Luke 11:1-13 | Lord, teach us to pray

a reflection by Dan Spragg

I often find myself stuck in a sort of argument with myself about the importance of memory and ritual, verses spontaneity and organic expressions, mostly when it comes to things such as prayer and worship. On the one hand we find ourselves part of a long and rich tradition which over the years has refined and tested and found true and useful certain patterns of worship and certain prayers to pray. On the other hand, it is well recorded throughout history that there have been many times in which unplanned things and spontaneous utterances have been found to be exactly what has been needed to lift the people’s faith and the church back to life once again. I find myself more often than not, stuck in the middle, finding richness and meaning in ritual and repetition and longing for a sense of life and freedom that is usually found in less formal situations.

The key perhaps to achieving this kind of Zen like balance has to do with scaffolding and substance. The beauty of ritual in worship and memorised prayers is that they become part of us, we learn them off by heart so that we don’t have to think about them, they just happen. It’s amazing in the services I have taken in rest homes where one has to wonder how much, if anything at all of what is being said is heard, where as soon as we come to Psalm 23 for example, how the room comes alive with most people joining in and recognizing what is being said. It has over the years become ingrained. There’s a saying that goes, ‘there isn’t any atheists in the foxholes.’ Which alludes to a kind of universal human desire to reach out to something beyond ourselves when faced with difficulty, stress, or when we are in danger. Our memorised prayers, our rituals in worship are most likely what come to mind in this time. I remember once, in the middle of the night being very freaked out by something I had dreamed so much so that I had goose bumps and a very strong feeling that all was not right in the world. I was grateful when almost immediately the words from St Patrick came to mind, ‘Christ before me, Christ within me, Christ above me, and below.’ My world became calm and I had peace. You may have similar stories. What we take in and memorise and learn by repetition becomes part of us and is then easily accessible to us whenever we need it. This is what I mean by scaffolding. These repetitions form a sort of scaffolding with which to build our lives on, and in times of struggle they can be what we lean on and draw from so that we have energy to face whatever it is we need to face. The beauty found in less formal expressions of worship and prayer is that they tend to more easily convey a sense of life and vitality. There is often a sense of energy and purpose and it is often easier to participate because we want to not because we have to or that we should do. It usually comes down to a sense of life and vitality which connects to where I am in my life at this point in time. Not, of course, that more traditional forms of things can’t connect, it’s simply that they have a tendency to slip into mere words spoken without thought. I have said before that ‘the future is where the fun is’ which is pretty simple to understand, if we’re having fun, then there will be a future in whatever we’re doing. The problem with repetition and tradition and memorised words is that often they don’t seem to contain much fun! So, if both contain usefulness and importance then perhaps a way to make the most of both is to fill our scaffolding with life. We need scaffolding in our lives, but we also need substance and a sense of aliveness.

The Lord’s Prayer for me has recently been some scaffolding that has been filled with a new sense of substance. And as is so often the case it was because of fresh learning and a new understanding that others helped me with. The Lord’s Prayer has to be one of the most recited prayers in the Christian tradition. There is evidence that the Lord’s Prayer was included in the daily prayers of the very earliest Christian churches. We say it at least once a month in our services of worship, no doubt most of us can’t remember not knowing it. It is just one of these things that we know and that we think is important to know. I remember teaching it to my kids not long after they started school. At the time I simply thought that it was important for them to know it. I wonder if we tend to think this because as we see today, when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he taught them these words. And it so easily becomes about the words. But words are simply symbols that contain meaning and it is easy to forget perhaps that Jesus knew this and used it to its full potential in all his teaching. I guess it’s a bit easier with the parables to ask, ‘what is he trying to say here?’ perhaps not so much with something that seems a little more direct. But as I was gracefully reminded, we do well to keep this question in front of us.

