Learning from Jesus (3): How Shall I Pray?
By Louise Westfall
There is something so powerful about being together in silence.
The collective breathing…
The muted street sounds…
The occasional cough or shuffle or children’s voices…
Could this be prayer?
Talking with someone recently we agreed that listening to audio books was a great idea in theory… but we’ve sometimes found it hard to concentrate—our minds jumping from thing to thing, drowning out the narrator’s voice. Whole chapters can fly by without our notice. Sigh. This challenges my prayer practice too. It’s all too easy to sink into silence… and then start compiling a grocery list, or making a mental note about someone I need to call… or fretting over a conversation that didn’t go well… and before long I’m futzing over the state of the world and whether that ache in my back is muscle strain or liver cancer.
How can I pray with intention and focus?
One of the joys of my job is to compose prayers for public worship. I take great care in choosing language that can voice the varied needs of this beloved congregation as well as concerns of the wider community; words that express the wordless cries of our hearts and spirits. Some of our religious kin disregard this practice as circumventing the spontaneous movement of the Spirit and prayers that bubble up unplanned and un-programmed. There’s a place for that practice (though I’ve noticed that those “spontaneous prayers” often rely heavily on familiar phrases and repeated forms that are easy to dismiss as religious jargon).
Is there a right way to pray?
Did you know that the Presbyterian Church constitution requires prayer to begin and conclude session and committee meetings? Generally, leading the prayer is shared among the elders, members, and staff so it’s explicit that the spiritual life of a congregation is the responsibility of all its members, not just the clergy.
Recently we witnessed the drama of a high school football coach who leads a post-game ritual in which he invites players to join him in prayer, kneeling on the fifty yard line following games. When informed that his action violated school policy (in keeping with the United States’ Constitution’s careful separation of church and state), Coach Kennedy sued as a breach of his freedom to practice his religion, insisting that the prayers were “personal and non-coercive.” Despite objections by some players and others who described feeling “pressured” and “expected” to join in or face subtle but potentially significant consequences, the Supreme Court ruled in the coach’s favor. I believe this decision actually threatens freedom of religion by ignoring or curtailing the rights of those whose prayers take other forms, Americans who practice non-Christian faiths, and people who do not practice at all.
What is the purpose of public Christian prayer in an increasingly pluralistic society?
An even more urgent question for some of us is the purpose of prayer at all. Does it matter? Can it change things? We’ve prayed healing for individuals; some got better, some did not. We’ve prayed for ourselves; we’ve prayed for traveling mercies to accompany our loved ones on literal and figurative journeys, with mixed results. We’ve all asked God for peace to prevail on earth, and daily anguish over its absence. We’ve cried out against the suffering of little children, and absorb the gut punches proclaimed in daily headlines. Does prayer do any good?
Our morning text is one of many in the gospels that narrate Jesus’ own prayer practice and teaching. Over again, we read that Jesus prayed regularly. In the synagogue. On the road as he traveled about the region. He prayed by himself. He prayed with his disciples. And at the very end of his life, he prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, beseeching God to remove the specter of execution but concluding “Not my will, but yours be done.” We know how Jesus prayed. How shall you and I? A reading from the Good News according to Luke, in the 11th chapter, verses one through 13. [Luke 11:1-13]
The Lord’s Prayer is both simple and profound. Easily memorized, it’s one of those things we learn by heart (although less so nowadays, which is why we always print it out in the bulletin). One way to look at it is as a summary of what it means to follow Jesus: enjoying intimate connection with God; establishing God’s heavenly rule on earth; having provision for basic human needs; centering forgiveness both given and received; and being protected from the kind of testing Jesus endured.
As such, the Lord’s Prayer is the perfect “instruction manual” to shape both our prayer and our life of faith. As communication, prayer involves both speaking and listening. One of my teachers suggests pausing a bit between each of the lines—partly to marinate in its richness and partly to listen with intention. Another practice I’ve found helpful is to paraphrase each of the lines, putting them in my own words. So “Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy Name” might become “Heavenly Mother” or “Loving Parent” or “Holy One who unites heaven and earth”… or something else. The idea is to let Jesus’ outline guide us into prayer that is deeply personal and potentially transformative as we open ourselves to the values, priorities, and rule of God on earth as in heaven.
Jesus showed us that prayer will deepen our relationship to the Divine, so that we experience God's presence more often and more clearly.
