Luke 11:1-13- Teach us to [live!] pray

a reflection by Dan Spragg

We’re back on the bus with the disciples and Jesus out and about on tour learning how he does things, working out how to imitate the way of their master. I can imagine this conversation taking place on the bus between stops. They’ve just been at Mary and Martha’s house, perhaps after a good night’s sleep they’ve hopped on the bus ready for the next destination and take the opportunity to ask Jesus specifically about prayer. They’ve seen him pray – he’s often sneaking off early in the morning to pray in a quiet place – and so they ask. And Jesus responds. With just 38 words and a couple of strange parables including bread, fish, snakes, eggs and scorpions he teaches them to pray.

For me in this passage there are two questions: 1. What is prayer, or what do we understand prayer to be? And, 2. What on earth is Jesus up to here? The shortness of ‘the prayer’ and the weird stories are curious. Believe it or not though there are hints at the answers to these questions in here. And I believe they are answered through concepts of identity, purpose and agency that link us into the larger story of God’s desire for the world and our invitation to participate in it. Let’s unpack this and see if we can get there together.

Question one: What do we understand prayer to be? Just a small topic! I wonder what comes to your mind? Is prayer something we do? Something we participate in? Something that happens at certain times and places? Is prayer an attitude? Is prayer a conversation? A shopping list? A list of demands? An act of superstition? Is it a practice, like meditation or yoga?

Here’s a definition I really like: Prayer is awareness of and connection to God. I like this because it contains quite a bit of wiggle room. A wide range of activities could be prayer! It also suggests that we are to be present and intentional – it’s hard to be aware or to have a connection without being present and intentional. Kind of like the Good Samaritan and Martha & Mary – what are we to do? Act intentionally and be present, Jesus says. Richard Foster is an author who has written a couple of very influential books with regards to living the life of faith. In his book, Prayer, he offers a three dimensional model. Prayer begins with ‘inner’ work, moving next to being orientated towards God, finally moving outwards to the world and others. Foster teaches that in prayer we begin where we are and begin the work of inner transformation, which leads to a greater focus on who God is, which ultimately and always moves us outwards to the world around us – which at this point he says it always and necessarily is redirected back towards how we are in ourselves and who God is. In prayer there is an ever dynamic movement between ourselves, God and the world. He also makes the point, which I quite like, that prayer need not be complicated or have to contain certain words or be done in certain ways. It is our orientation within it which is important.

Foster retells a story from Tolstoy:
“[There are] three hermits who lived on an island. Their prayer of intimacy and love was as simple as they were simple: ‘We are three; you are three; have mercy on us. Amen.’ Miracles sometimes happened when they prayed in this way. The Bishop, however, hearing about the hermits decided that they needed guidance in proper prayer, and so, he went to their small island. After instructing the monks, the bishop set sail for the mainland, pleased to have enlightened the souls of such simple men. Suddenly, off the stern of the ship he saw a huge ball of light skimming across the ocean. It got closer and closer until he could see that it was the three hermits running on top of the water. Once on board the ship they said to the bishop, ‘We are so sorry, but we have forgotten some of your teaching. Would you please instruct us again?’ The bishop shook his head and replied meekly, ‘Forget everything I have taught you and continue to pray in your old way.’”
It is our orientation within prayer which is important. Prayer is not so much about form and content, much to the frustration of liturgical idealists, and rigid traditionalists. Prayer is simple awareness and connection to God which begins where we are with who we are. Given this then, is prayer about God or about us? If prayer is our inner work, drawing attention to God, and leading outwards, maybe this is another one of those ‘yes’ answers. Is prayer about us or God? ‘Yes.’ Specifically I think prayer is about us and God, it is about how we are, together. It is a thing of relationship.

The idea of prayer as a ‘practice’ is useful. I like to think about it in a similar way to being a musician. I practice the drums in order to become a drummer, in order to grow as a musician. The more I play, the more I become that which I want to become. Prayer then could be a practice of awareness and connection to God in order to become who we want to become, to grow, to be shaped in orientation to God. And there could be any number of ways I could do that. Indeed I do not stretch the metaphor in saying that sometimes drumming is a form of prayer for me. Many artists say the same, that their engaging in art is a way of prayer. For many others engaging with others’ art is prayer. For others, words really do work. For others, silence or running, or being outdoors. It can take many forms, most often it is simple, but it is always present to ourselves, to who God is, and moving outwards towards the world in love.

