“Lord, teach us to pray…”
Each summer we take a Sabbath break from the Word From Below reflections. Instead of writing on the Gospel lectionary text in the month of August, we will invite you to pray with the Street Psalms community. We will share two prayers in particular: Prayer of Vocation and Prayer of Discernment. For several years now these prayers have been helping form us individually and as a community in our common call to develop incarnational leaders.
This week’s lectionary text provides a wonderful transition into a month of prayer.
One of disciples asks Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Jesus begins by teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. But notice that in Luke’s version Jesus gives them the short form of the prayer. Perhaps that’s because he knows the real power of prayer is not primarily in the contents of the prayer itself. He refuses to give the disciples a formula as if God were the great ATM machine in the sky and prayer was the secret pin code. Instead, Jesus gets at the real essence of prayer by telling a story.
Jesus shares the account of a man in need of bread at midnight. The man persistently knocks on his neighbor’s door at the most inconvenient hour, until his neighbor gets so fed up and frustrated that he gives him the bread. This is not about a poor man who can’t feed himself. It’s about a careless and clueless man who did not plan well. He comes to his neighbor’s house late at night for something that he should have handled on his own during the day. The neighbor, who is a “friend,” is understandably frustrated, but finally agrees to give his friend the bread, if only to get rid of him.
Jesus compares this scene with God. It’s meant to be a false comparison. If we, who are imperfect, know how to give good gifts to clueless neighbors in the middle of the night, not to mention our own children, then how much more does God?
C.S. Lewis said the prayer that precedes all prayers is: “May it be the real I who speaks. May it be the real Thou that I speak to.” St Francis once prayed all night, “God who are you, and who am I?” Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” The point is that authentic prayer has little to do with the specific content of the prayer, which is why Jesus doesn’t bother reciting the long form of the Lord’s Prayer. No, the real essence of prayer is not about the “what.” It’s about the “who.” To whom do we pray? That’s the real question. Who is this God who is not bothered in the least by being inconvenienced late at night over something that is completely the problem of our own making? Who is this God who is so eager to meet us face to face regardless of how clueless or careless we have been?
By highlighting the persistence of the man, Jesus is also pointing out the other key ingredient of prayer, which is simply, showing up. Regardless of what we pray, or even why or how we pray, God can do wonders if we just keep showing up. That’s it! That’s the big secret — showing up until one day the real “I” meets the real “Thou.” The Prayer of Vocation and the Prayer of Discernment are our way of showing up. It’s our way of being formed and shaped for mission and becoming like the one who calls us.
I pray these prayers daily and have for several years. I can say with some confidence that God is giving me a new heart. I can see the faint outlines of that for which I long — the heart of Christ. God’s words through the prophet Ezekiel come to mind, “A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh (Ez. 36:26).
It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
– Mary Oliver, Thirst