“Teach us to Pray”
Jesus was praying in a certain place, and I suppose his disciples were watching. When he finished his quiet time with God, one of them said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” And Jesus did teach them.
I wonder who taught you to pray. Likely it wasn’t just one person. Maybe a parent taught you to say a prayer before sharing a meal. Maybe a Sunday School teacher got you to memorize the Lord’s Prayer when you were young. Perhaps a camp counsellor or VBS leader invited you to share in a popcorn prayer or a squeeze prayer where everyone adds their own words of thanks or their needs or concerns about the world. Maybe someone once gave you a prayer book with a prayer you could read for each day of the week or for morning and evening.
Or maybe you learned to pray by listening to others doing it, slowly picking up the pattern and potential vocabulary: “Dear God… thank you Lord… I’m sorry for… Please help… surround us with your love… pour out your blessing… in Jesus’ name I pray…” And then you tentatively began to open your mouth and express yourself to God in words through prayer.
When people ask me about how to pray, I sometimes give them the acronym ACTS (A is for Adoration, C is for Confession, T is for Thanksgiving, and S is for Supplication). It’s a helpful tool to give some structure to our prayers so that they don’t become just a laundry list of needs or desires we want God to fulfill.
A morning prayer might go something like this, following the pattern of Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication:
God, you are amazing! You made this new day and gave me the gift of life to enjoy it. Yesterday, I didn’t make the most of that gift. I grumbled about the weather and felt resentful about the work I had to do. Thanks for the gift of this day, whether it is filled with sunshine or rain. Thanks for the energy I have to get up this morning, and the gifts you have given me for sharing your love today. Help me if I start to feel tired or grumpy today. And show your love to my friend that I know is having a hard time right now. Amen.
Although Jesus didn’t suggest an acronym, he did suggest a particular prayer. Use these words, he said to his disciples:
“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.”
This prayer, that eventually becomes known as the “Lord’s Prayer” or the “Our Father” is a little shorter in Luke’s Gospel than in Matthew’s version, but the essentials are the same. The prayer includes adoration of God, confession of sin, and supplication for help and strength through the challenges of life. Perhaps the thanksgiving follows later, after God has provided for our needs and protected us from harm.
Christians around the world and across many different traditions continue to say the Lord’s Prayer together in our worship, in our personal prayers, and in moments of crisis when need to pray and don’t know what to say. We may use the exact words from one of the Gospel texts, a translation passed down to us by our church community, or a contemporary paraphrase that expresses the same ideas in language that makes sense to us. It isn’t the exact words that matter, but the intention in our hearts as we approach God with our needs and concerns, and listen for God’s guiding day-by-day.
This week as I was thinking about the Gospel text and preparing for this service, I was spending most of the week up at Camp Christopher serving as the chaplain. There were about 25 campers between the ages of 10 and 13, and about a dozen staff in their teens and early twenties. There were kids there with experiences of church, and kids who knew very little about God, church, the Bible, or prayer. And I had the privilege and responsibility of sharing with them about the love of God in Jesus Christ.
I didn’t specifically set out to teach them to pray, but as the week went on, I realized that would be a part of the learning too. We prayed in the morning and we prayed at night. We prayed at the end of our Faith Formation times, after exploring a Bible story together. And mostly, I or one of the staff spoke the words of those little prayers.
But during our closing worship time together, I invited the campers to think back over their time at camp and identify something for which they were grateful. We sat in silence while they pondered, and then I invited them to pray together by naming those things, people, and experiences out loud.
After a little more silence, one of the staff said, “Sunshine,” and then there was a pause, and a camper said, “Food.” Soon after someone chimed in with the name of a new friend, then someone thanked God for the beach. Before long, the voices around the circle were speaking over one another, people were naming multiple things, and not in quiet whispers but with joyful raised voices.
It was a cacophony of sounds that made me think of the Spirit’s power on Pentecost, and I stood there quietly and soaked in the raucous sound of our collective prayers. When the group finally fell silent, I said, “Did you hear that, God? We’re really, really thankful! Thank you for being with us and blessing us in so many ways this week.”
I didn’t teach the campers any specific memorized prayers. Although they’ll probably remember the sung graces they learned to sing before meals, and perhaps some of the prayer songs that we used in our times of worship. But what I hope I did begin to teach them was something more foundational about prayer.
I hope that they watched me and other leaders praying and began to think “I’d like to talk to God like that too.” I hope that they picked up on my faith that God is real, and God is present, and God loves even them. I hope that they started to think that maybe God could be listening to them too, and that God might respond to their needs when they ask.
Did you notice that after Jesus gave his disciples a particular prayer to say, he went on to teach them quite a bit more about prayer? It wasn’t so much about HOW they should pray, as if there were only one right way to do it. But he wanted them to trust God and not give up on talking to God.
Jesus told a parable about someone who needs bread in the middle of the night to feed some visitors. He knocks on his friend’s door and asks to borrow some food. Jesus says that even if the friend would not normally want to get up in the middle of the night to help, if you are persistent, he’ll be sure to do what you ask.
Now, I don’t think that Jesus meant that we should keep nagging God for what we want until God relents and gives us whatever we please. But sometimes we do need persistence in our prayers when we don’t immediately get an answer, when our struggles don’t magically disappear, or when it takes a while for us to discern what God is leading us to do next.
One commentator points out that there wouldn’t be many people who would put up with someone waking them up in the middle of the night to borrow food for some visitors. Perhaps the only person who would respond kindly to such a request would be someone very close to you – a parent, a child, or a very faithful friend. Others would turn you away if your request seemed frivolous or just very poorly timed. But God is like that closest relationship of love and protection – the one Jesus called “Daddy” who would open the door for you.
Jesus continues to teach about prayer, saying: “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”
If your child asks for a fish, you don’t give her a snake. If your child asks for an egg, you don’t give him a scorpion. This is how good parents treat their children, and God is the best parent of all.
Of course, if we do give God a list of all our personal wants and desires, there’s no guarantee that God will grant them. Prayer is not like ordering supplies from Amazon, where we expect our parcels to arrive promptly with exactly the item we requested.
But Jesus promises us something better than anything we might think of to ask for. Jesus promises that we will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit when we ask. We will receive the assurance that God is with us, and in us, and between us by the Holy Spirit that we have received at our Baptism. And that Spirit will be our comfort through difficulties, our hope in times of sadness, our power in times of struggle, our guide when we do not know what to do, and our inspiration when we are longing to follow Jesus through lives of love and service.
Let’s keep praying, friends, as Jesus taught us to do. Let’s keep trusting God’s promise to fill us with the Holy Spirit as we pray together in community and in our quiet times of personal prayer too.