The Way of Prayer
by Kellen Smith
In a church blog post recently, there were two questions posed to readers. The first question was, “How often do you pray the Lord’s Prayer?” The second was, “How has the Lord's Prayer shaped the way you pray?” If you’re not an internet fanatic like my wife Sarah, who maintains her own blog and is constantly connected via her iPhone, I invite you to hear the responses of several people who replied about these two questions.
One person said, “I probably only formally pray the Lord’s Prayer a couple of times each week, one of those times being in church where I love hearing all the voices praying together. But, I often use it daily, paraphrased in my own words.”
Another person said, “I pray the Lord’s Prayer once a week with the congregation during worship. Sometimes I use a portion of the prayer as a repeated meditation during my morning walk. The Lord’s Prayer was taught to me by my mother when I was very young and she prayed it with me each night to begin our prayers at bedtime. And I remember it being an important part of our worship as I was growing up. I think the Lord’s Prayer is like a rosary for me.”
A final response explained, “I pray the Lord’s Prayer almost every day, every time I do my spiritual discipline. And of course, use it often in other circumstances where prayer is called for. The Lord's Prayer for me is always a prayer that bespeaks a life. Praying the prayer is not just reciting words, but calling to mind a way of life. The prayer consists of words that are reminders of a way to live.”
We will explore these questions further by looking at the way the Lord’s Prayer invites us into living a life of prayer.
We intersect with the Lord’s Prayer this morning as it is found in Matthew’s Gospel in the Sermon on the Mount. If you think of the Sermon on the Mount, which covers chapters 5 through 7, as a literal “mountain” in the text, the Lord’s Prayer would be the peak of the sermon which comes in the middle of chapter 6. In the sequence of the narrative, there are healings done by Jesus, which you can imagine as the boulders on either side of the mountain. And like shrubs across the mountainous terrain are the people, described as “the crowds,” that are following Jesus.
In addition to this most well-known version of the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, it also appears in a different way and form in the Gospel of Luke. From its origins, the Lord’s Prayer includes petitions that are related to the Jewish liturgical prayer called the Kaddish. In adapting the Kaddish, Jesus expands the petitions, forming a new prayer.
The concern for Jesus as he preaches from the mount is that the people are in need of right teaching about prayer. Earlier in the text, we are told of the hypocrites and the Gentiles who “heap up empty phrases” in verse 7 of chapter 6. In response, you can almost hear Jesus saying, “Pray like you mean it.” It seems that prayer is not just what you say, but how you say it.
In these verses before the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus is explaining the importance of praying in secret and avoiding praying to be “seen.” Those whom Jesus describes seem to pray in an individualistic way, praying for the sake of their own vanity. Or perhaps they are praying one way and living another. For Jesus, who is a person of his word, what you say and what you do are of great importance.
As the Great Physician, Jesus observes that the people are in need of a prescription for how to pray. The Lord’s Prayer itself is like a remedy for the right way to pray. As only the Master can, the Prayer is richly instructive and deeply spiritual. Just like a doctor explains to a patient about a particular treatment, Jesus describes a prayer for the people. In doing so, he reminds the people how to pray. As some point, I imagine that we all need to be reminded how to pray.
For me, it happened during my senior in college. As a resident leader at a campus ministry, I was helping to plan a retreat. For the first night of the retreat, I had prepared an evening worship service in the style of Taizé. The scene was set for a wonderful time of reflection and meditation with lit candles and the beautiful melodies of the Taizé songs. Part of the service I enjoy the most is the period of silence for contemplative prayer. As the worship leader, I would typically end that time by leading those assembled in the Lord’s Prayer. But for whatever reason, on that night, things did not go as they usually do. As the group transitioned into the time of silence, I was feeling very peaceful and was completely in the moment. When I looked at my watch and noticed that it was time to end the silence, I said aloud in a hushed voice, “together let us pray the prayer our Lord taught.” Then something strange happened. Well, nothing happened actually. The words of the Lord’s Prayer were nowhere to be found on my tongue, my mind was as blank. I was finding this hard to believe as I began to feel the calm silence turn into anxious silence.
