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Lord, Teach Us To Pray

Proper 12C-16

Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

“Lord, teach us to pray.” (Luke 11:1) The disciple’s request sounds like it could be our own. Five months ago, we had congregational retreat about learning to pray. Pastor Brenda Smith, Program Director for Faith Practices at the ELCA, was our leader. She taught us many things on different methods and about all manner of prayer. She started something our council leaders have continued up through today. She asked, ‘when you have a meeting, when you gather for a meal, before you make a big decision as a church who prays—the pastor?’ ‘To grow in prayer as a community’, she suggested, ‘make sure it is not always the pastor who prays, but sometimes it’s you.’ To be church and sanctuary of hope and grace, we must help and encourage one another to build our prayer muscles. We can only do that by using them. There is no faster way to learn to pray that than by actually praying for family members and each other here. We’re learning that we can do that for each other and it feels good.

Another blessing to emerge from that retreat was a prayer chain named in honor of our beloved friend, Christian brother, and teacher, the late David Henry. David’s Chain, a prayer circle of 13 people who pray everyday in an intensive and confidential way for eight people carried in our hearts and minds of our congregation. David’s Chain is coached and run by Janet Bouman. (Talk to her if you would like to be a pray-er on the chain, or if you have someone for whom you would like to request prayers.)

For years, the assisting minister at Sunday worship leads (and on most occasions writes) the prayers of the people. I know that has been a profound learning experience for many of them.

Like the first disciples, we continue to say, “Lord, teach us to pray.” But we are among the first generation of Christians to have concrete evidence of the many benefits of prayer. The late Catholic priest and sociologist Andrew Greeley said he was astonished to learn what we all profess to know. A Gallup Poll conducted by Psychology Today, now confirmed in subsequent studies, identified prayer as the single most powerful correlate with marital happiness. Couples that pray often for each other out loud are much more likely to be happy. Likewise, the Take Faith Home insert in your worship folder today isn’t based on a pious hunch but on social science. Prayer strengthens you. Prayer strengthens the bond among and within households. Praying for one another improves you and your family’s sense of wellbeing. (The insert isn’t just for children. There is something there for everyone.) Like any healthy habit, it takes some doing to overcome our natural resistance to doing anything new.

We’re afraid of saying the wrong thing, like the pastor in the movie from years ago, Four Weddings and a Funeral. (Ok, maybe, that’s just me.) I don’t know how often I’ve lived in terror of someday saying at a wedding “your awful wedded wife.” Learning to pray in public wasn’t easy for me in seminary. Today, I wish we did it more as a family. In love for one another, we must be so bold and so gentle as to help and encourage one another to pray—to pray often—and to pray out loud. Lord teach us to pray. Luther likened the table at home to the altar at church. Prayer is an opportunity to express yourself, to speak your hopes and fears, your anger and your joys, to lift them up for God to join the party, and ask for the blessings of the ‘Holy Spigot.’

To be a disciple of Jesus is to pray like Jesus. Martin Luther called the Lord’s Prayer “a summary of the whole gospel.”   Notice, “You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say “I”. You cannot pray the Lord’s Prayer and even once say “my”. Nor can you pray the Lord’s Prayer and not pray for one another, and when you ask for daily bread, you must include your brothers and sisters. For others are included in each and every plea, from the beginning to the end of it, it does not once say “me”. (Poem published by the Omaha Home for Boys)

The prayer concerns of Jesus included more than a list of our various health crises. Jesus prays for the coming of God’s kingdom, for daily bread, and for forgiveness for our sins. William H. Willimon writes, “It’s curious that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American church’s main concern in prayer. Jesus is most notable for teaching that we are to pray—not for recent gall bladder surgery—but for our enemies!”

Which brings us ‘round to the main reason to ask for Jesus’ help in teaching us to pray. As we carry all our trials and tribulations to the Lord in prayer, little by little and all at once, we discover that we are being changed. Our supplication leads to transformation. All our words end in silence as we are bathed in the healing presence of God’s amazing grace. Contemplative or centering prayer, like that you may experience in the chapel before worship or on third Saturdays is the discipline of quieting our words and our minds before God, in order to let God speak—or not speak, but like any loving relationship, to enter into the joy of simply being together.

At its root, prayer is about being together. Like God our father and creator, we are essentially social beings. Within our prayers, we present ourselves for the ultimate gaze, the ultimate mirroring. Before this gaze of Love, we allow ourselves to be seen, to be known in every nook and cranny, nothing hidden, nothing denied, nothing disguised. (Richard Rohr: Daily Meditaion, Big Love 7/22/16)

Letting your vulnerable self be known by God is always to recognize your need for mercy and your own utter inadequacy and littleness. Knowing your need for mercy opens you to receiving mercy. It draws you close to God and exposes your deep need for one another. In prayer we discover the need and true purpose of our church.

Within the living sanctuary created whenever two or three are gathered in Christ’s name our hope is renewed and grace is poured out in abundance. In a sermon delivered on Christmas morning Martin Luther once preached, “Whoever wishes to know something about Christ must not trust to himself, nor by the help of his own reason build a bridge of his own to heaven, but must go to the church, must visit it, and make inquiry.   Now the church is not wood and stone, but the company of people who believe in Christ; he must keep in company with them, and see how they believe, and teach, and live.” (Martin Luther, Early-Christmas sermon, 1522)

Lord, teach us to pray. Help us continue to be your church. Help us be so bold and so gentle as to teach and encourage one another in prayer. Teach us to pray aloud. Teach us to pray in silence. Teach us so that we may live in you and you in us until all the God-hating world you created is swallowed up and re-united in your love.

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