“Every month, Gordon Mower visits Barry Young, his spiritual director. Sitting in Mr. Young’s living room in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, they discuss Mr. Mower’s spirit. Sometimes they talk about his fear of rejection, other times his fear of death. They almost always talk about prayer. Then Mr. Mower pays Mr. Young $35.”
That is the way the article right in the middle of the front page, above the fold, of the Wall Street Journal began this past Monday. It went on to describe what the Journal characterized as a growing business, “spiritual personal trainers.” Whatever else all this means, it means that people are growing increasingly aware of their need for prayer and are willing to try to do something about it.
The request from the followers of Jesus in our Gospel this morning—”Lord, teach us to pray”—all of a sudden does not sound so ancient, so removed from our everyday lives. The model Jesus provides is, of course, what has been known for centuries as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
From that era in the history of the church, even before the New Testament was fully assembled as you and I know it, this prayer was regarded by the early church as the example of prayer for all Christians. The Didache, an early second century manual for new Christians, instructed that this prayer be said three times daily. It is included in virtually all the earliest forms of the Eucharist. And many of the early Fathers used it as an outline for teaching the fundamentals of the faith to convert non-believers and to instruct converts.
But it was Hugh Latimer, the Bishop of Worster who was burned at the stake in the middle of Oxford by Queen Mary, who also said of the Lord’s Prayer: “…it is better once said deliberately with understanding, than a thousand times without understanding; which is in very deed but vain babbling.”
Assuming today there is a growing willingness to admit our need for prayer and, even for some to pay others to teach them to pray, and accepting the universal and insistent wisdom of the saints who have gone before us for the past two millennia that the Lord’s prayer, when prayed with understanding, will indeed teach us to pray, let us reconsider the model Jesus gave in response to that request, which is our request, too: “Lord, teach us to pray.”
I will concentrate on just three traits of prayer as Jesus modeled how to pray.
“Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” is the shocking opening. Actually, Jesus used the word Abba, for father, a form of intimacy so shocking the writer of Luke left it in the original Aramaic. It is the same form a child would use to call her daddy.
Juxtaposed with the word Abba is a recognition that God is also totally Other; “in heaven,” is God’s rightful place; “hallowed” holy is God’s name.
In four words, “Our Father in heaven,” Jesus expands our whole understanding of God and our access to God. God is intimate and distant, knowable and unknowable, familiar and exotic, engaged in this world and our personal lives and available to all at the same time.
Most religions, and Christianity too much of the time, expect to experience God in one of those extremes. But Jesus teaches us, even in the way we address God, to expect to experience God at the furthermost extremes of all our experiences; God is more intimate, knowable, engaged than we can fully grasp and God is, simultaneously, more distant, unknowable, exotic than we even know how to describe.
When we pray, right from the very beginning, we should expect to experience the closeness and the otherness of God simultaneously. If we only know God as other or as intimate, we have missed the experience of God Jesus teaches us to expect when he instructs, “Begin your praying this way: ’Our Father in heaven.’”
The first petition is for God’s reign to come to earth, but it is the second petition to which I draw your attention this morning, “Give us our daily bread.” Jesus now instructs us to ask daily for all that will sustain us. Some translations take Luke’s meaning to be the next day’s bread, but the frequency of our need is everyday of our lives. I think we can safely assume the reason for renewing daily our request to God is not for God’s benefit but for ours. It is so easy to disconnect from God and to forget our dependence on God. We, not God, are the ones who need the regular reminder that renews our relationship with God at the most elemental, routine needs; “Give us our daily bread.”
After the next petition for forgiveness of our sins in the same way we have forgiven others, Luke and Matthew make the same request, “save us from the time of trial” to which Matthew adds, “and deliver us from evil.”
Within the last three days we have been reminded that evil stalks the earth in many forms, that it can be just beneath the surface of our routine and placid lives. As we remember today the sacrifice of U.S. Capitol Police Special Agent John Gibson and Capitol Police Officer Jacob Chestnut and their families, we have learned again what we want to forget; evil is never far away. When we pray, “Deliver us from evil,” that is a specific request for a definite need we all have every day of our lives. And then when we pray, “save us from the time of trial,” we acknowledge that we, too, are always close to temptation, the temptation to be cruel or judgmental or, equally regrettable according to our Lord’s teaching, the temptation to be oblivious to the needs of others. Evil, our Lord reminds us in his model prayer, is never very far away in the minds and hearts of others and in ourselves.
Donald Coggan, that gentle spirit, former Archbishop of Canterbury and friend of this Cathedral Close, has given a simple summary of the Lord’s prayer; perhaps the alliteration will make it memorable. Archbishop Coggan says the precis of the Lord’s prayer, and therefore the model for our daily prayers, is: provision, pardon and protection. Daily we pray for our most basic needs; daily we pray to be forgiven for our sins of commission and omission; daily we pray for protection from evil, the evil of others and even our own evil. The One to whom we pray is the One to whom our Lord instructs us to address, “Our Father in heaven.”
Provision, pardon, protection—our essential, daily needs. “Lord, teach us to pray.”