Jesus didn’t teach his disciples how to preach. He also didn’t teach them how to plan a ‘decently and in order’ service of worship with the correct liturgical movement. He did however, teach them to pray. Sure, they asked him, but it was quite a common thing for a Rabbi to teach their disciples to pray and the Rabbi usually took the opportunity to make a bit of a statement in doing so. In teaching their disciples to pray, the Rabbi communicated what their main deal was. If they had to boil their life’s work down to one thing this would be what they would communicate in teaching their disciples to pray. So, Jesus taught his disciples to pray. When you pray, say this… and we have what we know as the Lord’s Prayer – without the ‘yours is the kingdom, power, and glory’ bit on the end which was added by the church later on. If Jesus was trying to communicate a message, if he was trying to distill his message down, he did a pretty good job. Matthew’s version the Lord’s Prayer is about 66 words, Luke’s one here is about 38 words. In not very many words we get a picture of what Jesus’ message was, a clear picture of how Jesus saw the world.

This was quite new to me. I don’t know why I hadn’t picked up on this before, but I hadn’t. Luke 4 is often talked about as Jesus’ manifesto “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Luke 4:18-19) but here, in the Lord’s Prayer we get another succinct vision of what he was about. This deepening of my understanding came while reading a book (dangerous things happen when reading) and then I heard a couple of people talking along the same lines – now when this happens, when you have 2 or 3 occurrences of the same thing happen to you in a short amount of time, then chances are you are best to pay attention! As I read and listened and reflected on this the interesting thing that happened was that every time I have recited the prayer after this the words have taken on new meaning, new life, and it has begun to relate to situations I see or deal with, it’s been rather fascinating. The scaffolding has some substance, no longer is it just simply words. In two weeks’ time I’d like to take a closer look at each of the statements in the prayer and what Jesus might likely be saying in them. Today, my point is that we need ritual and tradition, but we can only have them so long as they have substance, a sense of life, and connection to our daily living for without these things they are simply empty words or actions. With these however, they become, not a crutch that we can’t do without as some would say, but rather they become a grounding from which we spring off from and return to. A home base. A sense that we are part of something much larger than simply ourselves. They help us know who we are and therefore what we are to do.

It is of course having this sense of identity which helps us live well. How often is it in life when people are struggling, or when they get into trouble, or participate in behaviour that leads to darkness rather than light, how often is it that they have no real sense of identity, of who they actually are and where they are located in the grand scheme of things. I’d like to suggest that the Lord’s Prayer offers us each a picture of this. It offers us a picture of who God is, what God is about, it says who we are and how we are to be because of this. In our prayers for the road later in the service we are going to say the Lord’s Prayer together. When we do can I suggest that you engage with it by asking, what is this trying to say? What does this mean for me, with all that is going on in my life? Perhaps if you remember you could say it to yourself during the week, and ask the same questions. It is quite amazing what it actually contains.

To finish up today, a quick word on the parable about knocking on the door in the middle of the night. There’s one word I’d like to pull out – persistence – which is actually better translated as shamelessness. The friend was shameless in harassing his neighbour in the middle of the night. Some have translated it as ‘nerve’ – he had the nerve, the audacity to knock in the middle of the night. Of course, this was expected practice in the middle east at this time, the shame that would have fallen if the neighbour had not given him bread would have been enormous, and so the friend was simply doing what was expected, and he was shameless in doing so. Perhaps we could say he trusted in the way it worked. He trusted and so he had no shame in asking, seeking, knocking. And so, it is with prayer, Jesus seems to be saying. Approach prayer with utter shamelessness because it is what we are to do, because of who we are, and we can have complete trust that God will hear, and will respond with good gifts given to us. “Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.” Whatever prayer is, however you do it, whatever you say, you can do so in complete trust in the one who is listening to your every word.

Approach prayer shamelessly. Trust in the act of asking, seeking, knocking. Trust in the one who you are talking with. Even this brings a little meaning, a bit of substance to our familiar words and actions. Imagine if every time we prayed these familiar words, they did something. Imagine if we expected it to. ‘Ask, seek, knock. Be bold!’ Jesus says, for God has more for you than you can even imagine.

So, a bit more detail in two weeks to help us really bring this to life. But, in the meantime, why not have a think and see if you can pick up on what Jesus was saying?