Teach us to pray

Prayer is a tremendous challenge for many people.  The reality is that many of us feel inadequate or even guilty when we think about prayer.  There are perhaps four key reasons for this:

a)    We don’t pray enough.

If you are a parent with young children, you will be all too familiar with how challenging it can be to have a quiet time at the beginning or end of the day – or even during the day!  The same applies if you work shifts or long hours.  It can be really hard to develop a pattern of spirituality that feeds us and sustains us.  I am sure we’re all familiar with the expression “the spirit is willing but the body is weak.” Even when we do sit down to pray, we so easily get distracted and find our mind starts to wander.  My friends sometimes calls me kangaroo brain because even at my best, my mind is jumping all over the place thinking about all sorts of different things at once.  For me, my mind needs no encouragement to get distracted or wander and so I have to try really hard to concentrate when I pray!  It can be very hard to sustain a disciplined routine of prayer.

b)   We don’t think we are very good at prayer.

We struggle to find the words, and we are constantly having little internal debates in our minds: can God really hear me? Is He there at all? Are my prayers simply bouncing back off the ceiling?  What will He think of my prayers, my fumbled words?  Are my prayers good enough? And if we are praying in a group, what will other people think of our prayers?  It is as if in our mind we can sometimes have a view of what prayer should be like, complete with big, flowery, complicated words and faced with that perceived gap we just give up.

c)    We give up when we don’t get immediate answers or the answers we want.

It has been said that there are three possible answers to prayer:

  1. Yes
  2. No
  3. Not yet

Why is it I wonder that we so often are only content when the answer is yes?  Jesus said “I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it.” (John 14:13-14)  When we ask for something in someone’s name, there is an implicit sense of intimacy, trust and respect.  If I am seeking to realise those qualities in prayer, it would hardly be fitting for me to pray for an Aston Martin or a Ferrari so hardly surprising that such prayers wouldn’t necessarily be answered.

Many years ago I knew an elderly lady at church who was really faithful in prayer.  She shared something of her faith journey with me one day, and spoke of praying for her husband.  She had been a Christadelphian for a big part of her life, and had been praying that her husband might become one too for over 20 years.  But then she had a personal encounter with Jesus and gave her life to him; she was released into a fullness of life and relationship with God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  Her prayer and the focus of her prayer shifted…she now prayed that her husband too would have that relationship with Jesus and spent the next 20 years thanking God that he hadn’t become a Christadelphian.  We must ask in Jesus’ name to the glory of the Father.  We must pray to the Father in Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit.

d)   We find it all too easy to pray on our terms and not God’s.

I know there have been times in my life when I thought I knew better than God.  For the record: I don’t!  When Abraham interceded for the people of Sodom (Genesis 18:22-19:29), there was no arrogance in his heart and prayers.   He knew a poverty of Spirit and a willingness to “speak God’s heart to himself.”

So then we come to today’s Gospel reading which features the  Lord’s Prayer which is one of the most beautiful, complete and balanced prayers that we find anywhere in Scripture.  The first ‘half’ of the Lord’s Prayer is centred on the glorification of God. The second ‘half’ covers the physical and spiritual well-being of believers…there is a completeness to it.  It’s reminding ourselves of God’s character and what being in that relationship with a loving Father will be like.  It is a prayer of prompting…we are prompted by an awareness of the presence of God, Our Father in Heaven and our response is to bring Him praise.  There is a purpose and a hope, a recognition of His provision, a getting right with him and one another and a request for protection.

Let’s step back for one moment and think about this time and this place when Jesus was with his disciples.  We are told that Jesus was “praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”” (Luke 11: 1).  The disciples had heard Jesus praying to His Father; prayers of faith, prayers of hope and prayers of intimacy and love – not some formal, stuffy, high-minded, complicated prayers with lots of flowery words.  The disciples too were no strangers to prayer themselves; it will have been embedded in their culture, custom and practice.  And yet here they are, having heard Jesus’ prayers that were somehow different with their heartfelt request…“teach us to pray”, much as John’s followers had been taught by him.

I tend to think that when Jesus heard the disciple’s request “teach us to pray”, His heart must have rejoiced.  He must have had a huge smile on His face.  I sometimes wonder if in His response, with that huge smile, He might have said “Oh, alright then…if you insist!”  I also wonder what on earth the disciples expected Jesus to say, how did they expect Him to reply?  Is Jesus’ reply what YOU might have expected?

In reading the Lord’s Prayer, I really want us to be encouraged.  We would be deceiving ourselves if we didn’t think that Jesus sometimes has hard and testing things to say to us in the Gospels.  But on prayer, I am pretty sure that the last thing He wants for us are feelings of guilt or inadequacy.  God yearns for us to be in relationship with Him and the relationship we have with God is something that shapes our spirituality and approach to prayer.  The great theologian A.W. Tozer said “What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us…For this reason the gravest question before the Church is always God Himself, and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at a given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like. We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God.”  Our image of God should be based on his revelation of himself in his Word and in his Son, our Saviour and Redeemer Jesus Christ.  How do Jesus’ words of teaching on prayer shape our understanding of God, and therefore our spirituality and approach to prayer?

It seems pretty clear from Jesus’ words that he was encouraging his disciples – and us – to pray in a way that shows intimacy with and reliance on God.  Jesus tells us to use that very personal and intimate language “Father.”  Jesus using ‘Father’ as a title is highly distinctive; it is not a title given directly to God in the Hebrew Scriptures, although it is occasionally used as a metaphor. The Aramaic word for ‘Father’ is “Abba” which is a term of endearment and intimacy. St Paul writes in both Romans and Galatians that as sons and daughters of God, we cry out Abba, Father.  We pray because we have a good Father, who gives good gifts to his children.  Our asking is not a heavy pleading with, or an anguished persuading, but the natural response to a loving God who cares for us.  In its simplest form, prayer is chatting with God from our heart about the things of the day with humility and gratitude that a great, awesome and holy God yearns for us to enter into his presence.    I also believe that when we have courage to pray, coming before God just as we are, that he rejoices.  It is all about our attitude…our heart attitude, our head attitude and our attitude of spirit.  In prayer we “join our hearts with Gods”.  No wonder St Augustine said “Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in thee.”

Since the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, it suggests that prayer is something we can learn.  I think prayer is like a muscle we can “work out” and one of the power foods we can use to fuel that work out is God’s Word.  I don’t believe any sincere and heartfelt prayer is ever wasted.  I do believe even the shortest of prayers prayed in this way can move God’s heart – it’s about how we pray not how many words we use!  And you know, however weak and inadequate we feel, Jesus himself takes our poor, hesitant prayers, and perfects them by joining them to his own perfect and complete offering of prayer to the Father, which is why in the Christian tradition we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord in the power of the Holy Spirit. No wonder one introduction to the Lord’s Prayer is “Uniting our prayers with the whole company of heaven, as our Saviour taught us, so we pray.” We do not pray alone.  And, as St Paul reminds us, the Holy Spirit – the good gift the Father gives us when we ask him, himself prayer deep within us, with inarticulate groans of desire.

Prayer is something that is active and dynamic – it implies action not inaction.  To pray, ‘hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come’ (11:2), is to hand over the sovereignty to God. To be able to continue, ‘Give us each day our daily bread … forgive us our sins … do not bring us to the time of trial’ (11:3–4), is to find that he then supplies all our need. The old life is shed, abandoned to him; then the new is received, and may be characterized as the new life in the Holy Spirit.

In our passage, immediately after his teaching on prayer Jesus presents his disciples with two parables.  The first one deals with the practice of prayer (11:5–10), and the last one speaks into the nature of prayer (11:11–13).  The first parable (the story of the friend’s request for loaves at midnight) teaches us to pray persistently…“because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.” In other words, it is about the practice of prayer – our part in it.  The second parable is concerned with the basis of prayer, or God’s part in it, is the subject of the sayings about the father who naturally will not give his son a serpent or a scorpion if the boy has asked for a fish or an egg.  God listens, and understands.  He “perceives our thoughts from afar”…he is “familiar with all our ways”…there is nothing about us he does not know.  God knows our needs better than we know them ourselves.

When we seek to single-mindedly yield ourselves to him, what happens? We find that this great, holy and awesome God is also our heavenly Father, who meets our seeking with his giving. When we ask, seek, and knock, he gives the answer we need (11:9–10). As the response of a human father to his son’s need is not one of cynical disregard (11:11–12), neither is God’s response to our need anything less than the provision of ‘good gifts’, and what Luke sums up as the gift of the Holy Spirit (11:13).  God constantly sends himself, such is the enormity of his desire to be in relationship with us.

So trust in God, know that your prayers are heard and never ever wasted, that your prayers are like a beautiful fragrance to God no matter how short or fumbling and be persistent knowing that God really will provide your needs.  Amen

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