‘Teach Us to Pray’ (a sermon on Luke 11.1-13)

When I was a teenager and a fairly new Christian, a man called Vijay Menon came to our church to lead an evangelistic mission. During the few days he was at our church he stayed at the rectory, where I lived, and I quickly became aware of his prayer life. Vijay was an early riser; he got up every morning at 5 o’clock, made himself a cup of tea, and then spent the first couple of hours of the day in Bible reading and prayer.

This made a big impression on me. I’d already been having prayer times in the mornings, but they tended to be rather rushed. Vijay’s example challenged me to be more intentional about those prayer times, and to get up a bit earlier to give myself more time. He never gave me any verbal instruction about prayer, but his personal prayer practice was a real inspiration to me.

I expect something like that happened in today’s gospel. In those days, what we now call ‘private life’ was non-existent. Very few people had private bedrooms unless they were very rich. Jesus and his disciples would have lived in very close quarters with each other, and I expect they would have shared prayer times together. We know from the gospels that Jesus was also in the habit of praying alone, but when he did it, he had to go off by himself into the country and find a lonely place.

Our gospel begins by telling us that ‘Jesus was praying in a certain place’ (Luke 11.1).I tend to imagine this happening in the open country, with Jesus taking himself off to the edge of the group, closing his eyes and raising his hands and focussing on his Father. Perhaps he took a substantial period of time doing it. Maybe his disciples noted his intensity, the sense that he was in conscious contact with God, the sense that something supernatural was going on. Something about it got their attention and aroused their curiosity. And so, when he was done, one of them said, “Lord, teach us to do that!” The result was what we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

So what does Jesus teach here about prayer? I’m not going to make this easy for you this morning; I’m going to point out six things in these verses. Maybe you should write them down!

First, he teaches us that it matters who is praying.This is a prayer for disciples. Disciples are people who are following Jesus, learning to see life as he sees it and live life as he taught. And this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

What do I mean by that? Well, Jesus experiences God as his loving heavenly Father. Jesus lives his life to bring honour to God’s name and to spread God’s kingdom by his words and actions, by his life and death and resurrection. Jesus speaks words of forgiveness, gives bread to the hungry, and wins the victory over the tests and temptations of the devil. Do you see the connections with the Lord’s Prayer? As I said, this prayer is soaked in the experiences and priorities of Jesus.

We disciples of Jesus are called to follow him and imitate him. So he teaches us to relate to God as a loving parent. He teaches us to seek first the kingdom of God and value it ahead of riches or success or anything else in life we might long for. He teaches us to share our bread with the hungry. He teaches us to forgive one another and even love our enemies, and to stand fast when we’re tested and tempted by the forces of evil. This is the life we’re learning to live as disciples, and it’s the life we’re learning to pray in the Lord’s Prayer. If we’re consistent disciples, our prayers and our lives will agree with each other. Living the life of a disciple will help us pray this prayer, and praying this prayer will help us live the life of a disciple.

So it matters who is praying: disciples of Jesus. Second, it matters that you pray with others. Nowadays many people think of prayer as something we do by ourselves. ‘You don’t have to come to church to pray’, people say, and we get the sense that what they mean by prayer is a person sitting quietly at home with a cup of herbal tea, hands spread out, eyes closed, praying to God in the individuality of their own head.

But true Christian prayer is not individual. Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not saying we shouldn’t pray alone—of course we should! But even when we pray alone, we’re not really praying alone. Every pronoun in the Lord’s Prayer is a plural pronoun. ‘Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, as we forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (Luke 11.3-4). This is the prayer of a community. When we pray it, we’re joining a community of disciples all over the world, addressing our heavenly Father together.

Prayer together is the fundamental Christian prayer. Prayer alone is an extension of our prayers together. But whenever it’s possible for us to gather to pray, we should do that. That’s why Sunday worship is meant to be a priority for Christians. It’s not something we should relegate to the ‘if I’ve got nothing better to do’ part of our schedule. The letter to the Hebrews says ‘Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some’ (Hebrews 10.25). We are a community of disciples, gathering together around the Lord’s Table, like a family coming together for a weekly meal—not just to enjoy each other’s company but also to join together in prayer to the God we have in common.

Prayer together keeps us steady. If the only prayer we have is individual prayer, it’ll be easy to neglect it. We’ll find all kinds of excuses why we can’t do it. Too busy. Too tired. Too discouraged. Too stressed. But if we have a commitment to meet together and pray, the commitment will carry us.

So it matters who is praying, and it matters that you pray with others. Thirdly, it matters who you pray to.“What on earth do you mean?” you ask. “Surely God is God? Who else would you pray to?” Yes—but it matters what you think about the God you’re praying to. Some people think the God they’re praying to needs humans to fight and kill each other so as to bring him honour. Others think God doesn’t really care about us. I heard of a Christian who once asked a friend what he thought about God. The reply surprised him: “The way I see it, God’s got a lot on his mind. World hunger, global warming, wars in the Middle East, AIDS and all that. So the best thing I can do for God is to stay out of his way.”