As the worship leader, everyone was waiting for me to start the Lord’s Prayer with the words, “Our Father.” But, I had nothing. As the embarrassment started to build within me, I was simply shocked that I was unable to speak the words of perhaps the most well-known prayer in Christian history. All the places that I had learned and spoken the prayer flashed through my mind: Sitting around a tiny table in Sunday school reciting the prayer with my young friends, praying the Lord’s Prayer as I knelt on the chancel on the day of my confirmation, with my peers at the end of youth group, with mission teams, loved ones, and by myself every night before I go to sleep! This was the prayer that was slipping my mind?
In the silence that was now shouting at me, I sat there with my thoughts racing, thinking of everything but the words of the very prayer itself. While the whole group continued to wait in silence, I began to pray by myself. I prayed for inspiration from the Holy Spirit. “God,” I said, “God, in your grace, could you remind me of those words of prayer which are so familiar, but which I cannot remember right now?” And I waited, and waited, but nothing came. No words, not even letters, were coming to my mind. Finally, I decided that I had to do something. In desperation, I figured that if I simply started to make an audible sound, the others would hopefully pick up on it and begin the prayer. Then, as I began to open my mouth and let out some sort of inaudible vibration, thanks be to God, the campus minister, Rev. Bruce, intuitively picked up on my dilemma, and led the group in a resounding, “Our Father.” I breathed a deep sigh of relief as I shrugged in my seat and we continued through the prayer. While this seemed like an hour, it was probably not longer than a minute, or so I was told after the fact.
In a similar way, I wonder if my anxious experience might not be a symptom of something larger. Are we as the church, as people of faith, able to remember and practice the right way to pray as Jesus taught? In doing so, are we able live a life focused on prayer?
We live in a time where we are more connected than ever before, yet it seems that we may also be disconnected from the practice of prayer which Jesus modeled. We have more access to more things from video games on cell phones to television in cars. Today, you can accomplish just about everything including grocery shopping, car oil changes, and managing a career from the comfort of your own home. All of these conveniences and technologies are designed to give us more time, so how is it that most of us have less, especially less to consider our spiritual and prayer lives? Now, maybe you are a devout prayer practitioner who prays all the time, maybe you are even praying right now, at least that is what every preacher hopes when anyone’s eyes are closed during the sermon. But, for everyone who can improve upon their prayer life, and I put myself in this category, the Lord’s Prayer is the cure to the dilemma of distraction and distortion of our culture.
Attentiveness in prayer and practicing the Lord’s Prayer is something that was a focus for the 16th century Spanish mystic and Carmelite nun Teresa of Avila. Entering a convent at a young age, Teresa went on to establish her own Catholic order along with John of the Cross. When she was not forming new convents, Teresa was writing about prayer and teaching her nuns in training or “daughters” under her care how to grow spiritually. Interestingly, what led to her becoming an authority on prayer was enduring a period of severe illness. Coming close to death, Teresa experienced ecstatic states of prayer which she later formulated into her own stages of prayer.
Teresa’s book entitled, The Way of Perfection, has become one of her most enduring works, and a classic on prayer and devotional life. Practically speaking, it is a handbook of sorts to living a life centered in prayer. In The Way of Perfection, Teresa writes on how the Lord’s Prayer or Pater Noster, as she refers to it in Latin, can guide someone’s prayer life. Before she gets there, she speaks directly to the difficulty of remaining focused in prayer. In the 26th chapter she writes, “Those of you whose minds cannot reason for long or whose thoughts cannot dwell upon God but are constantly wandering must at all costs form this habit (of prayer). I know quite well that you are capable of it—for many years I endured this trial (during an illness) of being unable to concentrate on one subject, and a very sore trial it is…If a whole year passes without our obtaining what we ask (in prayer), let us be prepared to try for longer. Let us never grudge time so well spent. Who, after all, is hurrying us? I am sure we can form this habit and strive to walk at the side of this true Master.”(1) Teresa describes not a momentary habit of prayer, but one that moves forward and continues through life, even in the face of the difficulties that life presents. She describes turning from distraction in order to come alongside the Master who teaches us to pray. Jesus, after all, so authentically modeled prayer, even in the midst of the most desperate circumstances.
