Jesus 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.” He said to them, “When you pray, say:
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.
So goes Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer. In Matthew, the best-known version of our Savior’s Prayer, Jesus takes the initiative: “Pray then in this way.”
Regardless of the origin of Jesus’ prayer, prayer is at the heart of Christian experience. It is at the heart of human experience, what Ann and Barry Ulanov describe as primary speech. It’s been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and I believe that even atheists pray – he or she cries out in the night for relief and healing; he or she expresses hope as a loved one faces surgery; and shouts for change in the face of injustice.
As a prelude to our series on the Lord’s Prayer, we need to explore what we mean by prayer. As a young child, I grew up seeing the phrase “prayer changes things” whenever I opened the refrigerator door. I suspect my mother wanted to remind her two boys about the importance of prayer. I also believe that she was addressing her own need to live prayerfully as she faced the daily demons of depression, low self-esteem, and obsessional thinking.
Prayer is the ultimate form of connection. When we pray, we discover we’re not alone. We may not know to whom we’re praying, but we hope against hope that Someone is listening and that this Someone, whose presence and activity has brought us to this point, will respond to our current expression of gratitude and need.
Prayer awakens us to the graceful interdependence of life. When we pray, we confess that we didn’t get here on our own. Our current life situation, gifts and talents, and achievements are grounded in a graceful interdependence without which we could never do anything or be anything.
Author Anne Lamott sees the movements of prayer as “wow!”, “thanks!”, and “help!” To which I might add, “sorry,” “inspire,” “awaken,” and “connect.”
“Wow” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says “radical amazement” is at the heart of spirituality. If you aren’t amazed or filled with wonder from time to time, you really aren’t religious. The heavens declare the glory of God and so do our immune systems! Think a moment – what are your “wow” moments?
“Wow” is connected to “thanks.” In a recent adult faith formation class, we sang “I thank you God for the wonder of my being…I thank you God for the wonder of all being.” Dag Hammarskjold prays:
For all that has been – thanks!
For all that shall be – yes!
Thanksgiving joins us with the Graceful Interdependence of life. There are no self-made persons. We are agents, we make choices, we achieve goals, but all this depends on the grace of our planetary environment, pivotal people, and helpful circumstances. I am here today because of loving parents, who valued education, supportive mentors, and my birth in a land of opportunity. If you aren’t thankful, you can’t be faithful. For what are you thankful?
“Help.” Ann Lamott is a recovering alcoholic. She knows she needs help; she knows that she is powerless in relationship to her addiction without the grace of God that inspires our own agency and strength. We all need help. Where do you need help?
“Sorry.” Nothing could be further from the truth than the words from “Love Story” – “Love is never having to say you’re sorry.” We all have secrets, we all have fallen short, we all have forgotten important things, and either intentionally or unintentionally hurt others. The Psalmist prays:
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked[way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.
Confession opens us to divine energy and personal power. Confession is also an act of interdependence reminding us that what we do matters, that we are agents whose lives affect others, and that we can “repent,” change direction and become larger, more compassionate persons. Confession reminds us that what we do matters to God, it shapes God’s experience, and causes God suffering. Without getting too personal, where do we need to say we’re sorry for our behavior or our nation’s?
“Inspire.” We need a vision of the future. We need a far horizon to guide our steps. Content even with a positive present, we slip into mediocrity. When we quit expecting greatness from ourselves – and greatness can simply be doing ordinary things with a loving spirit – we begin to decline and rust from the inside out. We need to capture God’s vision for this moment and our world. Where do we need to be inspired?
“Awaken.” Following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, the Black Lives Matter movement surfaced the phrase “Stay Woke.” Followers of Jesus are called to be “woke” people – sensitive to injustices committed in our communities, whether on the borderlands, city streets, and school playgrounds. When I think of being “woke,” Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” comes to mind:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.
Where do we need to be awakened, woke, in our current social situation?
And, finally, “connect,” – prayer connects. We are joined in an intricate fabric of relationships. We are all in this together. In the body of Christ, described in I Corinthians 12, “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.” This is the church, where we are all joined, but it is also the community and the world. There is no place to run or hide; we live in a world of relationships. As prayerful people, where do we need to connect?
Prayer is primary speech, and even if we don’t know how to pray, God’s spirit is already praying in us in sighs too deep for words and guiding and awakening us, even when we’re still asleep.
I close with a prayer cited in Deep is the Hungerby one of my mentors, African American pastor, theologian, and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman.
Each night my bonny, sturdy lad persists in adding to his Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, the earnest wistful plea:
“God, make me big.”
And I, his mother, with greater need,
Do echo in a humbled, contrite heart,
“God, make me big.”
Yes, God make us big in thanks, wonder, connectedness, and compassion. Make us big in prayer.