts. All of us live in this web of things that entangle us. We get stuck, so we say to God: release these bindings, whether it’s the pain or debt or regrets. Release us from this, as you did in the days of Jubilee. This passage is a direct reference to the days of Julibee, when God gave the people back their land, released their debts, and set up a society where there would be relief when we got all tangled up.

Forgive our debts as we forgive our debtors.

Let us be released and let us release, so that all those tangles might be undone, that the shackles might open … let the bindings and regrets and pain that tie up our hearts fall to the wayside … so that our hearts can expand and breathe and be free. This is the cycle that God calls us to participate in.

Forgive us our debts as we forgive out debtors.

Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.

Don’t let us fall away, fall into pain or greed or resentment. Don’t let us fall into anything false. The Aramaic word for “evil” has a sense of “un-ripeness,” an un-readiness. Sometimes we are kind of not mature, kind of unripe. We are like the prodigal child who has to wander off the faraway land.  When that happens, when we refuse your love, O God, when we travel down that hard road, we pray, deliver us, and when we are ready, when we are ripe, welcome us back with open arms, back into the world of love again.

These are the words of Jesus’ prayer found in Luke. When we, like the disciples, don’t know what to pray, we find that Jesus gives us words and, when even speech fail us, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. Jesus teaches us that all of life is a prayer that, in each moment, in our waking, in our working, in our worshiping, we are invited to an ever deeper Communion with the Source of all life.

We gather together today, saying: teach us to pray, O God, teach us to open our hearts and lives and beings to your eternal presence. Right now.

Teach us. Help us. Guide us.

For thine is the kin(g)dom and the power and glory forever.



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