Teach us to pray

One of Jesus’ disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). If there’s ever a time when we need to learn how to pray, this is it. Following every mass shooting, as predictable as sunrise, the comments come, mostly from politicians and public officials, about communities being in their “thoughts and prayers.” We keep thinking and praying about the terrible news, and nothing changes. So we pray some more. Like the proverbial widow at the door of the unjust judge (Luke 18:1-8), we knock on God’s door till our knuckles bleed, then two days pass, or a week, or a month, and we hear news of another outbreak of violence. What’s wrong with our prayers? Why do they seem so ineffective? Are we not offering the right prayers? Are we not praying in the right way? Lord, teach us what we’re doing wrong. Teach us to pray.

We’re not the first to ask these questions, of course. Not even that nameless disciple was first. Five hundred years earlier, when Israel was trying to sort out what led to their national collapse and to a generation of captivity to a foreign power, when faced with the challenge of rebuilding their nation from the ground up, someone thought to turn to God and ask: Lord, what are we doing wrong? Why do we go through the motions of religious observance, and you don’t pay attention; why do our prayers go unanswered (Isa. 58:1-3)?

Everyone asks these questions at one time or another. It’s how we grow in faith. It’s how we mature as human beings. We see someone whose life seems full and complete – someone like Jesus, perhaps – and we want to know: how can I have a life like that? Tell me what you’re doing to get that kind of life. Teach me how you do it. Or we remember or envision a better way to live in community with one another, and we ask the question collectively. We want to know how we can live in true peace and justice, in a community where everyone has everything necessary for a full, complete, satisfying life, where we remember what belongs to whom and return it to them – for that’s what peace and justice entails. Lord, teach us how to pray. Teach us how to be in such a relationship with God and with one another.

During their exile in Babylon, Israel certainly prayed. They tried to be faithful in their religious observances. They developed a political party that made it their cause to keep God at the center of the nation’s life. “Day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways. They ask of me righteous judgments, they love to come close to me” (Isa. 58:3). Five centuries later, Israel was praying again. Their nation had been conquered and occupied by a foreign military power. Their historic faith was being diluted by the introduction of other faiths. They were longing for a popular leader who would make their nation great again. Their prayer seemed ineffective, the practice of their faith seemed futile, all their hopes remained unfulfilled.

Jesus’ disciples knew something was missing from what they were doing, and they saw in Jesus and his prayer something they wanted and didn’t have, so they asked him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). And he did. By his words and in his manner of living, Jesus embodied basic principles of prayer that are still effective in situations like we face today in our nation and in our world. There’s a lot more to say about prayer, but I want to start with three things I believe are at the heart of prayer in the spirit of Jesus.

First, prayer is not the words we say, it’s an attitude in life. Prayer is the way we live, the quality of our relationship with God, with others, and with all creation. Prayer is the harmonious alignment of our inner and outer life, the union of the life of the spirit and the life of the world. Luke and Matthew report Jesus teaching his disciples a formula: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2-4; Matt. 6:9-13). But it’s possible to repeat those words with a heart and mind so dull and closed that there’s nothing prayerful about them. And it’s possible to never say those words yet live in their spirit in such a way that one’s whole life becomes one continuous prayer. The Latin root of our word “to pray” is the same as the root of our word “precarious.” To pray is to live a precarious life, a life in which we depend totally on God’s will and don’t depend at all on our own abilities or cleverness. Growth in prayer involves moving from what we would say to God to listening to what God would say to us.

Second, prayer in the spirit of Jesus leads us from concern for ourselves to concern for the entire human family. Several years ago a little prayer from the Hebrew scriptures made the rounds in the form of a very popular book, The Prayer of Jabez. In an obscure passage, Jabez, who is mentioned nowhere else, offers this prayer: “Oh that you would bless me and enlarge my border, and that your hand might be with me, and that you would keep me from hurt and harm” (1 Chron. 4:10). In a single verse, in a prayer of three brief petitions, Jabez uses the word “me” or “my” four times. The prayer of Jabez is completely about himself, completely self-centered, and completely contrary to the prayer of Jesus.

The prayer of Jesus (Luke 11:2-4), is completely other-centered. Our Father . . . your name . . . your kingdom . . . give us . . . forgive us as we forgive others. When we pray in the spirit of Jesus, we don’t forget our own needs; we recognize that the satisfaction of our needs is inseparable from the satisfaction of the needs of others. There is no healing for us apart from the healing of every other member of the human family and all of creation. There is no restoring our nation without restoring every nation. When we pray in the spirit of Jesus, there is absolutely no place for building a wall, any kind of wall, that protects us from anyone else.

God had an answer to Israel’s complaint about unanswered prayer. If you want your prayer to be answered, God said, work to correct the injustice and oppression in how you live with others; tear down the social and political walls that separate you from others; and dismantle the economic systems that build wealth for a privileged few on the backs of the underprivileged many who live in poverty. If you do that, God says, then your prayers will be heard. You will cry for help, and God will say: Here I am (Isa. 58:3-9).

Finally, prayer is simple. “Don’t heap up empty phrases and many words,” Jesus said (Matt. 6:7). “We must be quite clear,” St. Benedict wrote, “that our prayer will be heard, not because of the eloquence and length of all we have to say, but because of the heartfelt repentance and openness of our hearts to the Lord whom we approach. Our prayer should, therefore, be free from all other preoccupations and it should normally be short” (Rule of Benedict, chapter 20).

Writer Anne Lamott knows about short prayer. According to Lamott, there are only three prayers we can offer: help, thanks, and wow – prayers of petition, prayers of gratitude, and prayers in praise of the sublime. Try it now. For three minutes, sit in perfect silence and offer a prayer for help for whatever comes to your mind and heart. For another three minutes, say a silent “thanks” for everything that comes to your mind and heart. And for a final three minutes of silence, offer praise to God for all that comes to your mind and heart.

Persevere in prayer, however God may move you to pray, with humility and openness of heart. Live with full attention of heart, soul, mind, and strength to everything that is and everything that happens. And see how you and the world around you will be transformed.

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