It makes a difference if you think you’re praying to a God who only has so much time and attention to give, doesn’t it? If you’re in competition with everyone else’s needs, who’s to say whether or not the answer to your prayer is going to be made on a Friday? That’s not a very encouraging thought, is it?

But Jesus encourages us to think of God as the best and wisest of parents or friends. He uses two parables to bring this message home. First, if your friend suddenly finds herself in need of some extra food because of unexpected company, you’ll help out without question, because she matters to you. Second, if your child comes to you and asks for some food, you’re not going to give them a scorpion instead of an egg, are you? We’re sinners, but even sinners like us know how to care for our friends and our kids! How much more will the heavenly Father care for us, his beloved children?

God is like the best and wisest and most selfless father or mother we could ever imagine. God provides for our needs. God guides us and helps us grow in wisdom. If that’s what you believe about God, you’re going to have no hesitation going to God in times of need and asking for help. And especially when you’re seeking first the Kingdom of God, so that the things you’re praying for are also the things Godis longing for—if you feel that way, you’re going to be quick to turn to God for help.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, and it matters who you pray to. Fourthly, it matters what you pray for.

The Lord’s Prayer is divided into two simple sections: God’s priorities, and our necessities. God’s priorities come first. We don’t come charging into God’s presence and immediately present our prayer shopping list. First we think about who we’re praying to, and we pray about the things that are important to God.

So we pray that God’s name will be hallowed. If we love God, then God’s good name matters to us. To slander someone’s good name is to smear their reputation in the world. So this is a prayer that God’s name would be known and loved and honoured in the world.

Obviously more than just the name is at stake here. Before I met Marci I had never known anyone by that name. Now, it’s the most precious name in the world to me—because I love the one who bears it. So for us to say ‘Hallowed be your name’ is a form of praise and an expression of love. John Newton wrote, ‘How sweet the name of Jesus sounds in a believer’s ear! It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds, and drives away his fear!’ Obviously in this hymn, the name of Jesus is sweet because the person of Jesus is loved so much.

So we pray that God’s name will be loved and honoured, and we also pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew’s longer version of the Lord’s Prayer explains this: ‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ So we are praying that God’s perfect rule of love and compassion, justice and peace will be established on earth. This is a prayer that everyone in the world will have enough and no one too much—that the good earth God has created will be respected and cherished—that people will treat each other as friends and not enemies—and that all over the world people will love and honour God above everything else.

So we focus on God’s priorities first of all. But then we turn to our necessities. Jesus mentions three things: food, forgiveness, and deliverance from times of testing and temptation.

‘Give us each day our daily bread’ (v.3). This is a very simple prayer. It’s not a prayer for lottery wins or plane tickets or expensive holidays or success in business. It’s a prayer that we will know where tomorrow’s meal is coming from. In other words, it’s a prayer that we will enjoy the necessities of life. Note: that we will enjoy the necessities of life—not I, but we. So to pray the Lord’s Prayer is not just a prayer that will have the necessities of life, but that everyone on earth will enjoy them too. And of course, we can’t pray that if we aren’t prepared to change our lifestyle to help make it happen.

‘And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us’ (v.4). We are in need not only of food but also of forgiveness, because we all stand before God as sinners. The language of debt is used here, because love is a debt we owe to God and our neighbour. The great commandments are to love God with all your heart and love your neighbour as yourself. How are we doing with that? The truth is, of course, that every day we fall short, and so every day we need to come to God for forgiveness. And we also commit ourselves to being people who extend forgiveness to others as well. Jesus is very clear about this: the people who can come to God and ask for forgiveness are the people who are willing to at least try to forgive those who have sinned against them.

‘And do not bring us to the time of trial’ (v.4). The Greek word can mean both times of testing and temptation; you have to decide from the context what the meaning is. I suspect that in this prayer it means ‘Don’t bring us to trials too hard for us, and when we’re in the middle of them, help us get through them.’

So it matters that we pray for the right things. We can pray that God’s name will be honoured and God’s kingdom will come on earth as in heaven. We can pray for the necessities of life for ourselves and others, for the forgiveness of our sins and for God’s help in times of difficulty. And we can also pray for the gift of the Holy Spirit, as Jesus says at the end of the passage: “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (v.13). These are the prayers that Jesus promises God will hear.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that you pray with others, it matters who you pray to, and it matters what you pray for. Fifthly—and this breaks the pattern a bit—it doesn’t matter that your prayers are long or exactly worded!

The Lord’s Prayer is short. Yes, it’s more of a pattern than a prayer, and we’re expected to add to it when we use it—to fill out each petition with our own particular concerns. But it’s not a long prayer, and it would seem to indicate there’s no particular virtue in praying long prayers.

