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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Luke 11:1-13 Teach Us To Pray

Luke 11:1-13 Teach Us To Pray
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
July 25, 2010

Last week was one of those awful weeks, when every time you pick up the phone you wonder what kind of bad news it's going to be. In fact, one of our church members told me that she's going to stop answering the phone whenever the caller ID shows the church's number. I do a lot of the church prayer chain calls, especially when it's bad news, and several church members have complained that you've been hearing way too much from me lately. It's a robo-call service based in Virginia. I put in a phone call from Knoxville, then log on to the computer, punch in a few codes, hit "Send," and within minutes, everyone in the church has heard, "This is the prayer chain of Lake Hills Presbyterian Church. . .". I try to speak authoritatively yet compassionately, slowly but not too dramatically. It takes a lot of concentration to sound so boring. I almost always choke under the pressure and say the wrong date, or the wrong hospital. It's usually the third or fourth take before I get it somewhat right.

I'm not a huge fan of robo-call systems. Usually they're calling to tell you to vote for somebody, or to pass along the fantastic news that you've won a completely free vacation in Gatlinburg. The alternative is the old-fashioned telephone chain, where one human calls another human, and so on. This is great, except that too often it's like the game where someone at the front of the line whispers something to the second person, who whispers it to the next, and then at the end of the line, the last person tells what they've heard. It's usually something like, "Godzilla plays trombone on your aunt's broken pelvis." So, instead, you get bad-news robo-calls from your remarkably robotic pastor. If you'd like to sign up for the prayer chain, just leave a note with your name and phone number in the offering plate. We also have an email system for prayer requests, which is yet another way technology connects us to the Almighty.

Actually, that's not quite right. The technology doesn't connect us to the Almighty at all. It just delivers the news, which is all technology has ever done, whether it's Twitter, two tin cans connected by string, or a guy with a bell yelling in the town square. Technology just gives us the information. It's what we do with the information that connects us to the Almighty. Or not.

Now, I know there are some of you who pray about as easily as you breathe. Your prayers flow as naturally as your blood flows through your veins. You don't even think about it, you just do it. The rest of us, and I include myself in this group, are always a little daunted, and a little puzzled, how best to effectively transmit our intentions to the Creator of All There Is Seen and Unseen. There's always the worry that if you do it wrong, you'll mess everything up. Or if you're not sincere enough, God will send you to voice mail. God's message says, "Sorry, I'm a little busy right now with someone who sounds less robotic." Meanwhile your aunt's pelvis starts sliding like a trombone, and it's pretty much all your fault.

I'm very consoled that the Bible tells us we're not the first generation to worry about how effective our prayers are, and we certainly won't be the last. The Bible tells us knowing how to pray was something even the disciples worried about. We can find consolation in their ineptitude, and forgiveness in Jesus's answer.


The Bible says, [Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, "Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples."

Right there, you can see the disciples worried about their technique. Probably because they were guys. Guys are always wanting to take things apart to see how it works. Women don't care. They convince guys to fix stuff for them. Which is good in theory, except that many of us are better at taking stuff apart than putting it back together. A friend of mine's wife keeps telling him her next husband is going to know how to fix stuff. It's a thinly veiled threat, but it is motivational.

The disciples were worried about their technique. "Lord, teach us to pray." They were also having a bit of prayer envy. "Lord teach us to pray, as JOHN taught HIS disciples." In other words, "Your cousin, the BAPTIST, taught HIS disciples how to do it RIGHT."

One of my complaints about seminary, was that they never had a class on prayer. They'd teach you Hebrew verb tenses in an instant. But I discovered that's not what most people in hospitals want. There could be a couple of reasons they don't teach a class on prayer. One, it could be that seminary professors don't pray very much, at least not after they've gotten tenure. Or, it could be that teaching a class on prayer sets the student up for grades on prayer, and how do you establish that scale? Then you'd have to have a graduation award for "Best Praying Student," and the competition could turn ugly. Would the Grade A pray-ers be allowed to put that on their resumes? If so, what church would ever want to call a Grade B prayer? You could hear a church member saying, "Well, we've had a lot of sickness in our congregation lately. But then again, our preacher got a B-minus in that class."

It could be that Jesus had never taught his disciples how to pray because it's not something you can really teach. It could be that all the observable stuff, like technique, posture, and facial expression, doesn't really matter.

Jesus didn't say much about how to pray, he just went off by himself and did it. He did say how NOT to pray. He said not to pile on lots of big, religious-sounding words and make a show of it. He said it's better to lock yourself in your closet and just do it. Of course, in today's society, being in the closet has all sorts of implications. Today, Jesus might tell us to go other places.

I have a friend who says he prays when he's alone in the car. Then again, he lives near Alcoa Highway. Hardened atheists pray on Alcoa Highway. Writer Anne Lamott, with her dreadlocks and doubt, says, "Some people think that God is in the details, but I have come to believe that God is in the bathroom.... Maybe God is in the men's room, too, but I have been in so few of them since I got sober."

The Bible doesn't tell us what John the Baptist's technique was, just that Jesus's disciples were feeling inadequate and a little bit jealous, worrying that John's guys knew the secret formula and they didn't. I find the disciples' ineptitude and envy very consoling. If the handpicked twelve pillars of the church didn't think they knew how to pray, there's hope for the rest of us.

And if the disciples' ineptitude is consoling, then Jesus' answer is both forgiving and inspiring. It's also very short.

11:2 He said to them, "When you pray, say: 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."
In the Gospel According to Luke, that's it. Thirty-eight words. Four sentences. Nothing fancy. No secret eleven herbs and spices. That's the example. Keep it simple. Keep it honest. That's the example, and here's the teaching that follows:

11:9 "So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.
Some people think that means whatever you pray for, you'll get. I don't know about that. The disciples asked Jesus how to pray, not how to get stuff by praying. If that's the case, then all Jesus is saying is, if you try to pray, you're praying. If you want to know how to do it, then do it. There's no secret to prayer. Ask to pray, and you'll get how to pray. Search for prayer and you'll find it. Knock on God's door with your prayers, and the door will be opened.

There is no best practice. There is no flawless technology. There is no best, grade-A way to effectively transmit our intentions to the Creator of All There Is Seen and Unseen. You just do it. Or you don't. The good news is that Jesus sets us free from from relying on robotic formulas you have to say just right or else they don't work. Prayer is kind of like gym class. You get an A if you just try. You can use your own words. You can use someone else's. You can pray alone, in a closet. Or you can stand with the people you love, and share their voice. You can even stand with the people you don't love. Maybe they're the ones who teach us the most about prayer. If you can pray for your enemies, I think you've got the hang of it.

Let's pray the prayer Jesus taught:

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 debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever.