It’s a very personal, intimate thing, one’s prayer life. Getting started at praying is less like learning how to drive a car, how to play the banjo, or even how to preach. For most, it is more like learning how to kiss. You learn some by watching others do it. You should be discerning about whom you will allow to teach you. You certainly make mistakes. And maybe you always worry deep in your head that you might be doing it wrong.
When one of Jesus’ disciples requested he teach them about prayer, I don’t think the hope was to learn technique, like how to achieve the proper balance among praise, confession, thanksgiving, and so on. Nor do I believe the intention was to get Jesus to institute a prayer that Christians could gather around and speak in unison whenever they meet together for worship, although there’s nothing inherently wrong with how we’ve come to use the Lord’s Prayer.
I think the unnamed disciple of Luke 11:1 wanted to learn more about Jesus’ love for God and his intense desire to see God’s reign come to full fruition. “Teach us to pray” is about equivalent to “Show us your heart” or “Tell us — what is it like to be in communion with God?”
Don’t turn to Jesus and scripture for ruminations on techniques, models, and “best practices.” Go there to discover what love looks like — love in action, love for God and neighbor.
If we come to Jesus only to seek information or a pattern to follow, we’ve hardly experienced all he has to offer.
You already know, Working Preachers, that you are always teaching. Some teach to make sure that everyone in the congregation stays within the lines in the preacher’s confessional coloring book. I’m writing instead to those who are teaching to build a compelling imagination in others, one that results in a gospel-shaped way of comprehending the world, the rules we live by, and our relationships. In the pulpit, at the budget-planning meeting, through the prayers you compose for Sunday’s worship service, and by doing advocacy at the microphone in front of the city council, you’re showing people your heart. You’re sharing a passion for God and the promised reign of God. You’re describing a meaningful life. You’re fostering love for God and neighbor by declaring the ways in which God has already shown us what steadfast love is.
You know that, because somewhere along the road Jesus taught you how to pray.
Maybe you thought he was teaching you how to do a spiritual practice, but really he has been teaching you about the One to whom you were praying. What you’re learning from Jesus is a theology.
This is what makes prayer — in any kind of a context, whether private or public — so powerful: to pray is to articulate a theology.
In other words, everything about a prayer reveals something about what the pray-er thinks God is like. Is God merciful? Forgetful? Too busy? Ready to order the entire universe to make you happy? Already way ahead of you? Our prayers will reveal it.
Articulating a theology is risky business. It’s an intimidating thing to do in public when someone else will hear it. (Do you ever wonder what patterns your congregation has detected in your public prayers?) Privacy doesn’t always make things easier, because we’re afraid of coming to grips with how self-centered, needy, or naïve we might be. Prayer is similar to buying a blank card at the Hallmark store and then coming home and wondering, “Now what in the world am I going to say? Why didn’t I just buy the card with the flowers on the front and the generic poem inside?” It’s easier to cue up another psalm or let some author from a liturgical clearinghouse compose our prayers than to try to do it ourselves. It’s safer if we don’t have to scrutinize the ways we put our theology into a lived, felt context. Let’s just borrow someone else’s theology and hope for the best.
That’s why it’s not enough simply that Jesus prays in the Gospels. Rather, he offers more than an invitation for us to imitate his practices. His prayer, along with the short parable and aphorisms that follow in Luke 11:5-13, presents us with a sketch of how to imagine who God is and how God operates. Jesus speaks confident declarations:
God expects us to be generous to one another.
Those are all theological statements. They all come from Jesus, who is teaching all of us, whether you are the most gifted preacher alive or the most wounded and fainthearted of saints.
In the end, this week’s reading from Luke is less about the specific prayer that Jesus teaches and more about the theological convictions he puts forth for all to consider. Do we dare believe them? Do we dare adopt this theology of a gracious and justice-loving God as our own and pray accordingly?1 Can I pray it with my own cadence and emphasis, making it more than a series of statements that I recite to a borrowed God but instead an expression of what I want my life to look like in God’s hands?
I confess that when it comes to prayer I’m certainly not one of God’s better conversation partners. My attempts usually betray that I have the attention span of a goldfish. I worry that prayer doesn’t accomplish much. Therefore I appreciate Jesus’ reminders that the God who hears my words, silences, and incoherent anxieties is generous.
It’s also invaluable that Jesus urges his followers to persist in prayer. This doesn’t necessarily mean we need to increase the volume and pray the same things over and over all day. It means that with a God like this the door is always open. An occasion for relationship always exists:
Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence … Prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the Light. It is reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold.2
Do not walk past an opportunity for intimacy with the Divine.
How will you experience that communion yourself this week, before you enter the pulpit to tell others about it? How will you invite others into that wonderful intimacy, beginning with whatever theological utterances they might be able to muster?
- Don’t forget that Jesus did not invent this theology from scratch. His prayers in Luke 11 and Matthew 6 remind us that he and his piety were shaped by Jewish beliefs and commitments. See Amy-Jill Levine, The Misunderstood Jew: The Church and the Scandal of the Jewish Jesus (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 41-51.
- Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers (New York: Riverhead, 2012), 4, 7.