Also, there are two different versions of the Lord’s Prayer. The one we use in church is based on Matthew’s version, which is a little longer. Luke’s version misses out some of the familiar petitions. Interestingly enough, some time in the early Christian centuries someone was so bothered by this that they changed Luke’s version and added the extra words from Matthew. When the King James Version was translated in 1611 those changed manuscripts of Luke were all the translators had, so in the King James the Lord’s Prayer is basically identical between Matthew and Luke. But in the centuries since then archeologists have discovered older copies of Luke, without the additional words. So most modern translations use those older manuscripts and give us the shorter version in Luke.

What does this tell us? It tells us that Jesus didn’t always teach this prayer in exactly the same way! He didn’t see himself primarily as giving a fixed, rote prayer for his followers to pray for the next two thousand years, although there’s nothing wrong with us praying it together. But Jesus saw it primarily as an outline of things we should pray about. When we pray by ourselves or in small groups, we should feel free to fill out the outline.

So it matters who is praying, it matters that we pray with others, it matters who we pray to, it matters what we pray for, but it doesn’t matter that our prayers are long or exactly worded.

One last thing and then I’m done. This has all been fascinating, but if all you do is listen to it and then do nothing, it’s not accomplishing very much. So the last thing is simply to say it matters that you pray. You learn to talk by talking. You learn to ride a bike by riding a bike. And you learn to pray by praying.

If you already pray every day, this prayer can help you focus on the things that really matter. But if you don’t already have a prayer discipline, the most important thing you can do is to go home, look at your schedule, write yourself in a daily prayer appointment, and then keep it. And keep on keeping it. The things we do every day have a transformational effect on us, far more than the things we do occasionally.

We have asked the Lord to teach us to pray. He’s done as we asked. The next step is up to us.

Getting insomnia working for you

‘In the night I remember your name, LORD,
and dwell upon your instruction’ (Psalm 119.55 REB).

I remember reading that Dom Helder Camara had trouble sleeping through the night. So he would get up, spend some time in prayer and meditation, and then write some of the devotional poetry for which he became well known. As he put it, he ‘got insomnia working for him’!

Like him, I have difficulty sleeping through the night. I fall asleep very quickly, but wake up at least twice during the night, and sometimes I can’t get back to sleep. But I tend to waste that time in browsing Facebook or other not-so-edifying stuff.

This morning I sensed God speaking to me through this verse, saying ‘Is it time to get insomnia working for you?’ Could I be more intentional about how I use those sleepless times to draw closer to God?

A Spirituality Project for a Sedentary Age

4_walking_prayer_exercisesIn 2017, 64% of Canadians were overweight or obese. This has major health implications.

I used to be part of that statistic, and for years I tried and failed to do anything about it. Somehow, three years ago, I managed to take off a huge chunk of weight, but it’s still a struggle for me to keep it off.

I’ve spent most of my working life in a sedentary occupation. I’m a priest, so I sit at a desk, or sit in people’s homes, drinking coffee and eating cookies and talking. And praying. I’m encouraged to spend 45 minutes to an hour each day in prayer, using a Daily Office developed by Christians in much more active times, when just staying alive meant people had to use their bodies way more than they do now, so the need to add more physical activity wasn’t so urgent.

But times have changed.

A few years ago David Hansen wrote a book called Long, Wandering Prayer. Dave is a long time advocate of combining prayer with walking. I wonder if he might be on to something? Given that we are physical as well as spiritual creatures, and that health of body and spirit is intertwined, maybe we should be looking at redefining the Daily Office to include walking?

Older forms of the Office (like the traditional Book of Common Prayer) had relatively few variables. The Office was easily memorized, and once committed to memory, those prayers were yours for good. Even today, I can pretty well pray BCP Morning Prayer from memory (without the psalms and readings of course).

More recent Office books have vastly increased the amount of variable material. But maybe we’re going in the wrong direction. Maybe we should be exploring simple forms of prayer that could be easily memorized and then used as a framework for extemporare prayer—the aim being to encourage people to take their prayer times out on the walking trail with them every day. These days audio Bibles are common too, so listening to the Bible could easily be combined with walking.

Imagine the health benefits if those 45 minutes of daily praying were spent moving my body on a walking trail? Also, personally, I find it easier to connect with God walking through trees and fields than indoors, so it’s a double win.

I think this could be a vital spirituality project for our sedentary age. What do you think?