Many sermons on prayer include other teachings—like this one from Jesus: When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and street corners, so that they may be seen by others… whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father… And this one: Taking the loaves and fish, Jesus blessed and broke them and gave them to the disciples and the crowd… And all ate and were filled. Or this in response to a question: How often shall I forgive? As many as seven times? Not seven times, [Jesus answered] I tell you, seventy-seven times. Then there’s the verse in one of the Apostle Paul’s letters exhorting the faithful to rejoice always; pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances. I can tell you that’s puzzled people of faith in every generation and provided great grist for discussion and learning.
All important, of course. But I’m intrigued by this text because after offering the Lord’s Prayer, the bulk of it centers the very aspect of prayer we’re often cautioned against making primary: asking God for stuff. Read this, and cast aside the scolding words of the sanctimonious preacher who insists God is not a cosmic Santa Claus, granting your every wish.
No, no, no!
Turns out that God is better than Santa Claus, because God’s good gifts are not based on whether we’ve been naughty or nice, but simply because God loves us and wants to provide for our needs. God is not offended or wearied or inconvenienced by our petitions. God is predisposed to help us, and even more than the very best parent delights in helping us receive, find, and open ourselves to the fullness of God’s grace.
And maybe this reality helps us understand how prayer “works.” If it is the language of love between God and humans, then by definition it cannot be transactional. I’ll do this, dear God, and then you grant my request.
Instead, prayer functions as conversation between two who love each other: it aids understanding, it clarifies intentions, and it promotes growth. Just as we learn to love by loving, we learn to pray by praying. Prayer changes the pray-er, just as friendship, marriage, parenthood, and being church change us.
Anne Lamott, who wrote the book on prayer I quoted in the Call to Worship today, had a particularly chewy piece published in the NY Times two weeks ago, as she mused on the very subject of prayer’s purpose:
“How do people like me who believe entirely in science and reason also believe prayer can heal and restore? Well, I’ve seen it happen a thousand times in my own inconsequential life… When I pray for all the places where we see Christ crucified—Ukraine, India, the refugee camps—I see in my heart and in the newspaper that goodness draws near, through UNICEF, Doctors Without Borders, volunteers, through motley old us. I wake up praying… it helps me to not fixate on who I am, but on whose. I pray to be a good servant, because I’ve learned that this is the path of happiness. I pray for my family and all my sick friends that they have days of grace and healing, and say, ‘Make me ever mindful of the needs of the poor.’ It is miserable to be a hater. I pray to be more like Jesus with his crazy compassion and reckless love. I pray to remember that God loves Marjorie Taylor Green exactly the same as God loves my grandson, because God loves, period. I pray the great prayer of ‘Thanks’ all day—for my glorious messy family… for my life and faith, for nature, for all that is still here and still works after so much has been taken from us… I go for walks and pray for help, and in some dimension outside of my mind or language, relax. I can breathe again. I say thank you—thank you, thank you, thank you. At bedtime I pray again for my sick friends and the refugees. I beg for sleep. I give thanks for the blessings of the day. I rest into the vision of a bigger reality, sigh, and close my tired eyes.”
[Anne Lamott, excerpts from New York Times Opinion, July 11, 2022]
Friends, I wonder what would change in the world (and in you and me) if we prayed like this? If we prayed with hunger, with curiosity, even with desperation. I wonder what would happen if we made an intention to pray as often as possible over the course of our busy days? When we first get up and struggle through a work-out? While driving, before we share food with other people, as individuals or situations pop into our heads, at 4 pm, which some scientists identify as the low point of the day, as we consume news, as we do chores, at the close of our day? When we’re alone, and when together with beloveds? The late civil rights activist John Lewis urged not to think of prayer as passive—instead pray with your feet. To which I add, pray with your vote; pray with your offering; pray with actions and pray with the time you allot for service. If we prayed like that, we wouldn’t need to make a show of it on the 50-yard line.
Jesus showed us that prayer will deepen our relationship to the Divine, so that we experience God’s presence more often and more clearly. Jesus promised that God is persistent in reaching out to us, offering us all we need to love and exercise that love to do justice, feed the hungry and lift up the poor, care for children and stand up to demonic forces, balance the budget (all of them!) and perhaps most of all bring healing and hope to everyone, right down to our own cranky and scared selves. Now that’s an experiment worth trying!
Wow. Thanks. Help.