First preached as a sermon at Guildford Cathedral on Sunday 24th July 2016.
‘Lord, teach us to pray…’ Luke 11.1
+ In nomine Patris…
Prayer is not unique to Christianity. It is not even unique to the teaching of Jesus. John the Baptist was already teaching about prayer, and the Old Testament is full of it: after all, Jesus’ disciples asked, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples’.
Prayer is a basic human desire and practice, deeper than religion, which takes many and various forms. Prayer and versions of it are visible in contemporary society.
For example, it is interesting to see how the practice of Mindfulness has taken off in the last couple of years. It seems so very similar to Christian prayer, especially of the contemplative, meditative type. Mindfulness looks like prayer very well branded! And it is very popular.
A similar bubbling up of a form of prayer is also to be seen in public vigils and the lighting of candles in corporate acts of grief, as we have seen all too vividly in Paris, Nice and Munich.
We also see the discipline of frequency and posture of prayer offered by Muslims in submission to God.
Prayer is one of those things that is essential to the Christian life, yet for so many Christians, at least in the West, is problematic. It often seems so unspecific and ethereal, perhaps not rewarding enough or associated with clunky phrases or a burden. We become suspicious of prayer.
Perhaps this is part of the appeal of Mindfulness. It uses many the techniques common to religious prayer but doesn’t seem “religious”. However whilst commendably paying attention to the body and posture it also totally fits the Enlightenment notion, I think therefore I am. It is the modern fallacy: I can conquer things with my own mind and from my own resources. It is in this sense that it is not Christian prayer. Let me be clear that Mindfulness is not bad, but Mindfulness is therapeutic and makes us dependent on self-will, whilst prayer takes us out to seek the will of God.
Another suspicion about prayer is that it can seem manipulative: we hear it in phrases such as, ‘I have prayed about this and decided such and such’ which leaves little scope for dissent or challenge. And how can it possibly work for us to ask for something in prayer?
So it’s little wonder we ask again, with Jesus’ first disciples, ‘Lord, teach us to pray…’
So prayer may not be unique to Christianity, but prayer as offered by Christians is distinctive and particular. When we ask ‘Lord, teach us to pray’ we are asking that the human urge to pray effects, affects and reflects our relationship with our heavenly Father.
This is what takes us out of ourselves. Christian prayer begins in the simplicity of a relationship with God that can be understood in a generative, intimate way: ‘Abba, Father’. Not my Father, but Our Father.
This prayer takes us to the heart of the mission of Jesus Christ which is incorporation, being grafted, into the very life of God. It is what Eastern Christians term theosis or divinisation. That’s not divination, the reading of signs and omens, but divinisation which is growth into the image and likeness of God; God who gives us the capacity to become who God made us to be.
Prayer is how we seek out the wellsprings of God’s sustaining life and power. Just to say ‘Our Father’ places us into a relationship with the source and wellspring of life, and to drink from that life. This is not formulaic; it is not divination, where spells and ceremonies give access to some divine knowledge; it is not tranquil introspection but rather it is more like divining, the action of seeking springs of water that already exist.
Likewise prayer should never be an echo chamber of our own prejudices, manipulation or self-justification; but is a place where we lay bare before God the very depths of our hearts. We cannot do that alone. This is why St Paul speaks of the Spirit praying deep within us, ‘with sighs too deep for words’.
To use a now outdated image we might think of a radio set that needs to be tuned in to receive a signal. God is the transmitter and the transmission. The signal, God, transmits all the time, and our place in prayer is to tune in to receive that signal.
‘Lord, teach us to pray’ was the disciples’ request and is ours in our own day. And what Jesus offers is a pattern of prayer, and an actual formulation of prayer, against which all our prayer is measured and through which all our prayer flows.
In the Lord’s Prayer Jesus invites us into the relationship that he has with the Father so we say with him, and with one another, ‘Our Father’.
There are many books describing and explaining the Lord’s Prayer. They trace its Jewish roots, its style and shape and vocabulary. Yet, what we do day by day and Sunday by Sunday is to pray it and to breathe it such that it shapes who we are as persons in relationship with God in Jesus’ Name.
We are then drawn in to God’s inner life, such that we can make our requests known to God, so that we can be persistent in prayer, and accept that prayer will change us more than we can ever think we have changed God’s mind.
The ancient document known as the Didache, or the ‘Teaching of the Twelve’, says that we should pray the Lord’s Prayer three times a day (VIII.3). If your life of prayer seems barren, unrewarding or confusing, that would be a very good place to start.
The techniques of Mindfulness - attending to your posture and breathing - are a good way in, but then to pray meditatively and reflectively the words that Jesus taught us. In doing so you place yourself in God’s presence as a precious child of God; you hallow God’s holy Name; you yearn for his kingdom and his power to sustain you day by day. You ask to be shaped and schooled in the ways of forgiveness and to be spared the ordeal of your own making and vanity.
Little wonder then that this prayer, which we delight in calling the Lord’s Prayer, is at the heart of the Christian life and our celebration of the Eucharist and receiving our daily bread: it is the source and summit of Christian prayer; prayer to Our Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit.
‘Lord, teach us to pray’.
© Andrew Bishop, 2016