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My father was a life long member of the United Church of Canada. When the church was being formed in 1925, his family was part of Methodist church up the street from their home. That community of faith had a central role in their family life and a lasting effect on my father. So much so that even though my mother was raised Anglican, it was the United Church we went to as children. As I was growing up my father served on the Committee of Stewards of our local United Church. He sang in the church choir and acted as the treasurer for many years. His roots in the United Church ran deep.
So one day when I was talking with him about some challenges he was facing in his life, I asked if he ever prayed about those problems. I was quite surprised when he said no I don’t really pray. I’m a deep thinker he said, but I don’t know if I really know how to pray.
That’s not an uncommon experience for those of us who grew up in the United Church. We’ve tended to think that’s what we pay our ministers to do. At Board meetings and church suppers we usually turn to the clergy to offer a word in prayer and many who aren’t “trained” to pray feel quite uncomfortable if they are ever asked or expected to do so.
One of my colleagues used to always say that’s because as a denomination we’ve outsourced our baptismal vows. We’ve left it to the professionals to do our ministry for us. l don’t actually agree with him. I’ve witnessed a lot of ministry getting done by laypeople in my years here at Mount Seymour, but I do think he has a point when it comes to things like prayer.
Lord, teach us to pray. When the disciples observe Jesus praying and make this request they suggest that praying is something we need to be taught how to do. Maybe that’s what happened to my father, no one ever taught him how to pray.
When I think about learning how to pray, I think mostly about forms of contemplative prayer. I’ve spent years taking courses on centering prayer and Ignatian spirituality which uses scripture as a base for prayer as well as the experiences of our daily lives. I’ve prayed with icons and beads and labyrinths. I’ve meditated using mandalas and mantras and I’ve taught many of you these prayer forms as well. But when the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray he uses none of these methods. That’s not because there is anything wrong with these techniques, it’s just not how he responds to their request.
In fact, the response he does give them is surprising. It’s outside of what we often think of when we think of prayer, even if the prayers we are thinking of are not contemplative but are more petitionary (prayers that ask God to do something.)
When you pray Jesus says, pray like this: Begin by using the words Abba or “our father.” In other words, pray as if you were a child speaking to a parent. And then to illustrate what he means by this he prays using the same kind of demanding tone children often use with their parents: Your kingdom come! Give us our daily bread!
As a parent, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve said to my children “can you find another way to ask me that question?” or “what’s the magic word?” I’d be a very rich woman.
A friend of mine tells a wonderful story about asking one of her grandchildren what the magic word is and after looking at her with a perplexed expression on his face he replied “Is it abracadabra?”
Well it seems that Jesus doesn’t know what the magic word is either because in this prayer he teaches his disciples there are no niceties, no please and thank you’s there are only child like demands: Bring us your kingdom! Give us food! Forgive our sins! And do not bring us to the time of trial! Do not bring us into temptation.
It’s as if he’s saying to his followers if you’re going to pray, make every word worth it, pray big. Go for broke. Pray for the kingdom, that heavenly vision of a world where there is equality, peace and justice for all. Pray for the essential things of life. Ask for enough food to eat not just for yourself but for each and every person on the planet. Pray for it until it comes. Demand forgiveness, demand a clearing of your debts. Demand it because heaven knows we all need it. We all need to be released from those things that have a hold on us, so that we can move into the future, so that we can be whole. There is no need for us to go through life feeling guilty for the mistakes we have made for what we haven’t and haven’t done. Demand forgiveness for yourself. When you pray, don’t just ask for things for yourself. Include the whole world in your prayers. Pray big and pray often.
If someone came to your house in the middle of the night looking for bread to feed their hungry friends, and they pounded and pounded and pounded on your door until you couldn’t ignore them, you’d get up and give them something wouldn’t you? If not because they were your friend, because they were persistent and you wanted to get rid of them?
If a child asked for fish or eggs, you wouldn’t give them a snake or a scorpion, something that would harm them would you? You’d give them what they asked for, things that nourish and give life. The goodness that you want and need for yourself is the goodness God wants for you.
So pray fervently he says, be persistent in your prayer. Seek. Knock. Ask. Give it everything you’ve got. There’s a loosening of heaven when you do. So knock hard and shake up the foundations of the universe.
