Lord, teach us to pray

Fish, Snake, Egg, Scorpion

Lessons : Gen 18:20-33; Col 2:6-15; Luke 11:1-13

Not one time, in all my years of ordained ministry, has someone said to me, Okay Ray Ive mastered that prayer thing, what’s next for me to learn? In fact I’m not certain that I have ever met someone that is even close to feeling that they are more than a novice when it comes to prayer, including myself.

Fr. BE brought it up in a recent sermon the quote from a past saint who said that the Lord loves it even when we pray poorly. That took a lot of guilt away from me because that is how I would describe my prayers most of the time. I was reading a blog from a priest about prayer and he said that he would start his morning and evening prayers with this brief confession, “What is about to happen will not go well, Lord. I’m sorry.”  

So if you don’t feel great about your prayer life I can guarantee that you are far from being alone. In fact you are in some pretty impressive company because the Apostles themselves felt that they needed improvement. That is why they went to the Master and asked to be taught. “Lord teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.”

And Jesus does and as you would expect it is genius. He gives them a model prayer that touches on 5 key areas and we can see in this prayer 5 characteristics that make will make their prayers effective. First let’s look at the 5 key areas.

He begins the prayer ascribing to the Lord the honor that He is due. “Father, hallowed by your name.” Psalms 29:2 and 98:8 command us to do just that. We can see this pattern all through the great collects of the Book of Common Prayer. Listen to the opening lines of several collects. “Almighty and everlasting God, who dost govern all things in heaven and earth…” “O God, the strength of all those who put their trust in thee…” “O most loving Father who willest us to give thanks for all things….” “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made….” “O God whose glory is always to have mercy….”

Beginning our prayers by ascribing honor to God reminds us who it is that we are addressing. We are not dropping a coin in a vending machine and expecting an automatic response. We are not naming it and claiming it and demanding Him to deliver like God is our butler. We are not putting good thoughts into the Universe so that good karma will come back to us. We are children of the Most High coming to the Omnipotent Holy One with reverence, awe, love and devotion.

Next we pray for His kingdom to come. This is our first petition. Matthew adds to this petition that His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. We immediately see through this petition whose agenda we are on when we pray. My agenda in prayer is not to be Ray getting his will and his way. Rather it is to be the agenda of my prayer, and indeed for my entire life, for the Lord to have His will and His way. And that is a positive thing because what could be better for me or for my family or for my church or for my nation or for this entire planet than God’s will being accomplished?

I was asked by a parishioner last week what I thought was the greatest idol that we had in the Church today. I replied that it was seeking the middle class American life above the kingdom of God. And in my opinion what makes it such a dangerous idol is that there is so much good about the middle class American life. I know because I am living it.

There is nothing inherently wrong with getting an education, finding a good job, buying a home and raising a family. There is nothing wrong with Dave Ramsey’s goals of living like no one else so that you can live and give like no one else.

But where these things become wrong is when these good things are moved to the wrong place on our priority list. Jesus said that we are to seek first His kingdom and so it is a problem when we place before His kingdom our favorite teams our careers or even our families.

After we pray for His kingdom to come we enact it in our lives by placing all that we have before Him. His kingdom comes in our lives when He is Lord of our finances and Lord of our families and Lord of our careers and Lord of our very futures.

The second petition has us pray for our daily bread. I have heard it said that it is selfish to pray for ourselves and so we never should. We should pray for others but when it comes to our personal lives we should just pray, “Thy will be done.” That sounds quite spiritual but it does not match what Jesus teaches us here about prayer. In this second petition we pray for our needs…not our wants but our needs. We are praying for our daily bread not a Mercedes Benz. In fact it may be necessary to pray first to discern the difference between wants and needs so that we can pray effectively for our daily bread. And notice that this prayer anticipates our needs rather than waiting until the need arises.

Next we pray for forgiveness. This is how the prayers of the Book of Common Prayer are structured. We offer the Prayers of the People or Prayers for the Whole State of Christ’s Church before we seek forgiveness for our sins. This order also keeps us from making prayer all about ourselves.

In this version of the Lord’s Prayers Jesus uses the word “everyone.” He says,“For we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us.Well do we? What about those who don’t ask for or deserve forgiveness? We are to forgive even those who don’t deserve it because God forgave us in Christ when we did not deserve it and before we could even ask for it. The Scripture says, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

It is helpful that Jesus also uses the word “indebted.” I take this to mean that I am canceling out their debt to me and that is an action and not a feeling. I simply picture myself ripping up their IOU. Sometimes I have to do it a number of times but I don’t have to wait until I feel like it, I don’t even have to want to be their buddy. I simply cancel their debt just as God has canceled mine.

