Teach Us to Pray

Unity Lutheran Church + Christ the King Campus
28 July 2019 + Lectionary 17C
Luke 11.1-13
Rev. Josh Evans, preaching

Let us pray… (pause) We’re not actually going to pray right now, but what did you notice when you heard those words? Did you bow your head? Close your eyes? Fold your hands? Try to quiet your thoughts? Beyond the actual words of the prayers we’re taught, we’re even taught about the “right” postures of prayer.

Whenever we talk about prayer, it can feel like a list of “shoulds” and “should nots.” This is how you should pray — and how you shouldn’t. This is what you should pray for — and what you shouldn’t. I remember learning two models of prayer growing up: ACTS (Adoration – Confession – Thanksgiving – Supplication) and JOY (Jesus – Others – Yourself). In both cases, or so I was taught, asking for stuff, especially for myself, should come last of all.

At first glance, it can even feel like today’s gospel story is one more list of “shoulds” for prayer. Jesus gives his disciples specific words to pray — words we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not sure Jesus ever intended for his advice on prayer to turn into a full-blown fixture in our liturgy every week — the kind of prayer we seem to judge all other prayers by because, after all, it is the Lord’s Prayer, right? It can feel like another prescribed way of praying. And for those of us who struggle with our prayer life, it can make our own prayers feel inadequate.

Often, prayer feels more like a burden — leaving us to wonder what words to use. We don’t think we know how to pray. Or we worry that our prayers won’t be “good enough,” or that we’ll say the “wrong” thing. And so we shy away from praying altogether, especially out loud.

There’s a remarkable phenomenon I experience as a pastor: We’re standing around waiting for a potluck to start, or we’re out to dinner and the server has just brought our food. Can you guess where everyone’s eyes turn? As if I have some “magic words” to say that suddenly allow us to eat! But I’ll be the first to confess prayer anxiety — the awkward tension of wanting to be sure to say the “right” words when I pray out loud.

This anxiety is not limited to prayer, either. Human beings have this natural tendency to compare ourselves to one another. One literary scholar (Harold Bloom) has even coined the phrase “anxiety of influence.” In his view, there can be no such thing as an “original” work of literature because an author will always have the work of others in the back of their mind.

The poet Linda Pastan captures this struggle in her own poem, “Rereading Frost”:

Sometimes I think all the best poems
have been written already,
and no one has time to read them,
so why try to write more?

…she begins, wondering how she can possibly come up with something original to say. But, she continues:

At other times though,
I remember how one flower
in a meadow already full of flowers
somehow adds to the general fireworks effect

as you get to the top of a hill
in Colorado, say, in high summer
and just look down at all that brimming color.
I also try to convince myself

that the smallest note of the smallest
instrument in the band,
the triangle for instance,
is important to the conductor

who stands there, pointing his finger
in the direction of the percussions,
demanding that one silvery ping.
And I decide not to stop trying…

Pastan’s struggle with writing poetry strikes me as remarkably similar to our own struggle with speaking our prayers. And her inspiration to persist seems relevant, too: considering the effect of even one flower in a meadow or one note in a full orchestra.

But her poem keeps going:

…And I decide not to stop trying,

at least not for a while, though in truth
I’d rather just sit here reading
how someone else has been acquainted
with the night already, and perfectly.

What if there were a third way between the two extremes of coming up with the best, most original, perfectly worded poem or prayer and shying away from writing or praying completely for fear of saying the wrong thing?

It’s no secret that I myself am much more at home in the pages of a hymnal, praying the historic prayers of the church passed down through the centuries. Several years ago, I fell in love with compline, one of the fixed hours of prayer part of the daily office, with its roots in monastic communities. Compline, or “night prayer,” as our own Evangelical Lutheran Worship hymnal calls it, is a short prayer service meant to be recited just before bed. I grew to cherish the words of the same prayers I would repeat night after night.

One biblical scholar (Scot McKnight) calls our attention to the power of these forms of “fixed” prayer. There’s power, and even a certain comfort, in praying the words Christians throughout the centuries have uttered — words that capture the depth and breadth of human emotion and experience, words to borrow when we don’t seem to have our own to speak — when, like the poet, we’d rather just sit and read how someone else has already been “acquainted with the night” and found the perfect words to say for a given situation or circumstance.

There’s nothing wrong with this middle road: latching on to someone else’s words for our own prayer. I think that’s what Jesus is offering to his disciples: Here are some words to use when you need them.

Because prayer shouldn’t be a burden. Because prayer is, above all, a gift.

Prayer is a gift that reminds us who God is and what God promises us: bread to share, forgiveness to give and receive, strength to endure trials.

Prayer is a gift that reminds us we’re not alone. After all, Jesus’s prayer is a communal prayer: give us, forgive us, do not bring us

Prayer is a gift that reminds us about who God is: bread-giver, forgiver, sustainer, reliable, faithful.

Sometimes we need each other’s words, or the pre-written prayers of our tradition. Sometimes our own words are best (when they come to us). Even at other times, no words at all are needed, but just to sit in the presence of God.

No matter what form our prayers take, prayer is a gift that invites us into a way of life. It’s not about us saying the right words, in the right order, or with the right physical posture. It certainly doesn’t depend on our own worthiness.

Prayer, like the one Jesus teaches us, is much more a confession of faith in who God is and what God is capable of: the one who promises to hear us, love us, forgive us, and sustain us.

image credit: “Praying at Gethsemane” by He Qi

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