A Sermon for Sunday, July 28, 2019. Emory Presbyterian Church. Luke 11:1-13.
Prayer. It’s a loaded word.
Over the course of 20 + years doing ministry, I’ve asked on numerous occasions for someone to pray as we gathered together for a meal, meeting, fellowship activity or mission project.
And more often than not—whether it’s group of youth or adults or a mix of both—there is an awkward silence. Faces form anxious and fearful expressions. Heads turn away to avoid eye contact. Palms become sweaty. Shoes tap the floor nervously.
There are, though, those rare instances when someone will playfully touch the side of the nose—a well-known signal to everyone else in the circle that they too must quickly repeat the action so as not to be the last one who has to be “it”—the dreaded pray-er. And then the one who loses this silly game looks around in terror as if they’re about to receive the worst punishment of their life.
Prayer is, of course, not a punishment, but an ancient and sacred religious practice. Prayer is a vital part of faith that we’ve taught to do since we are able to walk and talk:
God is great. God is good. Let us thank God for our food.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. May God guard me through the night, and wake me with the morning light.
God grant me the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
Courage to change the things I can;
And wisdom to know the difference.
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith;
Where there is despair, hope;
Where there is darkness, light;
Where there is sadness, joy.
Prayer is undoubtedly a huge part of life and certainly an integral component of any worship service. And yet, many Christians seem to have difficulty praying.
Somehow, church goers have built up the notion of publicly praying so much in their heads—created such high expectations that the words have to be perfectly delivered to receive glowing approval from an audience of peers and strangers or even God—they’ve scared themselves into saying nothing and deferring to the pastors or “church professionals.”
Now, praying silently is the obvious alternative to praying out loud. But believers have idealized that format as well. They’ve convinced themselves that silent prayer is best achieved in total silence, internally and externally, for a long period of time, which is a rare feat to accomplish. I’ve known more than few church goers who’ve confessed that they are terrible at silent prayer because they’re usually distracted by other thoughts: the grocery list, weekend plans, work deadlines, figuring out a busy schedule for working parents and actively involved kids.
Clearly, prayer has been made more complicated and stressful than it needs to be. But God never requires that our words be of the same caliber as Shakespeare or Margaret Atwood so as to wow the crowd with the single most poignant monologue in the history of theater. Nor does God demand that we be an experienced Benedictine monk who can instantly drown out the run-of-the-mill to-do list and maintain an impeccable focus on their prayer requests to the Holy. Prayer is not about perfection or wish fulfillment or being deserving of a response based on a list of good acts and the level of one’s faith. In her bestselling book on prayer, author Anne Lamott says that prayer is about being real and honest with ourselves and God:
Prayer, in some unique way, means we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak. …Prayer can be motion and stillness and energy—all at the same time. It begins with stopping in our tracks, or with our backs against the wall, or when we are going under the waves or when we are just sick and tired of being physically sick and tired that we surrender, or at least we finally stop running away and at long last walk or lurch or crawl toward something. … Prayer is taking a chance that against all odds and past history, we are loved and chosen, and do not have to get it together before we show up. … God can handle honesty, and prayer begins an honest conversation. My belief is that when you’re telling the truth, you’re close to God. … Prayer is our sometimes real selves trying to communicate with the Real, with Truth, with the light. It is us reaching out to be heard, hoping to be found by a light and warmth in the world, instead of darkness and cold. 
The disciples, Jewish men who were likely well versed in the prayer traditions of their ancestors, possibly worried whether their practice of payer was up to snuff. They are apparently concerned that they’re prayers are not as good as those who hung out with John the Baptist, the wilderness traveling preacher and prophet.
And Jesus instructs them to say a simple prayer that reveals the down-to-earth reality of who God is and what God is doing—a prayer that Christians throughout the centuries have come to know as The Lord’s Prayer. If all other words fail us when we pray, we only need to remember the prayer Jesus taught to his followers:
Our Father who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us,
and lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
and the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Of all the prayers we say, this one is probably the most well-known because we’ve said it every Sunday for the majority of our lives. We’ve recited The Lord’s Prayerso frequently that I suspect we forget the meaning of the words at times.
In the book Made for Goodness, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu shares a confession from his daughter Mpho, an Episcopal priest, regarding her family’s evening prayer gatherings that begin with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Tutu says that Mpho once told him:
“On some nights, she just rattles her way through the (Lord’s) prayer—perhaps in a way, akin to people reciting the pledge of allegiance—but every so often, a word or a phrase or a portion of the prayer will ‘arrest’ her attention: ‘Forgive us…as we forgive.’ Do I really want to be the one who sets the standard for forgiveness?’ she muses. ‘And what will happen if I am forgiven only as far as my own forgiveness reaches? If that is true, then what about that incident with my spouse for which I have not yet forgiven them? What will become of me and the many thoughts, words, and deed for which I need forgiveness? Will I be forgiven for yelling at the kids? Will I be forgiven for thinking snide thoughts about the receptionist?”
The Lord’s Prayer is the template for how we are to pray and be in relationship and engage in conversation with the God who is actively present in our lives.
Renown author and Presbyterian minister Frederick Buechner once wrote this about The Lord’s Prayer:
“We are asking God to be God. We are asking God to do not what we want but what God wants. We are asking God to make manifest the holiness that is now most hidden…To speak those words is to invite the tiger out of the cage, to unleash a power that makes atomic power look like a warm breeze.”
By reciting The Lord’s Prayer, we are acknowledging that God’s desire for a kingdom where all are fed, forgiven and freed through the glorious and powerful acts of God’s grace is being actualized—here and now. We are accepting an invitation to join in God’s transformative and redemptive work in the world, and to turn away from the temptation to do otherwise. We are giving allegiance to God and God’s ways, which greatly surpass the ways of earthly rulers.
We are being shaped in our understanding of God and drawn into prayerful dialogue with the Divine—conversations of praise, thanksgiving, discernment, questioning, arguing, and lamenting. We are embodying the words of The Lord’s Prayer in our daily decisions and encounters, seeking ways to give and forgive and humbly confess our wrongs as Christ teaches us to do. We are committing to show love to all who need it and shining light for all who wander in the darkness.
Prayer is never about receiving instantaneous answers or shiny miracles. But it is always about asking for God’s love and light to be seen and known and felt by others during the hardest of moments; and also opening our hearts to receive that same love and light when we need it the most. When we are vulnerable and broken.
As the character of God, appearing in the form of a waiter at a hamburger joint, tells a family in the comedy movie, Evan Almighty:
If someone prays for patience, you think God gives them patience? Or does God give them the opportunity to be patient? If he prayed for courage, does God give him courage, or does God give him opportunities to be courageous? If someone prayed for the family to be closer, do you think God zaps them with warm fuzzy feelings, or does God give them opportunities to love each other?
The opportunities are all around us.
Thy kingdom come
Thy will be done
So let us seize them.
On earth as it is in heaven.
Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott, 2012
Made For Goodness, Desmond Tutu and Mpho Tutu, 2010