The last petition is for protection. We pray to be delivered from a time of trial and Matthew adds “and rescue us from the evil one.” There is a vast difference between being disciplined by the stern hand of a loving Father and being assaulted by the evil one and it is the latter that we are to pray protection from. Let’s be clear. We are not praying that our life will be a bed of roses. Jesus in many times and many ways lets us know that if we are going to follow Him that it won’t be the Rose Parade. In this petition we are recognizing that we are in a spiritual battle and we are asking for the Lord’s protection.

Those are the 5 key areas for which to pray. Let’s next consider the 5 characteristics of this prayer. First note how short it is. Prayed slowly it is under 20 seconds.

This young priest was being mentored by an elderly one and when it came time to pray the young priest wanted to impress his mentor so as they knelt at the altar he prayed and he prayed and he prayed and he prayed. Finally the old man tapped him on the shoulder and said, “You know if you prayed more often you wouldn’t have to pray quite so long.”

In some circles it is a badge of honor to be someone who prays a long time. In fact for some it is a form of spiritual pride. (I think it is called “Phariseeism.”) But Jesus illustrates here that is not true that you have to pray long to pray effectively. I would argue that it is the frequency of your prayers and not the length of your prayers that is most important. I refer you back to the collects of the Book of Common Prayer. They are brief but many of them are so full of theological content that you could preach an entire sermon from them. So when you pray ignore the clock.

Second note how specific the petitions are, such as praying for daily bread. If we want specific answers to prayer then we need to pray specifically.

When I first went into full time ministry I did not have the money to purchase the clothes that I needed. One morning I was reading the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus says that we are not to worry about what we are to wear because our heavenly Father knows what we need. I decided to respond to that promise and I asked the Lord for $500 to buy clothes. That very night after I preached a sermon a man walked up and handed me a check for $500. When I told him what I had prayed that morning he got misty eyed and said that he had wanted to give me the money for weeks but never felt that the time was right until this night. I think he was as blessed to know that he was being led by the Lord as I was to receive the money. So pray for your needs and pray specifically.

Third these prayers are offered daily, that is if we want our daily bread. We don’t wait until the cupboard is bear and then cry out to God. This prayer is meant to be daily contact and communion with our heavenly Father and not a one time cry from the belly of the whale. In fact even more than daily, this prayer invites us into an ongoing conversation with God, or as Brother Lawrence put it, to practice the presence of God.

Fourth, this prayer is to be persistent, as Jesus illustrated by telling the story of the guy banging on the door for bread. Jesus uses the words, “ask” “seek” “knock.” So we don’t pray once and then forget about it. We are invited to make a nuisance out of ourselves with our petitions. We see this in the Old Testament lesson that borders on being comical as Abraham strikes a deal with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.

But why persistence in prayer? I think for a couple of reasons. First, as we pray persistently for something we may find ourselves altering our prayer. As mentioned earlier we may find that we are praying for a want and over time change it to praying for a need.

But second, as we pray persistently we are in a sense drawn into that prayer and it becomes a part of us. William Cary was an 18th century English cobbler. In his shop he had a map of the world and as he made shoes he would pray and weep over those who did not have the Gospel. Eventually he could not remain in his shop and he left all and went to India to share the love of Christ. He had such an impact that he is often referred to as “the father of modern missions.” It was his persistent prayer that molded his heart and developed his vision for India. Persistent prayer is how we get some skin in the game.

Lastly, effective prayer is offered in faith. But it is not faith in how much faith we have, rather it is faith in the character of God. Jesus says, Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked 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, who are evil, 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? As we pray we keep the character of God before us. As we pray we remember that nothing is impossible with God. As we pray we remember that He is full of mercy and loving-kindness. As we pray we remember that His mercies are new every morning. So our faith is not in our faith, our faith is in His goodness.

It is said that the best way to learn how to pray is to pray. Jesus has given us the perfect prayer and if we begin there we have no reason to doubt that He will continue to teach us as He did His disciples. So let’s follow their example and ask the Master to teach us to pray. “Lord, teach us to pray.” Amen.

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