Learning to Pray

NamasteSEVENTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-19
Luke 11:1-13

Prayer of the Day: Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Lord, teach us to pray…” That is the simple request Jesus’ disciples made of him. Praying rightly does not come naturally. It must be learned. Based on much of what passes for prayer these days, I am not convinced the church has done a particularly good job of teaching or that we children of the church have learned our lessons well. Nowhere in the Lord’s Prayer are we instructed to pray for the self-interested welfare of our own particular nation state. Nowhere are we instructed to pray for victory in war. Nowhere are we instructed to seek special miracles of healing for ourselves or loved ones, professional success or financial security. Prayer is not a means of gaining God’s favor, support or intervention to further our own personal interests. That, however, is the focus of many prayers I have heard over the years.

How different is the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray! Jesus’ prayer begins not with his own needs, but with a plea that God’s name be regarded as holy. Prayer is not all about us, our needs, our hopes, our desires and longings. It is about glorifying God. Many of the Psalms illustrate that very point. including, for example, Psalm 150. In his/her prayer, the psalmist asks nothing of God, seeks nothing from God and does not attempt to influence God in any way. The psalm is pure praise to God from beginning to end. What we are commanded to pray for, above all else, is the coming of God’s reign on earth. That is not to say the coming of God’s reign depends on our prayer. As Martin Luther rightly points out, “God’s kingdom comes without our prayer, but we pray that it may come among us.” We are that for which we yearn. We are shaped by what we desire, what we long for and that for which we hope. If the primary focus of our prayer is something less than the reign of God, then we become less than all God would have us be.

So what hopes and longings are shaping our souls? Our culture of late stage capitalism instills in us a thirst for acquisition and consumption. The American Dream is often cast in terms of home ownership, financial security and increasing wealth. By contrast, when it comes to material things, Jesus teaches us to pray for no more than today’s sustenance, leaving tomorrow to be concerned for itself. This “daily bread” is all we need and all we should be seeking from God. The so-called “prosperity preachers” have got it wrong.

Finally, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that God’s will be done-not our own agendas for personal well-being. In praying for God’s will to be done, I might be praying for poverty, persecution or even death. The kingdom is revealed through the suffering witness of a church that lives as though the kingdom were fully present in a world that does not yet recognize or accept it. It is only with this understanding that we can pray rightly to be delivered from evil and temptation. Deliverance from evil is not protection from suffering, but faith that endures suffering without succumbing to unbelief and despair. This petition is essential precisely because loyalty to the reign of God brings a disciple into conflict with the values and priorities of the dominant culture. The “evil” to be avoided is not suffering or persecution, but the danger of yielding to the ways of the world under the threat of these necessary consequences of faithfulness.

Ultimately, prayer is less about altering the external environment to our own liking than being altered in heart and mind so that we learn to yearn for God’s kingdom, seek God’s will and hallow God’s name through faithful discipleship.

Soren Kierkegaard, the great Danish philosopher and theologian of the 19thCentury, was well schooled in the art of faithful prayer. Here is one of his.

Move in Infinite Love

You who are unchangeable, whom nothing changes! You who are unchangeable in love, precisely for our welfare, not submitting to any change: may we too will our welfare, submitting ourselves to the discipline of Your unchangeableness, so that we may in unconditional obedience find our rest and remain at rest in Your unchangeableness. You are not like us; if we are to preserve only some degree of constancy, we must not permit ourselves too much to be moved, nor by too many things. You on the contrary are moved, and moved in infinite love, by all things. Even that which we humans beings call an insignificant trifle, and pass by unmoved, the need of a sparrow, even this moved You; and what we so often scarcely notice, a human sigh, this moves You, You who are unchangeable! You who in infinite love do submit to be moved, may this our prayer also move You to add Your blessing, in order that there may be brought about such a change in us who pray as to bring us into conformity with Your unchangeable will, You who are unchangeable!

Source: Christian Classics, c. The Words Group, 700 Sleater-Kinney Road, Suite 303-B, Lacey, Washington 98503.  Soren Kierkegaard was born in Copenhagen in the early nineteenth century. He graduated from the University of Copenhagen and spent two years in Germany before returning to Copenhagen, where he would spend the rest of his life. Kierkegaard’s life and works presented a serious challenge to the institutional church of his day, which he felt had replaced faithful discipleship with mere cultural and ethical convention. Rightly or wrongly, he is regarded as the father of modern existentialism and was one of the first thinkers to take a modern, analytical and psychological approach to religion. You can find out more about Soren Kierkegaard at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

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