A childhood friend tells the story of a Southern funeral for a noted public figure, with leadership from a number of churches in his hometown. The Baptist minister spoke extemporaneously and then introduced the neighboring priest, saying, “Now Father Brown will bring us one of his Episcopal printed prayers.”
Father Brown came to the lectern and said, “Our Father, who art in Heaven…”
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and the disciples asked him how to pray. He taught them a simple prayer, so profound that it has been repeated for nearly 2000 years, in countless translations and versions and languages. There are just a few ideas in it as we read it in Luke’s gospel:
• Name God as holy – “Father, hallowed be your name.”
• Affirm that God’s ideal world would be different – “Your kingdom come.”
• Ask for what you need to survive, one day at a time – “Give us each day our daily bread.”
• Ask forgiveness; you’ll need it, and you’ll need to give it to each other, too – “And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.”
• Ask God to look out for you – “And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Whether we learned to say it with debts or trespasses, the words Jesus taught that day transcend the division of prayer book users and off-the-cuff-prayers and all the groups in-between. My childhood friend grew up in the prayer book world, while I was Southern Baptist. In my world you prayed out loud in groups. I remember sitting next to awkward teenage boys in Sunday School, the ones who would never pray as we went around the circle, waiting for the hand squeeze that passed the prayer along to the next person. Our prayers were not eloquent, usually, but I know I had a sense that God was listening whether we spoke out loud or not, and I also had a sense that putting things into words for God, however we did it, mattered.
It’s hard to have a relationship when you don’t talk.
My Baptist grandmother talked to God all the time. She kept an extensive prayer list in a notebook. She prayed for people around the world, and I confess I thought her prayer life made her a very important person in God’s eyes. She was determinedly positive about the work her prayer would do. It’s possible she was giving God orders. When I asked her to pray for someone, she told me to get busy and pray for that person myself.
I still love to pray out loud, especially with others, but I also find I get deep when I write my prayers. I find it harder to lie to myself in print, I guess. And let’s be clear – I never imagine myself to be successful at fooling God. When I write my prayers, turning words and phrases around to see what they might really mean, I’m working on my relationship with God.
At the Oscars, Best Picture winner Ben Affleck said something that got him flack afterwards when he spoke of his marriage to the actress, Jennifer Garner: “I want to thank her for working on our marriage for ten Christmases. It’s good – it is work, but it’s the best kind of work and there’s no-one I’d rather work with.”
I totally get this. Any relationship of depth takes effort. Sometimes it feels like we don’t hear from God, and Jesus addresses this in the words that follow the Lord’s Prayer. Keep at it, he says, a theme we find elsewhere in Luke’s gospel. Persevere in your prayers. Prayer works on us, and it works on others, and it works on God.
It’s hard to have a relationship if you don’t work at it.
In the movie “Bruce Almighty,” Bruce, played by Jim Carrey, complains that God isn’t doing *His* Job. God offers Bruce the chance to take on some divine tasks. Prayer requests come to him as emails, and he is quickly overwhelmed, although the real God assures Bruce that he’s only responsible for the Buffalo, New York, area. Bruce decides to save time by saying “yes” to everyone. Chaos, unsurprisingly, ensues. God explains to Bruce that people don’t really know what they want, or the consequences that might come with the things they think they want.
I wish I could say that only applied to the middle school Youth Group members I took to see the movie. My own life tells that story over and over again. Yours? We pour out our desires to God without considering what the outcome might be. We may find ourselves praying again for the desires to be undone and for order to be restored. We ask God to pay attention to us and forget to pay attention to God.
The disciples were looking for guidance. They wanted to get it right. After all the time they had spent with Jesus, they had a sense that the old ways were not getting to the heart of the matter. Just before this passage, they’ve heard him urge Martha to sit down and stop fretting, and they’ve heard him compliment Mary for turning her attention entirely to him.
It’s hard to have a relationship if you don’t listen.
Tuesday mornings I go to a yoga class in Camp Hill that is both saving my life and killing me. I’m short and inflexible and not built for it, but it’s a physical activity on which I must focus so hard that it is very good for my overcrowded brain. To get the postures anything close to right, I must watch and listen intently. I’ll ask you not to picture me personally but to imagine yourselves in the great awkward stretch that is Downward Facing Dog, then walking your feet forward until they are just behind your hands.
I have more middle than is ideal for this activity, unlike my teacher, who has approximately zero body fat.
But I listen to her. She is saying, “Make each step a walking meditation.” There’s something about breathing on each step, focusing on each step, that makes me present in each of those moments in a deep way I’m not present to much else in life ever. It’s profoundly prayerful. I’ve started to trust that my feet will get there, that I will not topple over. I’ve begun to trust that in the rest of my life, I may just get there, too, wherever it is God wants me to be.
It’s hard to have a relationship if you aren’t present.
Of course, there are times we may not feel like being present to God. There are times when it is hard to pray, because we are angry with God or just too sad. When a child dies or a completely inexplicable accident occurs, when our hearts are broken or our minds disarranged, we may not want to talk to God at all. Maybe the world has taught us that God is a sort of divine Santa Claus who hands out rewards to the pious and punishes the impious, those definitions being based on the practices of the ones telling us these untruths in the first place. It’s an absolutely useless picture of God when the real troubles come.
Early in my ministry, fighting the cross-town traffic in my car, I prayed. “Oh God, help me to know what to do and what to say. Help me to know how to be. Help me to bring you into the room.” I had a keen sense of my lack of experience and my need for help in that moment. “Help me, God, to be there for Sarah.”
Sarah was an 8th grader in my Youth Group. That morning, her mother returned from her overnight job in a nursing home to find Sarah’s dad lying dead in their bed. He was 48.
Just two nights before at Youth Group, we had watched Star Wars. We talked at length about how we find strength to do things that we cannot do by ourselves. We reflected on that other Luke, Luke Skywalker, and the moment when he pushed the targeting computer aside and let the Force move through him. How could Sarah find the strength to deal with the shocking death of her father, a man who wouldn’t tell his family that he was ill? How could Sarah find strength to accept her own strange feelings of relief, because this father was a difficult figure in her life?
We stood in the narrow hallway of her grandmother’s crowded house, trying to find a moment’s privacy. “Trust the Force, Sarah. Be with her, Force of Love.”
It’s hard to have a relationship if you don’t trust.
Trust and be present. Talk and listen. Work at it.
These are words of wisdom for our relationships with one another. These are words of wisdom for our relationship with God.
When you pray, remember how Jesus talked about the Heavenly Parent who wants what is best for us. Remember the simple prayer he taught us.
“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.”
Trust. Be present. Talk. Listen. Keep working at it.
In the name of the Creator, the Christ and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(A sermon for the 10th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, using Luke 11:1-13.)