Praying by the Book
A sermon on Luke 11: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 26 July 1998


Message:
The three most valuable helps for those who would learn to pray are,
1) an experienced mentor or spiritual director,
2) the use of well prepared set prayers,
and 3) perseverance.

Sermon.

Last Tuesday Margie, my wife, asked me to drop a quiche of at the home of her friend Sue who had just had a baby. She gave me a quick explanation of how to get there: “Down Malvern Road and just across Burke Road you go over the bridge and its in there somewhere near the old College.” That made sense to me, Margie and I originally met one another at that College.

Well I am very thankful that she also gave me the address and that I had the map book in the car, because the place I had to deliver the quiche to was actually off High Street about a kilometre and a half away from the old College and on the opposite side of the main road. Fortunately I learned a long time ago that when it come to geography and sense of direction, some people have it and some people don’t. And Margie’s one of those who don’t. If you’re trying to understand adolescent psychology, Margie’s a good person to ask. But if you’re trying to work out how to get to Sue’s place, get the address and a map book.

Prayer, real prayer, is something that takes us into unfamiliar territory. And the deeper we journey into the experience of prayer, into the experience of intimate communion with God the more unfamiliar the territory becomes and the fewer and fewer people you will find who’ve actually been there. And so the question arises: how will we find our way? How do we negotiate this unfamiliar terrain when we haven’t been there before?

Sure we could just hang around in our safety zones, going no further than we’ve been before and making sure we never go over the crest of the first rise so that we can still see where to run back to at the first sign of anything scary. But I suspect that most of us aren’t long satisfied with just doing that. I know I’m not. I often feel inadequate about my prayer. I often feel a hunger to go further, to connect with God more deeply, to journey into the mysteries of God that lie beyond the end of my safety rope.

A quick show of hands. Who’s with me in that feeling? Who else sometimes feels inadequate in their prayer and yearns to go a bit deeper???

And who feels entirely satisfied with their prayer as it is and doesn’t see any need for anything more???

I thought so. So how do we proceed? Well, what is the number one means by which we learn things? How did you learn to talk? How did you learn to cook? How did you learn to drive???

That’s right. You found someone who already knew a got them to teach you. I wouldn’t have needed the address and the map book to get to Sue’s place if Sue had been with me. She would have just shown me how to get there.

Do you remember how our gospel reading started before. Jesus was praying in a certain place and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray. John the Baptizer taught his disciples. You teach us.” Sounds to me like we’ve got some fellow travellers here. We are not the first ones to want to grow in our prayer and not know how to proceed. And what did the disciples do about it. They saw Jesus praying and said, “Teach us how to do that.”

There are countless books around on prayer and how to pray, and many of them are very good. There are plenty of courses around on prayer and how to pray, and many of them are very good too. But there are some serious limitations to how much they can help you. Can you imagine learning to drive a car from a book? Or by attending lectures on driving? I’ve no doubt that it’s possible, but I don’t think anyone who’s ever driven would recommend it as the preferred learning method. Can someone have a go at identifying for us what it is that makes learning from another driver so much better than trying to learn from a book or a class???

That’s right, it is having someone watching exactly what you’re doing and providing direct feedback. I’ll give you another example of this. Margie and I both enjoy telemark skiing, but Margie had about twelve season’s head start on me. But she was self taught, and I went out and got lots of lessons from qualified instructors. I caught up to her standard in about three seasons. The difference was that I had someone who knew what to look for watching me and telling me what I needed to do differently. And then telling me again when I still didn’t quite get it right. And then giving me a pat on the back when I got it right. I could read in a book that I needed to angle my hip towards the slope, but the book can’t watch me and tell me whether I’m angling it right. Margie’s since gone and got lessons and overtaken me again.

Learning to pray is not that much different. You see, your particular set of strengths and weaknesses is unique to you. You have all sorts of idiosyncrasies that make up the unique human being that you are. And so the ways you relate, the ways that you express yourself to God, or anyone else for that matter, will be unique to you. And the things that will cause you difficulties will not be exactly the same as what causes anyone else difficulties.

When Margie and I wanted help to further develop some areas of our relationship last year, we went to a specialist relationship counsellor. Now we didn’t do that because we needed to seek out expert advise on relationship theory. Margie’s a counselling psychologist and I’m a pastor. Between us we have heaps of knowledge and a library full of books on relationship skills. The problem for us was not lack of knowledge. We had far more knowledge than we will ever be able to put into practice. What we needed was someone who would spend some time looking at the unique contours of our relationship and make wise suggestions as to what bits of knowledge we needed to put into practice right now. We might have eventually stumbled across the right suggestions in a book, but we might not have even recognized them when we did. But after a few sessions Tom was usually able to put his finger on what was going on and then help us to see for ourselves how we might address it.

If you want to learn how to pray, how to make real advances in the depth and intimacy of your relationship with God, then I can’t recommend highly enough that you do something similar. That you find someone who has gone further on the journey than you, and who is a person of wisdom and maturity, and most of all who will listen carefully to you, taking the time to pick up the unique contours of your spirituality and the subtle whisperings of the Spirit in your soul. If you can find such a person and entrust yourself to them, you need to make an agreement to meet with them on a regular basis, once a fortnight or once a month at least, so that they can do that listening and help you to see what the ways forward are for you. There are books full of generations worth of accumulated wisdom on prayer, but you don’t need someone who has just read some books and is full of pat answers and pious cliches. You need someone who will be a probing listener and a wise guide.

