How shall we pray?
A sermon on Luke 11: 1-13 by Nathan Nettleton, 30 July 1995
Prayer is a learned discipline which begins with acknowledging God's goodness and aligning ourselves with God's purposes.
There is only one place in the gospel accounts where the disciples ask Jesus to teach them something, and this is it. Every other example of Jesus teaching the disciples is initiated by Jesus. It is not surprising when you think about it. Prayer is something we seem to feel perpetually inadequate about. Nearly every Christian's list of New Year's resolutions includes the promise to spend more time in prayer this year. And I'd be prepared to bet that virtually all of those who don't put it on the list are a bit like me, and secretly do have it as an intention but after ten years of putting it on the list feel that it is a bit sucky to keep putting it there, especially when we keep not succeeding about it.
So the disciples, probably speaking for most of us, come to Jesus and say, Lord, teach us to pray. And Jesus responds with a sample prayer and a parable and some sayings about prayer. I want us to have a look first at what Jesus is getting at in the sayings and the parable first, and then we'll come to the sample prayer, known everywhere as the Lord's Prayer.
If you ask for an egg, you're not going to get a scorpion. Ask, and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened. I reckon the main thing Jesus is saying to his followers in these sayings, is Lighten up. Don't get so worried about it! God is good, and God loves you. God is going to accept your prayer and respond with delight, so don't get so anxious about whether or not you get it right. Even evil people, says Jesus know how to give good things to their children who they love, so how much more will your Heavenly Father respond lovingly to you.
Sometime we get very caught up in worrying about it and getting the words right and it stifles our prayers. I think it is partly because we have always been fed so much God as great and mighty king type images. When people are going to be introduced to the Queen of England, or the Governor General or someone, they often go to etiquette classes for a few weeks to learn how to speak properly to royal dignitaries, or their representatives. And we get caught up in all the majestic images of God and see ourselves in that same sort of position as we come to God in prayer. We worry about the correct form of address and the suitable respectful and worshipful type language.
But Jesus is saying don't worry about all that. Instead of the image of a loyal subject bending the knee before the monarch, Jesus gives the image of a little child running in saying, Mumma, Dadda, I wanna egg. That says Jesus is much more like the relationship between us and God when we pray. It is a spontaneous outpouring of our love and affection and wants and needs. And God responds in delight.
We don't have very many parents here, but even those who are not parents can probably imagine what it is like to have a small child who is just learning to walk and talk. You don't withhold your approval and response until they get it all right. You celebrate every little sign of progress. You watch adults with little kids. They do the silliest things. They get all spontaneous and uninhibited, talking baby talk and playing on the floor, and they are so joyous and excited at every positive interaction. Watch them with really small babies, watch the things people will do to try to get a baby to smile at them, and how over the moon they are when the baby does. That, Jesus is saying, is how God feels about us. Not the stern authority figure waiting till you get the words right like some magic formula before you will be responded to.
One of my early memories as a very small child was a rather less positive experience of communicating with my parents. I don't usually think of it as all that negative, but I think that the fact that I remember it so clearly probably means it left quite a scar and as I think about it I begin to see connections with other problems in that relationship. I must have been about three I think, and my parents bought me a new toy. It was a red petrol tanker, a little model articulated semi trailer style petrol tanker. But instead of giving it to me straight away, they saw it as an opportunity for my further education and development, and it sat on a shelf until I could properly say, Please may I have my articulated petrol tanker. I don't know how long it was until I could get my mouth round that sentence; in my mind it seems like it was months. That sort of thing probably did contribute to the fact that I am good with words today, but at what price. It set up very early in my life the feeling that gifts from my parents were not signs of love but rewards for some new accomplishment.
Psychologists say that we all have a tendency to project our images of our parents on to God, and I'm sure that that experience and others like it have been part of the baggage that has often made prayer such a struggle for me. I sometimes feel that I can't expect any response from God until I have achieved the next step in some developmental journey, or until I've got my mind and my mouth around some new form of address for God. And so I find it difficult to get myself to relax and pray. God won't give me anything until my three year old mouth can say, Please may I have my articulated petrol tanker.
And so to me and to people like me, Jesus is saying, No, no, no, God loves you, God delights in you, God is like someone looking for a smile from a baby, and will be overjoyed with any effort you can make. Ask, and it will be given; search and you will find; knock and the door will be opened.
Now that said, I want to say something that may almost sound like a contradiction, but it isn't. Prayer is something we need to learn and develop in. It's not a contradiction because I'm certainly not saying that God won't listen to us until we've got to at least grade 5. God only looks to us for what ever we are capable of giving at our present stage of development. But God does long to see us progress. Just like the same parent who gets so excited about a child's first steps or the first time they pronounce Mummy correctly, is not going to be happy if that child is still walking with the same wobbly totter when they're thirteen, so too God doesn't want us to stagnate in our relationship with him at the smile from the crib stage.
And I think, and I've heard Ron say a few times, that evangelical Christianity has often made a terrible mistake here. We have often assumed that people would somehow just know how to pray, how to communicate with God. For many of my early years as a Christian, about the most instruction I got in prayer was that I should have a quiet time every day in which I should read my Bible and pray. And to be honest with you, I haven't made it all that much further since. In fact I have grown a lot more in my ability to read the Bible creatively that I have in my ability to pray creatively. It has been hard to get past the Nike stage of Just do it, and to actually invest some time and energy into getting help to learn and grow in it.
Let me just make a couple of suggestions before I come back to look at the Lord's prayer as an example of teaching. There are places around that offer training in spirituality and prayer. One really good option within our own tradition is the Wellspring Centre, based at the Ashburton Baptist Church. I'll get Ron to bring in some brochures next week, because Ron is Chairs the management board for Wellspring and does some teaching there. Wellspring offers three main resources for those who wish to grow in their prayer and meditation life. It offers short courses of study. It offers prayer days and retreats, with a leader to assist and guide participants in their prayer and meditation. And it offers personal spiritual direction. Having a personal Spiritual Director is a bit like having a mentor or perhaps even a counsellor, who you meet with regularly to explore your own spirituality and learn and grow in it. If you want to move outside the Baptist heritage, the Catholics run a similar, but bigger and longer established centre called Heart of Life in Camberwell, and the Anglicans have one called Retreat house in Cheltenham. All of these are excellent resources. Also we will run here from time to time in our Christian education program, short courses on prayer and spirituality that will probably draw on some of these same people to make some more teaching available here.
But right here in this passage from Luke is a good place to start. The disciples went to Jesus as their Spiritual director saying, "Teach us to pray. And Jesus gave them a sample pattern for prayer.
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.
Note where it starts. It starts with acknowledging the goodness and holiness of God. As I said before, Jesus wants us to come to God like little kids running to their parents to ask for a cuddle. So it begins with an address to God that speaks of intimacy and love. Father, or Father and Mother, or something, whatever is for you an image of intimacy and secure love and tender care. And then it celebrates that name. Hallowed be your name, says the old King James Version, and that is still our most common translation. If means may your name be kept holy, honoured, esteemed. And its a joyous excited expression of praise. As our paraphrase expressed it before, May the hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
This is where true prayer begins. With an acknowledgement of who it is that we are addressing our prayers to. An acknowledgement of the goodness of God that enables us to approach in the first place. A celebration of who God is and what God means to us. We give praise and honour to God, firstly because God deserves it for the goodness and love and intimacy we have been given, but also because it reminds us that, as Jesus said, we approach a God who is only too willing to respond to our requests.
Reminded of God's loving goodness we move on. Your Kingdom come. May the day come when you, loving God, reign over everything and everybody and every place in justice and love and peace. Rather than a specific request, this is an expression of a general longing. When faced with all that is corrupt and brutalized about the world, we long for the tide of God's goodness to wash over the earth and renew it all. When faced with the atrocities of Bosnia, the hypocrisies of the response to East Timor, the tragedies of abused kids selling their bodies on the streets, the obscenities of closed schools and expanded casinos, we don't know where to start in our prayers so with deep sighs of longing we capture it all up in our plea for God to come and renew the face of the whole earth. Your kingdom come.
If you like we are putting ourselves on God's side and at God's disposal. We are aligning ourselves with God's purposes in the world. We are adding ourselves to God's movement for change. And it is in the context of that renewed orientation that we bring the specific requests. You could perhaps pray the rest as As a part of your coming reign, give us each day our daily bread. As a part of your coming reign, forgive us our sins. As a part of your coming reign, keep us from the time of trial.
I'm not going to go into these specifics in any detail, for I think we all understand them at gut level anyway. They are some of the most basic human needs and desires. The need for basic nourishment; the need for forgiveness when we know we've done wrong; and the need to be safe from things we can't handle. Perhaps what they are saying is even more, As your kingdom comes, grant us these bits now.
That then is Jesus's basic lesson in prayer. Acknowledge the goodness of the God to whom you pray. Orientate yourself to what God is about in the world. And in that context bring your specific requests. Let me point out in closing that it doesn't have to be all words. The first two parts at lest can be done in silence, if that's your style, or even in drawing or singing or dancing. However it is that you best express love and reorientation of yourself.
And don't expect fireworks straight off or every time. Jesus says even among people, if you pester long enough you'll get your way. How much more will you're loving saviour in heaven respond to the cries of those who ask and seek and knock.