In addition to the Lord’s Prayer, a very significant passage on prayer appears again in Matthew’s Gospel in chapter 26. In this chapter, Jesus echoes several of the phrases spoken in the Lord’s Prayer when he is with the disciples in the garden of Gethsemane. At this point in the narrative, Jesus is approaching his betrayal and decides to stop and pray. Jesus asks the disciples to remain awake while he prays alone. However, the disciples are unable to do so. They fall asleep not once, but twice. After the first time falling asleep, in verse 41 of chapter 26, Jesus addresses Peter and says, “Stay awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial;* the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” At this most crucial hour for Jesus, his companions are overcome by sleep.
Truly, Jesus knows that true prayer can only happen when we are awake and attentive to the moment, to what is happening, to what we are praying. Being awake in prayer is like keeping the doorway of dialogue with God open. When we are awake, we can respond to the concerns we see on television or read in the news paper, or witness in front of our eyes.
Jesus again echoes the Lord’s Prayer again in verse 42 when he address God the Father with the words, “your will be done.” In Gethsemane, Jesus puts his words to work. Jesus does not merely teach prayer, but he uses it, he lives it, even in the most difficult of circumstances.
One of the most meaningful things about the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew, is that it is the only place where Jesus addresses God with the plural, “Our Father.” Jesus expresses his humanity in bringing the people closer to God. In this inclusive address, Jesus also brings together the individual believer and the community of faith. This is important because elsewhere in Matthew, Jesus addresses God with the singular, “My Father.” Through the singular address we gain an appreciation for Matthew’s focus on the divine nature of Christ. Because of this divine focus, it makes the inclusive direction of the Lord’s Prayer stand out that much more. Speaking to the situation which Jesus focuses on, “our Father” is in stark contrast to the self seeking prayers offered in houses of worship and on street corners.
This simple and reverent phrase is a great encouragement to those of us who are called children of God. There is great hope in this petition, as it reconciles people and churches back to God. Through the words, “Our Father in Heaven,” churches of many denominations proclaim together the unifying prayer that leads us in the ministries of one holy catholic and apostolic church. As people of faith, even on different sides of issues within the church, we come together in worship and prayer, to speak with one voice to our God, who holds us all together. For truly in God, there is not division, but unity. We experience this unity in the form of grace as Jesus opens the door and invites us into communion with him through prayer.
Praying this way provides an opportunity to pattern not just your words, but your life after the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus invites us into a way of prayer that is defined by a life that speaks. However, the gift of Jesus’ teaching on prayer is that we can also go to the Lord’s Prayer, even when we have no words to pray. We can pray the prayer our Savior taught in worship with one another in community. We can pray the prayer with our loved ones around a meal, with a friend in a time of need, or with a stranger at a time of tragedy.
In November 2009, you may have watched or heard about the memorial service that was held at the Fort Hood Base in Texas to honor the lives of those who were lost in the tragic shooting which occurred there. In what was an emotional and moving ceremony, President Obama said that words could not fill the void left by the tragedy. Perhaps the most moving images of the ceremony were the battlefield crosses that were displayed at the front of the memorial stage. A battlefield cross is used during a time of combat when no appropriate means of recognition and memorial are available. They include a soldier’s standing boots supporting a rifle, with a helmet being supported at the top. These crosses are a striking reminder of the price of war and of the sacrifice of soldiers for the love of country. It is at tragic times that we are reminded that the Lord’s Prayer is a prayer for all times, for all people of faith, even those with no faith at all.
When images of the devastation of earthquakes and children in poverty are put before us, we are reminded that we cannot always remedy the tragedies and injustices in our communities, but we can pray. We can pray the prayer that Jesus taught and we can let that prayer shape us toward living more prayerful lives, enabling our gifts to better meet the needs of the world.
Imagine a church that did not just stop for moments of prayer, but that prayed through the moments. Imagine a church that went about its ministries according to the exhortation of the Apostle Paul, to “pray without ceasing.” Though we usually pray this prayer to conclude a time of prayer together, may this prayer also be for us a beginning to an even richer life of prayer.
Bibliography(1) Teresa of Avila. The Way of Perfection. Translated and edited by E. Allison Peers. Garden City, N.Y.: Image Books, 1991.