There are some people around who are especially gifted in this, and some who have done special training and do it professionally. In some traditions they are called spiritual directors, in others soul friends, in others spiritual mentors. I don’t much care what you call them or whether they are professionals or not, if you want to journey more deeply into prayer there is nothing I can recommend more highly. John the Baptizer did it for his disciples. Jesus did it for his disciples. You need someone who will do it for you. If you want to know how to find one for you, come and ask me and I’ll help you find someone.

Although there is nothing I can recommend more highly that that, there are a couple of other things that this gospel reading points to which I can also recommend. What is the first example we heard of Jesus’ prayer guidance???

That’s right. The prayer we know as the Lord’s Prayer. “Pray like this,” Jesus said. Now there are two ways we can take that, and I think they are both right. The first is we can take it as a model prayer, as an example of the sorts of things we should pray about and ways to express them. I think that’s right. And although at one level I agree with that piece on the front of the notice sheets about how you can’t pray it until you live it, at another level I think it’s bad advice. You need to pray it because you can’t live it yet. If you don’t even notice the discrepancy, that’s hypocrisy, but if you do, you keep praying it in your desire that it will become true in you. You keep praying your life until eventually you are living your prayer.

The second way we can take Jesus’ guidance here, and I think this is also right is as an endorsement of the use of well constructed set prayers. The Lord’s Prayer is only one of many prepared prayers in the Bible. The book of Psalms has another 150 of them and there are various others scattered throughout the scriptures. Outside the scriptures there are many other books available with collections of really well written prayers. Those of you who lead worship here know that I’ve got dozens of them and we often pray such prayers from them here on Sundays.

Now the objection that is often raised to the use of set prayers is that they can become just routine things that we say without thinking, and that is undoubtedly true. They can. But that’s not the whole story. You see, if you were to ask Luciano Pavarotti or Dame Kiri Te Kawana whether singing scales can become just routine things they do without thinking, they would certainly tell you “Yes”. But they still sing scales. Regularly. Singing scales was where they started to learn and now as the best singers in the world they know that they still have to sing scales to stay at their peak.

Praying set prayers is a bit like singing scales. Even when they’re not really expressing the fullness of your prayer, they are an exercise that help keep you in shape for praying things that are more specific and heartfelt. Now I’m not sure exactly how this works. Maybe if we got a neurologist in here, they’d be able to explain it for us. But it does. You can see this if you get together with a group of elderly people who are all in the advanced stages of senile dementia or Altzhiemers disease. You might have half a dozen people who can’t even remember the names of their own children, but you start singing Amazing Grace or praying the Lord’s Prayer and just like that the lights come back on and for a few moments they’re right with you and they know it as well as you do.

If you want to learn to sing you start with scales. If you want to learn to pray you can do worse than start by regularly praying the Lord’s Prayer and the Psalms till they start to wear tracks into your brain, because it is along those tracks that your deepest yearnings will be able to find expression in spontaneous prayer. Without the well worn tracks there probably won’t be much spontaneous prayer either.

One final thing that I can recommend, and although it gets the most attention in our reading I’m going to give it the least here. The recommendation is hang in there. Persevere. You don’t build your relationship with God in one enthusiastic burst any more than you can build a marriage by having an intense honeymoon and then just resting on your laurels for the next ten years.

God is good and will neither ignore you nor give you what’s bad for you any more than you’d give a tiger snake to your kids when they asked for a puppy. But just as you know that if you give children exactly what they want exactly when they want it you just end up with spoilt rotten kids, so too God will not spoil you. You are told “search and you will find” because it is not always going to be handed to you on a plate. As in many other areas of life you will sometimes benefit more from the actual searching than you will from the eventual finding. Although as Abraham showed us, there is no reason why you shouldn’t argue with God or seek to change God’s mind, more often than not it is us who are changed in the course of praying and short cuts would often mean being short changed.

These three recommendations are not unique to prayer as you have probably noticed. They would hold good in just about anything that you were feeling a bit inadequate in and wanting to get better at. As most of you know, I’m a passable but fairly pedestrian guitar player. I can strum along OK but I’m certainly no Tommy Emmanuel. I would love to be able to finger pick instead of just strumming along, but I can’t. It’s not that I don’t know how to. I do know how to. I own several books on it and I’ve read them. I know how it’s done but I can’t do it unless I concentrate really hard and go really slowly. I can’t do it because I have never got myself a teacher who would watch me and guide me and hold me accountable. I can’t do it because I have never worked away at the basic exercises and scales until they came naturally. And I can’t do it because even when I have decided to start with the exercises and scales I never persevered for more than a few weeks.

Two years ago my praying was even more pedestrian than my guitar playing, but I could no longer hide from the hunger. Today my praying is a little better than my guitar playing and it is certainly developing faster. The reasons are all indicated in this gospel story. I’ll probably go to my grave a pedestrian guitar player, but I hope that by the time my body gives the game away I’ll have journeyed so much further into the life of communion with God that I’ll hardly notice the transition. If the hunger for God, the hunger for prayer, the hunger to lose yourself in the mysteries of the cosmos is growling away inside of you and you can’t fight it off much longer then come and talk with me, because I too am looking for fellow travellers on the journey.