Prayer: It’s about showing up

So, “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.” In that simple statement, St. Luke does several things. Firstly, as ever, he makes Jesus the object of our attention. It’s he who is praying; and the disciples had noticed. So, secondly, Luke records this incident because he wants to point out that when it comes to praying, the disciples had come to the right place. In other words, if we’re going to make sense of this praying thing; then it’s to him that we need to come.

Now, some while ago it was put to me that I’m apparently always ‘banging on’ about prayer. And I will of course, apologise if any of that has come across as either dull or repetitive. But I’ve no intention of changing the subject. Part of the reason for my hobby horse (if that’s what it is), is that praying, is actually our ‘core business’. To put it colloquially: We. Do. God. Or perhaps better, God does US; and we can discuss that. But, if I bridle at this point, it’s because my sense is that for far too long, when it comes to these things; these foundational things, it all seems to resemble the way we used to deal with what were called ‘the facts of life’. I get the sense that many of us are entirely embarrassed, unsure or burdened by many a misunderstanding when it comes to prayer. And it won’t do.

But, you see, when we use that word ‘prayer’, we’re not (for instance) talking simply about asking for things (though it might include that). We’re not talking about that range of, what we might call, ‘religious activities’ that we get up to in Church (though it might include some of that). No, more fundamentally, we’re talking about relationship. Or perhaps better ‘Communion’. Prayer is the word we use to describe that on-going ‘communion’ with the Lord. The relationship that has been made possible by Jesus.

Now, I say this because the one thing the disciples discover about Jesus, is that his whole life, at every moment, is prayer. Yes, he goes off at special times to particular places to pray (and we’ll talk about that again in a moment). But what characterises their experience of Jesus is his constant communion with the Father. So, when we use that word ‘prayer’ and when we say, “Lord, teach us to pray”, what we really want is to find ourselves somehow drawn into that same quality of ‘communion’. It’s what one spiritual writer called, “The practice of the presence of God”. So, that’s the first thing.

But if all of this is going to become real and experiential for us, we need to shed one or two of those misunderstandings I just referred to. The first, I would suggest, is getting rid of that ingrained notion that prayer is some kind of ‘skill’; that praying is something that some of us can do but some of us can’t. I mean, it’s like whenever I talk with someone who plays golf. I say, “So you play golf?” And almost without fail they say, “Yes, but not very well”. And the point is, I get the self-same reply whenever I ask people if they pray: “Yes, but not very well”. In other words, I meet far too many people who are labouring under the notion that they can never really pray because they somehow can’t master what they imagine must be necessary skills. And so, for instance, when prayer gets confused with ‘asking for things'(as it frequently does); if we don’t get what we ask for we either conclude God isn’t interested or clearly, we ‘didn’t pray properly’; whatever that means.

But of course, the problem with that way of looking at it, is that we put all the focus on ourselves and what we do or don’t do. Whereas in fact, it’s the other way around. I mean, when it comes to prayer, the Jesus whose life is prayer (communion with the Father) simply wants to draw us closer to himself. Our only task (if that’s the right word) is to make ourselves available; to show up. To be open and receptive. And there are helpful ways of doing that; which we can discuss at another point. But what I mean is, many of us have been left, as it were, dangling between on the one hand, a complete sense of inadequacy. And on the other the kind of pride that that thinks this religious ‘thing’, is something we can become really good at.

But both are mistaken because the point is availability; becoming available, conscious and responsive to the presence and action of the Lord. But this, I think, is why Jesus uses the analogy of relationship to help us get a hold on his teaching. It’s not just that singularly important word ‘Father’; no, the analogy about the friend knocking on the door in the middle of the night takes us into the same territory, doesn’t it? So, for instance, I was talking recently with a couple who are preparing for marriage. Firstly, we spoke about the kind of conversations we have where, in the midst of life’s ‘busyness’, we have those routine exchanges about “have you fed the cat yet?” or “What’s for dinner tonight?” and so on. And sure enough, for the relationship to function and grow we need these ordinary, ‘bread and butter’ exchanges. But, secondly, for the relationship to function and grow we also need moments of greater intimacy don’t we? We need time that is set aside for warmth and an opportunity to speak more deeply about our hopes, fears and desires. But the point is for that kind of engagement to take place we need to be deliberate. We can make choices that mean we are available to the other, can’t we? It’s this I think, which marks out the Christian. For instance, in being here this morning we’re being deliberate. We’re putting ourselves in a place and posture where we make a ‘yes’ to the one who calls us to himself.

So, I’m suggesting that this isn’t a bad picture of how our praying, our ‘communion’ tends to work. It has both of these elements. There’s the daily conversation as we go about our business; such as simple expressions of gratitude at something which has touched us. Or, as someone told me, “I just chat with God when I’m walking the dog”. Absolutely. But also, there need to be the deliberate ‘set aside’ moments where we give him our full attention. Which of course, is what Jesus does. Again, for the relationship to flourish and grow, both of these things need to be going on.

But you might reasonably say, this looks a bit different to the reply which Jesus gave the disciples in answer to that question. After all, he gave them what we call the Lord’s Prayer, didn’t he? But here’s the thing. If you look carefully at the words of the Lord’s Prayer, on the one hand it’s clearly a form of words for us to use; there’s something very ‘bread and butter’ about it. But as well as being a form of words it’s also an illustration of what it’s like to come into communion with the one we call ‘Father’. I mean, when we say it slowly, (and I would recommend that) we get the sense that in the presence of this one whose very name is ‘hallowed’, it’s as if our lives are given a different agenda. It’s a life-shaping prayer.

God and his purposes come centre stage and we find ourselves living in anticipation of what Jesus calls the Kingdom; all that God is doing. So, we might say, if prayer sometimes seems difficult; if the ‘communion’ is challenging perhaps one reason is because we resist this re-shaping. Perhaps it’s because we bridle at acknowledging our creaturely dependence for daily bread. Maybe it goes against the grain of much of our daily living to realise that the fundamental basis of God’s economy is not vengeance but forgiveness. Not anxiety but trust. Not accumulation but generosity?

So, in other words, we can spend a lifetime praying this prayer; because in teaching us to do so, Jesus roots us in the truth of things. But at the same time, in these few words, Jesus points us to ‘communion’ and to the kind of people we’ll become as we ‘practice the presence of God’ in the everyday; and in those deliberately ‘set aside’ times. The Lord’s Prayer schools us in a growing reverence for God; in saying ‘yes’ to what God wishes for his world, in dependence and forgiveness. Well, that’ll do for starters.