Ok, time for the second question: What was Jesus up to here? Well, simply put, Jesus was teaching. Jesus was a Rabbi and it is quite common practice for Jewish rabbis to teach their disciples to pray. But, more importantly in doing so it isn’t so much teaching a method but rather an opportunity to teach their disciples how they see the world. In teaching his disciples to pray, Jesus was teaching how he saw the world working and God’s place in it – his worldview. This immediately suggests to us that prayer is connected to all of life. If prayer expresses how you see the world then it can’t help be about life.

We have to ask about these weird parables, these strange stories, told in what sounds like a slightly irritated voice? Bread, fish, snakes, eggs and scorpions. Here’s my take in a nutshell: God is good therefore trust God and pursue God. That’s it. God is good therefore you can trust therefore you should pursue. So ask, seek, and knock!

What world is Jesus teaching us that we are to trust and pursue? That is the question. The lord’s prayer, this is Luke’s much shorter version than Matthew’s (66 words) which our more familiar form is based on.

In short, it tells us this:
“Father” – in Jesus’ time and place ‘Father’ meant the parent who was in charge of running the household. If you’re not comfortable with God as ‘father’ or if you want to use a different name that’s all good, just think what would you call the one who is tasked with the proper and right functioning of the household? The household we’re talking about here is the entire world. “Holy name” – is about God’s essence, identity and reputation being sacred and righteous. “Bread” – was about the proper distribution of food. Everyone in the household has a right to have enough. “Forgive debts/sins” – release us of debts as we also release others – debts of all kinds cause so much pain and hold so many of us back from living freely. May we be free and may we free others. Finally, “Lead us not into temptation” – as we encounter the way the world is, may we not react and be tempted to act in retaliation or violence, may we enact a different way. Here’s the prayer in my interpretation: To the one who runs the household that is the world, may your reputation remain holy and may there be enough for all who live in your house. May debts of all kinds be forgiven and may we play our part in releasing others so that we are all free. And may we not be reactive and violent but rather live authentically in the way of God’s house.

In these 38 words Jesus teaches us his worldview: the divine and human in participation together in working for a better world where we love God and love our neighbour (as seen from our friends the Good Samaritan and Mary & Martha). Humanity as made in the image and likeness of God with the fullness of both present in the same place and time living life to the full, shalom, wholeness for all. This ‘set’ prayer that Jesus taught and that we still say becomes then a reminder and a prompt of the story we are to live in and then live out. ‘Teach us to pray’ really means, teach us what we are a part of and how we are to live.

All that is how I get to prayer linking us to the larger story of God’s desire for the world and our active awareness of, connection to and therefore participation in God’s desire. It is an invitation. It is awareness and connection to God and the intersection of the divine and our lives. It is the intentional practice of inhabiting the story of loving God and loving our neighbour. And it can be anything that helps us become more aware and more connected. Words, art, walking, mountains, music… whatever. Jesus teaches us today as we travel on the road with him what we are a part of and how we are to participate. Awareness and connection to God in the world, with us, and as we regularly practice this awareness and connection we know more deeply who we are and who God is in order that we are conscious participants in growing a better world.

I admit that this sounds like a wonderful idealistic understanding that may not always translate into how we actually experience prayer in our lives. Often our experience of prayer contains a lot of disappointment and disillusionment – we have tried to pray but nothing much seems to happen. Perhaps our lives seem so covered in scar tissue as we carry around the hurts we have picked up along the way that we don’t feel worthy or we feel too broken to even begin to pray. Perhaps the words of our prayers have become dry and meaningless, perhaps they contain too much loftiness, too detached from how life actually is. However prayer is for you whether you find it a joy or a struggle the invitation to awareness and connection is always there. It is a standing invitation only ever simply waiting for your response. Prayer is much larger and much simpler than we often think – containing an entrance into a whole new way. God is good, there is only grace, therefore we can trust. And so let us ask, let us seek, let us knock and we live within this story of expansive grace and love.