Pray big, because these things about which Jesus is asking us to pray matter. It matters that people have enough food, it matters that we are treated with dignity and respect and that we find a way to live in the world that brings about a reign of peace. It matters that our children have what they need, not just our own children, but every child. It matters. So pray like it matters.
Why would you pray for a parking space and not pray for world peace? Or maybe, like my father, you don’t pray and not because you don’t know how to but you are unsure about who would answer or if your prayers would make a difference.
Sometimes I think we hesitate to pray because for some of us our prayers have gone unanswered. The cancer wasn’t cured. The job was never found. The situation has not changed. The dream we had did not come true. Sometimes we hesitate to pray because we’ve let go of the image of an all powerful God who acts upon our prayers, so we don’t know what language to use to pray anymore. We can’t find the words that fit. Sometimes we don’t pray because we’re not really sure it would makes a difference if we did.
Pray anyway the message seems to be. Keep it up. Don’t ever think it doesn’t matter because apparently it does. Ask the people of Ukraine if it matters to them that we continue to pray for them. Ask the people of Kentucky who have lost loved ones in the floods there this week if it matters to them that we will pray for them this morning or the people of Israel and Palestine, those who genuinely want to find a way to peace that comes with justice. Ask them if it matters to them that we have been praying.
When I think of my own life of prayer and those times when I have been most persistent and most demanding, they have always been those times when I have felt most frightened and most impotent in the face of something larger than my own capacity to grapple with. Sometimes those prayers are personal like when I’m not able to make someone better who is ill. Sometimes they are impersonal like when I pray about a bigger conflict or situation that seems insurmountable like how we are ever truly going to right the historic wrongs that have come about because of colonization in our land.
When we look at the kinds of things Jesus is asking us to pray for we can see why he asks us to make demands for these things and to be persistent until they come. We see how huge they really are. They don’t seem so huge when we tie them together each Sunday as we say together what we call the Lord’s prayer but look more closely and we see how big they are. How relevant those prayers were over 2000 years ago and how relevant they are still for us today. Thy kingdom, thy realm of peace come, thy will for the goodness of the planet and all it’s peoples be done.
Despite all our human ingenuity we have not yet found a way to bring about a reign of peace upon our earth. We still need to pray for it and work for it. Despite all that we have come to know about one another as a global community, we have not yet learned how to forgive and be reconciled to one another. We still need to pray for it and work for it. Despite all we know about agriculture and climate change and all we know about taking only what we need and sharing our abundance, far too many people still go hungry. Despite all we know about what tempts us and what we should and should not do in life, we do it anyway. We need to pray for these things.
We are a needful people, even if we think we have it all. Perhaps we’re even more needful when we think we have it all. We don’t actually have it all figured out.
And the thing is, our prayers do get answered, big and small but we often seem to have selective memory loss when it comes to remembering the prayers we no longer need to pray. We don’t need to pray for women to be considered as people in Canada anymore (can you believe we ever did?) We don’t need to pray for the Berlin Wall to fall or for the Pope to come to Canada to offer an apology to First Nations, Inuit and Metis people because these prayers have all been answered even if not to perfection.
A few years ago I took a course with Marcus Borg and I asked him what he thought about prayer given that he no longer holds an understanding of God as all knowing and all powerful. He said that for him prayer is one of the ways that we care about one another as human and earth family. It makes us more conscious of one another and our needs. And then he said “and you never know it might just do some good. Our prayers might just be answered and therefore we shouldn’t limit ourselves from the possibility.
However it works, whatever it does, prayer centers us in divine presence, it calls upon divine qualities such as love, courage and strength. It opens our hearts, it changes us and somehow it changes the world around us and sometimes it brings about a miracle the likes of with will take your breath away because we have no idea how it actually came about.
At the end of his teaching on prayer, Jesus assures his followers of one thing, that if we ask, the Spirit will be given. If we ask, and seek and knock we will become spirit-filled and spirit led people.
I always found it curious that my father, who was born into a Methodist family, claimed he didn’t know how to pray. The Methodist movement was born out of John Wesley’s experience of having a strange warming of the heart when he himself was at prayer. It was a very spirit-filled movement. Methodism brought us tent revivals and small group ministries brimming with people’s commitment and passion for prayer and possibility. How is it that we have become so dispassionate in our prayers? How is it that we can spend our entire life in the church and still not know how to pray? Maybe my father did know how to pray, perhaps he just needed to be reminded of what he already knew.
Teach us how to pray and this time teach us to pray like we mean it.