In the late 1980s I was a member of a clergy group who regularly went rock climbing together at Joshua Tree National Monument in the California desert. We undertook this as a kind of low-rent outward bound program for ourselves. Under the guidance of a camp director friend, we would travel to the desert, camp for two or three nights, and spend our days attempting easy, then moderate, then difficult rock climbs. At night, after dinner, we would reflect together about the experience.
Now I know this doesn’t sound like the most exciting possible way to spend a week in the autumn, but for me at least the rock-climbing was revelatory. The camaraderie we experienced was perhaps the most important gift of that time. And extended visits to the desert always help me better understand the desert ethos of Christianity. But what has stayed with me the most over the years was the spirituality of what we together learned there about ministry and leadership.
When you try to climb a rock you learn several important lessons. Here are two of them. Lesson one: there is always a way to climb even the most baffling and intractable rock. Lesson two: if you want to do that, you’ve got to deal with the actual rock you’ve got, not the rock you wish you had.
Anyone who has done any rock climbing (or, I suppose, engaged in a sport like sailing or golf that uses the natural world) could tell you the same thing. The truth is that, if you are attentive and patient enough, there is always a way to get up that rock. The corollary is that the rock itself has no intention of changing or adapting to your wishes. It is, as they say, what it is. The first step to achieving your goal is to accommodate yourself to things as they are. Mysteriously, once you let go of your fantasies of the ideal rock you’d like to climb and pay attention to the one you’re standing on, you can usually figure out a way to get to the top.
You can see why this kind of exercise would be helpful for clergy. When a priest is called to lead a congregation, the first thing she or he has to learn to do is appreciate is the actual reality of that congregation in its setting as it is. A lot of clergy make mistakes through a simple inability to read the parish and the community they serve. They bring ideas and programs that worked someplace else and try to establish them in their new place. They are stunned and chagrined when their new parishioners don’t behave like their former ones. Rock climbing helps one adapt to a real challenge in a real setting. You’ve got to size up the situation you’re in and operate effectively in it. That’s as true for climbing a rock as it is for running a church or taking on any kind of new work.
But you can also see how a group of prayerful people (or people who aspire to being prayerful people) would find rock climbing of some deep spiritual import, too. When people ask me what spirituality is all about, my first answer is always, “It’s about paying attention.” Learning to read a rock—a piece of God’s creation—is very much like the life of prayer itself. No matter how firmly we tend to believe the contrary, prayer is not about getting God to change God’s mind. Prayer is about accommodating ourselves to what God is doing in and through us and the world.
And this discussion of prayer and rock climbing helps me at least understand what Jesus is telling us in today’s Gospel, a section of Luke’s account of the “Sermon on the Plain” in which Jesus responds to his companions’ request that he teach them to pray. The prayer that Jesus teaches them is the prayer we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer,” and Luke’s version of it is very simple:
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.
Think, for a minute, about the culture in which Jesus and his companions lived and operated. The political culture was that of Imperial Rome, and in the official religion, Caesar was a god. So the Roman religion embodied a series of rituals that were designed, essentially, to placate Caesar. Prayer in that world was what we would call “supplication”: please, Caesar, don’t mess with me or my family or my crops. I’m your slave. I’ll honor you if you’ll just leave me alone.
The local religious culture was that of Israel’s Temple, and while the God worshiped in the Temple was more benevolent than Rome’s gods, prayer with that God was essentially a protracted series of negotiations. As the Psalms demonstrate, you could pray to Israel’s God with passion and authenticity, but at bottom the relationship was still somewhat distant and formalized.
Without wanting to sound presumptuous or blasphemous about it, we might say that the Lord’s Prayer is the spiritual equivalent of rock climbing. Unlike Roman religion, this is not abasement before a royal power figure. After all, the prayer begins with the word, “Father.” And unlike the Temple cult, Jesus’ prayer is not a negotiation. In some ways it forms us more than it instructs God, asking that God’s purposes be fulfilled, that we might have enough to meet our needs, and encouraging us to exemplify two of God’s greatest attributes, forgiveness and compassion.
When he has finished teaching his companions to pray, Jesus leaves them empowered to understand what God is up to in the world and their lives. God’s purposes are going forward. Help us love those purposes, not what we want for ourselves. Give us the bread we need to make it through this one day. Help us forgive others and ourselves. And save us from things that we cannot endure. This is a prayer about accommodating ourselves to what is. Once we have seen and attended to what is, we can turn our attention to what should and might be, always recognizing that just as the rock is what it is, so are God and God’s world.
Prayer is like rock climbing. God will help us make it up life’s rock. Our task is to attend to life and accept it on God’s terms. It’s a struggle when we want that rock to be something other than what it is. It’s a struggle when we want life to be something other than what it is. It goes a whole lot easier when we learn to want what God wants us to want.
Jesus ends his teaching on prayer in today’s Gospel with these words:
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then . . . know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
When Jesus calls God “Father” he is letting us know that prayer is essentially a relationship. You wouldn’t give your own kid a lizard when he asked for a sandwich, so you can expect that God will forgive and bless you when you bring your pains and sorrows and hopes and joys to the table. “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” No matter how recalcitrant it seems, that rock will always give you a way to climb it. No matter how scarce your life and surroundings might seem, there is bread at least for this one day. No matter how many mistakes you and those around you have made, all are forgiven. That’s the way God and God’s world finally are. So let’s learn to pray as Jesus prays. If we accommodate ourselves to God’s way of seeing things, life will be radiant, and there will always be more than enough. Amen.