Exodus 3:1-12; Matthew 6:7-15
Milwaukee Mennonite Church
September 30, 2018
I recently saw a video on Facebook that I thought would be a good way to introduce today’s reflection. However, between technical questions and the challenge of visibility on the screen, I thought a little readers’ theater would be better.
Mom: Last week I took my children to a restaurant. My six-year old son asked if he could say grace. As we bowed our heads, he said,
Son: God is good. God is great. Thank you for the food, and I would thank you even more if Mom gets us ice cream for dessert. Amen.
Mom: Along with the laughter from the other customers nearby, I heard a woman remark,
Woman: That’s what’s wrong with this country. Kids today don’t even know how to pray. Asking God for ice cream! Why, I never!
Mom: Hearing this my son burst into tears and asked me,
Son: Did I do something wrong? Is God mad at me?
Mom: As I held him and assured him that he had done a terrific job and God was certainly not mad at him, a man approached the table. He winked at my son and said,
Man: I happen to know that God thought that was a great prayer.
Man: Cross my heart. (Theatrical stage whisper indicating the woman) Too bad she never asks God for ice cream. A little ice cream is good for the soul sometimes.
Mom: Naturally, I bought my kids ice cream at the end of the meal. My son stared at his for a moment, and then did something I will remember the rest of my life. He picked up his sundae, walked over and placed it on front of the woman. With a big smile he told her,
Son: Here, this is for you. Ice cream is good for the soul sometimes; and my soul is good already.
So we smile a bit. Maybe you wouldn’t grump like the woman in the restaurant, but you’re thinking that there’s much more to prayer than asking God for ice cream. To be sure, but something about a child’s spontaneous innocence puts us on the right track. That he responded to the woman with his six-year-old act of kindness is the fruit of prayer. Focus statement: God is always present and active in our lives and in the world. Our practices of prayer are like tuning into a frequency that creates an awareness of God’s presence all around us.
If you listen to many prayers, even your own, they can sound as though we think God needs to be told what to do by us. Or that we need to talk God into doing what we want, and if enough of us do it often enough, long enough, hard enough, God has to do what we say. Think about it. Rather arrogant to presume that we should be telling God what to do.
Something is a little awkward about sharing prayer requests in a group and then praying about them, as though God wasn’t listening until we formally started to pray. Not that we shouldn’t be sharing our prayer joys and concerns with each other, but we can be aware that God is listening at the same time as the rest of us. In New Jersey I led a simple worship with lunch for what we might call street people. When prayer time came, I would say, “What do you want to share with us so God will overhear?” The wrap up prayer may not list every thanks or request but affirm with gratitude that God heard.
You may have heard the slogan “prayer changes things” as an encouragement to pray, and more recently you may have heard this appropriate corrective “prayer changes you.” Indeed, it is not so much that by praying we convince God to do what we want, but when we pray we get in touch with God’s perspective and God’s power. I have found this understanding of prayer from the Russian mystics Dimitri of Rostov (1651-1709) and Theophan the Recluse (1815-1894) to be both challenging and helpful.
To pray means to stand before God to gaze unswervingly at God and converse with God in reverent fear and hope. The principal thing is to stand with the mind in the heart before God, and to go on standing before God unceasingly day and night, until the end of life. [The Art of Prayer, 1966, Faber and Faber Ltd. London. pp. 50, 63]
So what do we expect when we pray about and for specific people and things that are important to us? If God already know both the concern and what to do about it, why pray?
In Luke 11:5-13, Jesus tells the story of a neighbor who receives a late night visitor and awakens his friend to ask for food to serve his guest. As an encouragement to pray with persistence, Jesus said that even though the neighbor will not get up to give him anything because they are friends, he will do it because of the friend’s persistence.
In Luke 18:1-8 Jesus taught about the need to pray always and not lose heart by telling the story of a widow who took her cause before an unjust judge, who finally renders justice for her, not because he feared God or respected anyone, but because she kept bothering him.
Some years ago Roberta Bondi, who taught at Candler School of Theology at Emory University, wrote a series of articles on intercessory prayer for The Christian Century. Her starting point was that in Jesus, God has become our friend, and friends talk over their concerns, good and bad, with each other. More than enlisting the friend to intervene, such conversations elicit the support and insight of the friend. She suggested when we know God as our friend, we can discuss anything with God, and God will support and guide us with loving wisdom. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t act on our behalf, but that God is constantly active for God’s friends, including us.
Luke’s Gospel gives more attention to Jesus’ practice and teaching of prayer than the other Gospels. In Luke, the Lord’s Prayer does not come in the context of Jesus’ sermon, but in response to the disciples’ request, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” (11:1) Sometime, like the woman’s response to the boy in the sketch, I think our concern about praying the right way is connected with thinking that technique will move God to the action we want. Yet, something about feeling like an inadequate beginner is healthy for our prayer life. Theophan the Recluse spoke eloquently of this.
Always pray as if beginning for the first time. When we do a thing for the first time, we come to it fresh and with a new-born enthusiasm. If, when starting to pray, you always approach it as though you had never yet prayed properly, and only now for the first time wished to do so, you will always pray with a fresh and lively zeal. And all will go well.
Jesus gave us some important cues in the Lord’s Prayer.
We’ve gotten so used to saying, “Our Father,” that it has become a tired cliché, and in our time a battleground over gender and hierarchy. But when Jesus said it, it was radical and new. The word is Abba. “Dad.” Familiar, intimate address. Almost unheard of in the Hebrew Scriptures, and even in Islam today, considered disrespectful if not blasphemous.
All of the pronouns are plural: our and us. While prayer is personal, it is also experienced in community. So we share concerns and joys together!
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” means that prayer is about our life here and now.
“Daily bread” keeps us focused in the immediacy of the present, not wallowing in the past or fearing the future, but trusting God day by day, moment by moment.
Forgive as we forgive means not only that we don’t have to be fully righteous to pray but live in grace, not only between us and God but with each other.
Several recent translations render “deliver us from temptation” as “do not bring us to the time or trial” or “testing.” This acknowledges that life will be challenging and God walks with us in our distresses.
And “deliver us from evil” translated as “rescue us from the evil one.” To be sure, the “evil one” might be the devil, but in the early centuries of the Church is was understood as evil people who oppress not just Christians but all who are weak, poor, vulnerable.
Yes, I have led prayer workshops and retreats, but my purpose with this worship reflection is not to teach you how to pray. Rather I hope to give you a refreshing and liberating look at your own prayers so you have an enthusiasm to begin again as if for the first time. Start with the Lord’s Prayer, but if you want to keep learning to pray I have a few suggestions.
Pray through the Psalms. These have been the prayers of God’s people for over 3000 years.
Look up the prayers in the New Testament Epistles and see how they will stretch your prayers into unexplored, exhilarating territory.
In 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Paul wrote to pray without ceasing. Many in the Eastern Orthodox Church have found that repeating the Jesus Prayer enables this. It is based on the prayer of the Publican in Luke 18:13. “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
We easily focus so much on what we say when we pray, that sitting silently with the mind and heart turned toward God is also profound prayer, sometimes called Centering Prayer.
I want to end by returning to our focus statement. God is always present and active in our lives and in the world. Our practices of prayer are like tuning into a frequency that creates an awareness of God’s presence all around us.