July 25: Learning to Pray

The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Ninth Sunday after Pentecost

How did you learn to pray? Did someone teach you? After the early service today, a priest visiting with us told me he “caught” how to pray by watching and overhearing both of his grandmothers, grateful they embraced him into their prayer times.

Prayer can be as simple as a, “Wow!” mindlessly uttered in awe of a sunset, seeing sunlight shimmering on lake waters, the mystery of a flower’s growth, a quiet snowfall. Even an agnostic or atheist will sometimes blurt out, “Lord, help me,” not realizing that’s a prayer. One afternoon, clouds shrouded a mountain. Quickly they disappeared to reveal snow-filled peaks glistening in the sun. I was filled with awe – looking through a sacred window of sheer beauty and mystery to glimpse God’s presence and glory.

I learned more formal prayer from my dad. In the evenings we had family devotions. We took turns praying. My simple prayer always sounded a lot like my Dad’s, because I listened to his prayer as my model. Some learn to pray because at your parent’s table grace was said before each meal. Maybe when you attended as a child, you watched people pray. Some seemed interested and involved in prayer. Others looked bored. People prayed often and long, so it must be important. Do you ever long for a deeper connection with the divine? Prayer is one way we can do that.

One morning Jesus’ disciples overhear John’s disciples talking over coffee at Jerusalem Starbuck’s, praising John’s recent prayer workshop for them. “Why hasn’t Jesus taught us?” his disciples ask each other, as they sip cappuccinos and lattes. Remember John was a simple, plain wilderness guy, and Jesus liked parties and good times.

They return to “a certain place,” to find Jesus praying. Waiting patiently until he finishes, they ask “Lord, teach us to pray, like John taught his disciples.” Why would they need lessons? – As Jews they pray at least three times a day. Listening to Jesus’ prayers, they notice something in theirs must be missing. He prays alone, often, and not from a prayer book. Hence, we have been given what is called “The Lord’s Prayer.”

In an Episcopal Church, we say the Lord’s Prayer every time we worship – it’s that important to us. Many memorize it by saying it so often. That’s good, but that also can be a problem. The prayer becomes so familiar, we mindlessly rip through it, without taking time to listen, savor and absorb what we pray.

People may not know a lot about Christianity, but most are familiar enough with the words of the Lord’s Prayer to recognize it, and mumble along. The content of this prayer is vital to our understanding of God’s nature and will, and ours. Jesus teaches: address God, “Our Father” not “My Father.” We don’t pray alone. We are in God’s presence as we say, “Our Father, here with everyone – even praying for those who don’t pray. “Our” includes our enemies, those who bore and annoy us, and those we can’t stand. That’s who gets in on our prayers. Why? Prayer begins not with us, but with all God’s children in mind, their needs and the needs of the world. God opens arms for all to have an intimate relationship with Him. And that relationship is one of love, pulling back the veil hiding the Almighty, so we can know the One we address is even better than a loving parent, Abba, Father of all, not just some. No one need fear such a loving parent. Take God seriously, yes – fear and tremble, no. We draw into our awareness who God is before we start chattering about our needs. Prayer, as one writer says, “bends our wants toward what God wants.”[1] Prayer is transformational, rather than a wish list we put into God.

We do ask God to meet certain needs. Jesus gives priorities that bend us toward God. Ask for the heavenly reign to come more fully into our thoughts and actions, making us part of the divine reign coming among us. Think about what that would look like for you, for us at St. Paul’s – how different our world would be; how we might live differently. We naturally won’t will that – so we ask God to help us bend our wills in His direction so we can embody heaven among us.

That intimate indwelling of God in us is the daily bread for which we ask. We need more than pan pizza or American Idol to nourish us through this life. We need sins forgiven, so we can become forgiving to all, even if those we forgive never ask, believe they need it, or turn their backs if we offer. So when you offer love or forgiveness you could meet rejection – happened for Jesus. Ask God to save you from the temptation to become bitter, angry, or give up. Remember that God faithfully holds us all in hope and love. Bending toward God’s will, we love ask to love all regardless. In so doing, our inward state will begin to match the prayer we pray. God makes us a new creation.

For God’s sake, don’t test the good Lord to see if your prayers get answered. Be as persistent as one who knocks on a friend’s door at night, asking for bread because a late night guest has just arrived. Keep knocking, believing God does answer. A human will give you bread to stop the noise and get you to go away. God waits up all night for us, to give us what we need, not necessarily what we want and ask. Don’t think prayer works because we get something we ask for. When we don’t, prayer still is working. Our heavenly parent knows what is good for us. Keep after God, believing and trusting God has your ultimate best interest in mind. You can be disappointed, but also be open to look for what God gives. Listen – listen deeply and trust that one day you’ll understand why sometimes we get the divine cold shoulder, or a disappointing, “No.” Trust our Abba. All is well and is being made well – we might not see how yet.

In some ways prayer is so natural, we don’t need to be taught. In other ways, in a world that teaches us our work or social status defines us, all we need to buy to feel better about ourselves, and what is of value, prayer is so unnatural. However you approach prayer – just do it, whether it’s the Lord’s Prayer, a blessing at the meal, or a childhood memorized prayer. Prayer is our lifeline to God’s love and life. Persistently picture the One to whom you speak, holding you in a gaze of divine love. My friends, that deeper connection happens as we gaze back at such a look of love.

[1] William Willimon and Stanley Hauerwas, in Lord Teach Us, January, 1996.


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