When Jesus Saw Their Faith

‘One day as Jesus was teaching, Pharisees and teachers of the law were sitting round him. People had come from every village in Galilee and from Judaea and Jerusalem, and the power of the Lord was with him to heal the sick. Some men appeared carrying a paralysed man on a bed, and tried to bring him in and set him down in front of Jesus. Finding no way to do so because of the crowd, they went up onto the roof and let him down through the tiling, bed and all, into the middle of the company in front of Jesus. When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the man, “Your sins are forgiven you.”‘ (Luke 5.17-30 REB)

For a long time now I’ve believed that the ‘their’ in ‘when Jesus saw their faith’ refers to the four friends, not the paralyzed man. The subject in the previous sentence is clearly the four friends, and it makes grammatical sense for this to be carried over. Also, we know that people who struggle with chronic illnesses often find it difficult to muster up faith that their situation can change.

But the faith of these four friends was strong and active, and Jesus ‘saw’ it—that is, he saw the actions it produced. Faith leads to action!

So God may call on me to exercise faith on behalf of others who find it difficult, and to pray faithfully for them. And he may also call me to ask for the prayers of my friends at times when I find faith difficult.

Lord Jesus, I believe: help my unbelief. When my faith is weak, please strengthen it. Help me take steps to grow in faith, stepping out in obedience to you. Help me be faithful in prayer for my friends. And thank you for the friends who are faithful in prayer for me.

A Remote Place

‘But the talk about Jesus spread ever wider, so that great crowds kept gathering to hear him and to be cured of their ailments. And from time to time he would withdraw to remote places for prayer.’ (Luke 5.15-16 REB)

There have been many times in my life when I’ve been guilty of being far too impressed with the first sentence above, and completely neglectful of the second.

I imagine Jesus going out to the remote place. No Bible, no liturgy, no retreat centre, no one else with him—just the presence of God and whatever scriptures he had memorized (including probably a lot of psalms). This was such a vital feature of his ministry, a refreshment for his spirit, a deepening of his sense of fellowship with God.

Lord, thanks for the opportunities we have to love our neighbours, and give us strength to grasp them with both hands. But also, help us not to neglect the call of the ‘remote place’. Without you we can do nothing, so help us make the time we need to draw closer to you. Amen.

Trust in Him

‘For God alone I wait silently;
my hope comes from him.
He alone is my rock of deliverance,
my strong tower, so that I am unshaken.
On God my safety and my honour depend,
God who is my rock of refuge and my shelter.
Trust in him at all times, you people;
pour out your hearts before him;
God is our shelter.’ (Psalm 62.5-8 REB)

I love the balance between silence and speaking in these verses. ‘For God alone my soul waits silently; my hope comes from him’ (v.5). ‘Trust in him at all times, you people’ pour out your hearts before him; God is our shelter’ (v.8). Pouring out our hearts to God—a torrent of words describing to God exactly how we feel—seems to be the exact opposite of waiting in silence for him. But in reality, both are essential features of a healthy prayer life.

What unites them is trust. ‘Trust in him at all times, you people.’ The psalmist has experienced God as a refuge and a rock of deliverance. Past experience leads him too continue to trust that God—‘God alone’—is his shelter.

God our refuge, help us to trust in you, to wait on you in silence, and to pour out our hearts to you. Thank you that you are our rock of refuge and our shelter. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 28:16-29:40, Luke 3:23-38, Psalm 62, and Proverbs 11:18-19)

Morning, Noon and Night

‘But I appeal to God,
and the Lord will save me.
Evening and morning and at noonday
I make my complaint and groan.’
(Psalm 55.16-17 REB)

The Book of Acts talks about Peter and John going to the Temple to pray ‘at the hour of prayer’. We know that set times for corporate prayer were a feature of Jewish faith, and of course this carried over into Christianity. In monasticism the Daily Offices evolved, and in Anglicanism this expressed itself in daily Morning and Evening Prayer (Matins and Evensong); other hours like Compline and Noon Prayer are also often observed.

So its tempting to make the jump from this psalm to the custom of ‘hours of prayer’, and make the case that they are a good and biblical thing. I don’t want to deny that, but I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. In Psalm 55 the psalmist has been expressing his sense of betrayal at the trouble he’s in, much of it caused by someone he thought was a friend. In verses 16-17 he’s using a poetic form to express the idea that he never stops praying – ‘morning, noon, and night’, as we might say today. He may well join in the regular hours of prayer, but his prayers spill over into the rest of the day as well.

I’m good at observing set times of prayer. I’ve been keeping a morning ‘quiet time’ for decades and it has been a real means of grace for me. But I’m not so good at remembering to pray at other times. This psalm reminds us that whether it’s complaining about our troubles or expressing our thanks and praise, our prayers are always welcome to God. We don’t have to wait for a set time or a holy place. Morning and noon and night we can raise our voices to God in prayer.

God, thank you for this privilege you’ve given us. Help us not to be shy about taking advantage of it. Amen.

(Today’s One Year Bible daily readings are Numbers 16:41 – 18:32, Mark 16:1-20, Psalm 55, and Proverbs 11:7)