Friday, 26 July 2013
I was thinking about the Lord's prayer this week, and it got me thinking that it's not the world's most advanced kind of prayer. And maybe that's the whole point....
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’ He said to them, ‘When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.’
Perseverance in Prayer
And he said to them, ‘Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, “Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.” And he answers from within, “Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.” I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
‘So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’
Prayer and Painting...
My grandmother was an artist. You could provide her with a photograph of anything and she would return with a wonderfully artistic rendition in oils of the subject. But as a small boy I wasn’t particularly interested in idyllic waterfalls and landscapes. For me it was all about dinosaurs, which inevitably led to the request, ‘Gran, can you paint me a dinosaur?’ No photos were available for this task. Yet still she set to, and on my birthday I was presented with a lovely painting, which I still have, of a Stegosaurus. You can imagine my pride as a small boy. I could tell my friends that my Gran painted me a dinosaur. Eventually, though, it wasn’t enough. My Gran had painted me a dinosaur, and now I wanted to paint one. So I sat down with my Gran and said, ‘Teach me how to paint this afternoon.’ Bless her, she laughed, knowing that I had assumed that in one fell swoop I would emerge from my lesson as a fully fledged artist. She had first to correct my assumption that I would become an expert in painting in one afternoon before she had a hope of teaching me how to paint.
And that, I believe, is what we find in the passage here. Jesus is asked by his disciples about how to pray, and first he needed to correct some of their assumptions. So what, I wonder, did they assume? Well firstly we can see from the way the passage opens that they had seen Jesus at prayer, and clearly there was something about that which they wanted to do because he always prayed before doing something special. And it’s also no surprise that we find this particular story in Luke’s Gospel because Luke has more about Jesus and prayer than any other Gospel.
When Jesus was himself baptised it is Luke who recalls that the Holy Spirit came upon Jesus after his baptism when he was praying. Mark and Matthew miss that detail out. When it comes to the choosing of the twelve apostles it is only Luke who says that Jesus spent the entire night in prayer on a mountain on his own before choosing them.
When Jesus asks his disciples who other people say he is, once again it is Luke who recalls the detail that before asking the question Jesus was on his own praying. And the list goes on. Luke clearly has a thing about Jesus and prayer and so at key critical moments in his ministry he records that Jesus was deep in prayer beforehand.
Prayer was an indispensable part of his life, and the disciples saw that about him, and so they asked him to teach them how to pray, and I find myself wondering whether they had the same impression about prayer as I had about painting, that all you need is an afternoon with someone and you will come out as a master. So they say to him, ‘Lord, teach us how to pray.’ Now I find it quite interesting the prayer he teaches them, which in its lengthened form came to be known as the Lord’s prayer. As I look at this I find myself thinking that this is probably a beginner’s prayer. This is not the kind of prayer that Jesus would have stayed up for an entire night on a mountainside praying.
Think of it like this. I say to my Gran, ‘Teach me how to paint a dinosaur Gran’. So she says to me, ‘First you need to start with a cat. You draw an egg shape for its body, then add a circle on the top where you’re going to sketch out its head, then two triangles for the ears, then...’ Meanwhile I’m saying, ‘Yes Gran, but what about a dinosaur’, to which she says, ‘Firstly you have to get the basics right...’
And that’s what’s going on here. This is a really basic prayer, but it’s still challenging. All it has about it is a series of, ‘God, please do this for me.’ In other words this prayer is simply about teaching us to whom it is that we turn for everything. This prayer is about learning to become God-centred rather than self-centred. And then, as if to underline this we get a story about persistence. Now let me hark back to my dinosaur painting art skills, you see the sad news is that I have none. My ability to look at something with my eyes and transfer that to the movement of a pencil or paintbrush are lamentable. Why? Because I was not persistent. I wanted to draw dinosaurs, not simple cats. So when my Gran gave me a simple exercise; the artistic equivalent of the Lord’s prayer, I got bored and gave up. But had I stuck at it, I might have learned the skills at just the right time for my young brain to integrate them. I didn’t and consequently I have never been any good at it.
And I think that’s where this story of persistent prayer is coming from. Now it is really important that we don’t think of this as an allegory. God is not like a grumpy neighbour who will only respond to us if we keep nagging him. The real point of this story is that in the middle eastern culture it would be unthinkable for a neighbour to refuse to help someone in need. It simply didn’t happen. The idea in this story is that the neighbour finally responds because of his fear of what other people would say about him, not because someone is at the door nagging him. Jesus is essentially saying, ‘Look you would not ever contemplate refusing to listen to a neighbour in need, so how much more do you think God your Father listens to you?’
What Jesus is encouraging here is persistence because it is only by persisting in prayer that we will begin to be any good at it. So let me underline something. Prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian.
So how then do you pray? Well the Lord’s prayer is indeed a good place to start, but remember it really is a beginner’s prayer. You won’t spend a whole night praying on a mountainside to the words of ‘Our Father’. But it does demonstrate how we naturally all begin with prayer. ‘Lord, please can I have...’ Everyone knows how to ask God to do something but few of us have put in the persistence to learn how to listen when God asks us to do something, but listening is just as important as speaking. Imagine a married couple where they sit down together and both just start speaking at each other.. Prayer needs to be like a rhythm, and a rhythm is constructed of a beat and spaces between the beat. With no spaces it’s just noise.
So how can you learn to pray? I'd say look for the silent spaces and inhabit them, listening. You may wish to wait on God outside, as Jesus often did. I find, as you can probably guess, that this works especially well for me. In the non-technological sound of nature I am learning to discern the voice of God. Or you may wish to use a prayer book. I recommend Tess Ward’s ‘The Celtic Wheel of the Year’, if you want a book more centred on God’s revelation through the natural world.
Prayer is meant to develop into a place where it is less about asking for something and more about putting yourself in a place where God can interact with you, or as James Allison describes it, prayer is about ‘undergoing God’. That can be extraordinarily comforting or deeply unsettling, and at its best, prayer should be both of those.
What each of us desperately needs is to make time for prayer, at the very least every other day, and practice. It is only by doing it often and regularly that we begin to learn how to do it. It is only by being persistent that we start to hear the sound of the voice of God. It is only in the silence that we can begin to hear the Still Small Voice of God.
Now I am aware that there are all sorts of things I haven’t dealt with here, like what happens when we ask for something and God doesn’t answer. We all know how that feels but it’s a subject for another time. What I really want to hammer home today is that prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian, and the Lord’s prayer is just a starter prayer.
So you can either aim to learn to pray by persistent practice, or you can be stuck drawing the spiritual equivalents of cats made of ovals and circles because you didn’t put the time in to build the discipline. Prayer is an indispensable part of being a Christian. It’s for all of us, and I promise you this, it’s life changing.