Prayer is one of the most fundamental aspects of our spiritual life and it is the one aspect with which more people, especially those who have grown up in a more liturgical rather than evangelical denomination, find that they struggle.
Prayer is a foundational practice of the Jewish faith from which we have deep spiritual roots. Taking prayer to mean conversation with God, the earliest mention begins with Adam in the Garden when God brings the animals to him to name, and later when he tells Adam and Eve what they can and cannot do. The earliest mention of the word prayer in scripture occurs in Genesis 20 when God comes to Abimelech, the Egyptian leader who had taken Sarah, Abraham’s wife into his harem and warns him he is about to commit adultery and die. God tells Abimelech to return Sarah to Abraham and Abraham will pray for him and he will live, because Abraham is a prophet.
We know Abraham had an intimate relationship with God. I can’t tell you if Abraham ever heard an audible voice but he was in conversation with his creator on a regular basis. He tried to pattern his life according to what he believed God was telling him to do, long before there were any scriptures to access as reference. Sometimes he was right on target, sometimes he was not, but the conversation continued and God continued to be with him and to guide him keeping promises God made to Abraham and his family.
Moses appears to have heard an audible voice from God. We know at least that he recognized the presence of God in an unusual bush that was on fire, but was not consumed. And he found God “present” on the top of Mt. Sinai. We know that God is ever present, everywhere but, there are times and places God’s presence seems to be palpable. When we are more aware of God’s presence. Moses conversed with God regularly as God led him to Egypt and back out of Egypt through the wilderness with the children of Israel. Moses’ conversations with God led to both civil and religious practices adopted by the people he led with the understanding that as a community they worshiped this God and no other.
Psalm 119:164 says “Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous ordinances.” David often turned his prayers into songs, songs we still have in the Psalms.
We are told that even after Daniel had been condemned to the lion’s den, “he continued…to get down on his knees three times a day to pray to his God and praise him, just as he had done previously.” (Dan 6:10)
Jesus’ disciples were raised in this tradition and yet, when they saw him praying, one of them said “Lord, teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” (Luke 11:1).
A the monastic practice of praying the hours, and later the Anglican practice of Morning & Evening Prayer along with Noon Prayers and Compline have their roots in the passages of scripture that describe the prayer practices of our spiritual ancestors.
I am not going to dissect the Lord’s Prayer for you this morning. I expect many other preachers have done this for you in the past, and I spent six weeks with our Pilgrim group this past year studying the Lord’s Prayer. We say it every Sunday and most of you know it by heart.
I don’t think Jesus was telling us to pray this specific prayer. He was telling them to have a conversation with God as though they were speaking to their own father and offering some insight as to what are appropriate requests.
He follows this up with the story of a persistent neighbor who wakes you up in the middle of the night to ask a favor. Jesus says you will help him just to make him go away. If you will help your neighbor just to get a little peace and quiet, how much more can you expect God who loves you to respond to your request. There is a bit of fine print, however, in this passage that we often ignore. Verse 13 says “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” (Luke 11:13)
Janice Joplin wasn’t on the right track when she sang “Oh Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes-Benz” Sometimes, God’s answer is No when we are praying with the wrong motives or for the wrong thing. The one thing are told God will never say no to is a request for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
Personal, private prayer should be as natural and as honest as a conversation with your closest confidant. Matthew gives us a very personal look at Jesus praying before his arrest saying, “My Father, if it is possible, let the cup pass from me: yet not what I want but what you want.” (Matthew 26:39). It is ok to tell God, “I am scared.” “I am angry.” “I am sad.” “I am lonely.” “I am frustrated.” “I am confused.” All these feelings that bubble to the surface God is able to handle and wants to hear. Then perhaps through reading scripture, or sitting quietly, or singing hymns you will find peace and perhaps some insight.
Prayers that seek injury to others are curses. They can be found in the Bible and there are times they are the only prayers we are able to articulate, for example when the Israelites had just been defeated in a long and drawn-out war and then removed from their homeland, but consider that “venting” to God and follow it up, as they did, with more appropriate prayers. The prophets warn us to be careful what we ask for when we were call on God to judge our neighbors. The Lord’s prayer reminds us that we call on God to forgive us because we are continually forgiving those who have wronged us. Jesus us tells us not to judge others because by the standards we set for others, we will be judged.
Praying publicly without a prayerbook handy can be learned with just a little practice. All of the many Collects in the BCP follow a certain pattern that you can adapt as well as use outright. You may find it helpful to take a couple of minutes to arrange your thoughts because I find they are easier to build backwards beginning with the outcome we are expecting.
We begin by addressing God with praise and stating why we have the confidence that God will respond to our prayer. Using this morning’s collect.
O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy.
This is something we believe based upon the stories passed down to us through history, through the lives of the saints, through the faith of family or friends, and through our own experience.
What do we want God to do?
Increase and multiply upon us your mercy. – pretty straightforward request.
What is our responsibility in this prayer?
That with you as our ruler and guide
If God multiplies God’s mercy upon us, we must be willing to allow God to be our ruler and guide.
What outcome do we expect?
We may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not things eternal.
This is an old collect and the language is a bit archaic. We don’t have to pray in Elizabethan English. We could also say, we want to go through our earthly life in such a way that we don’t lose eternal life with God.
We close with some form of affirmation of the Trinity – having addressed the Father in this prayer, we acknowledge the Son and Holy Spirit.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reins with you and the Holy Spirit, now and forever.
This collect is a pretty straightforward petition. Some add a statement of Thanksgiving. Some a confession of some transgression and a petition to help us amend our ways and set right what has been wrong. Often they contain short passages of scripture appropriate to the petition.
I would encourage you to practice praying, both privately and publically. There is no right or wrong way as long as your heart is in the right place and you are seeking to strengthen your relationship with God and God’s creation.
There are many useful “tools” to help you pray. Prayer books, roseries, journals, methods like Lectio Divina or Ignatian Prayer. Use the ones that are helpful. Skip the ones that are a distraction. We all have our own personalities and preferences. Just make sure you are using the tool as a spring board and not as a crutch.
I would like to close with one of my favorite collects.
Let us pray,
O heavenly Father, in whom we live and move and have our being; We humbly pray you will guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember we are ever walking in your sight; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.