How to Pray: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Every year on Ash Wednesday, we are issued an invitation: to engage in Lent as a season of prayer, fasting, and giving. Having just come from a wonderful dinner, I don’t know how many of us are ready to think about fasting just at this moment. And the time for giving to those individuals and causes that need our support is… every season, not just this season of the lengthening Days.

But prayer. If ever there were a season to recommit ourselves to prayer, I truly believe this is the one. What better time to seek to live in a way that aligns us with Jesus’ life and priorities.

We can do that with the help of prayer.

There are many, many ways to pray. My friend Jane Redmont wrote a book about prayer. It’s called, When in Doubt, Sing. Jane talks about prayer from at least 27 different angles in the book.  We will be discussing five ways of praying… we’re just scratching the surface.

If there are so many different ways to pray… why is prayer so hard for some of us? I’ll confess to you that the reason I continue to return to prayer in sermons is because I find it so challenging. Oh, I’m great with an “arrow prayer,” you know, when someone asks for prayers, and you say, Sure thing, and you close your eyes and say, “Lord, help her!” But the discipline of setting aside time for prayer? I find it hard. Not impossible, but something I don’t do as regularly as I want.

Fortunately, the Ash Wednesday Gospel reading points us to Jesus’ instructions on prayer. Not only that, Matthew’s passage offers us a prayer—THE prayer, which Christians have been saying since it got passed around and learned by heart, like the treasure it is.

Scripture can be found here...

So, imagine if each of us were to set aside time each day to simply, and mindfully, pray the Lord’s prayer.

Now, we can all rattle off the version we were taught as children (or the version we adopted as adults) almost without thinking.

But that’s not what we will challenge ourselves to do. Instead, we will practice saying the Lord’s prayer mindfully, by which I mean, with awareness. With care. Noticing. Among other things, prayer is about attention.

One of my stratagems for helping us to be mindful, to pay attention during the Lord’s Prayer, is this: We are saying a different version for the duration of the season. It happens to be the version you have in your Holden Evening Prayer booklets. This is known as the Ecumenical Version, because it is used by many different Christian denominations, and takes us out of the debtors versus trespassers stalemate (which no one is ever going to win. Trust me.).

So let us pay attention, and say the Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven…   

We begin by calling God, not MY Father, but OUR Father. This prayer teaches us: we pray, always, as part of community. There is no such thing as individual prayer for Christians.

And we acknowledge that God is not within our limited human sight, but in another, unknown realm—but one towards which we hope.

…hallowed be your name…

It is an ancient tradition for people of faith to acknowledge that the name of God is holy. For Jews, the word known as the “tetragrammaton,” the four letters, is not to be said aloud. We Christians add vowels and say it out loud—“Yahweh,” or “Jehovah.” And we use other words that talk about God’s role, and God’s attributes—Father, Shepherd, Rock, Redeemer—but we don’t use the name of God directly. God’s name is holy. There is a handout for you with the Ecumenical Lord’s Prayer on one side and the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer version of the Lord’s Prayer on the other side. Notice how many words are devoted to saying—and not saying—the name of God.

New Zealand Book of Common Prayer

…your kingdom come…

Things would be better, we are pretty sure, if God would come and fix everything. When we say “your kingdom come,” what comes to mind? Is it … Food for the hungry? Water for the thirsty? Welcome for the stranger? Clothing for the naked? Loving accompaniment for the sick and imprisoned? Is it an end to war? Safety for those at risk? Or is it something else? What do you mean when you say, “Your kingdom come?”

…your will be done, on earth as in heaven.

Again, what do we mean when we say this? Augustine of Hippo famously said, “Lord, make me chaste… but not yet.” I strongly suspect for many of us, myself included, have a similar approach to “your will be done.” It would be great if God’s will were to be done… as long as it involves each of us getting to stay in our comfort zone. What do we mean “your will be done”? Do we mean it, even if it means change for us? Loss for us of those things we cling to? How open is our heart to God’s will?

Give us today our daily bread.

Again… this is prayer in the first person plural mode. We are praying for our daily bread… it is the prayer of a community, not an individual. And our “daily bread” is certainly distinct from the other things we might pray for. I could name frivolous things. OK, I will. A blue 2017 Ford Mustang. Give me this day THAT, Lord. But even serious things, like… Give us this day a cure from these diseases, these addictions, these heartaches, these worries… These very serious things that we certainly have every right to believe we can and should pray for … they are not a part of this prayer. This simple prayer. This simple prayer urges us to pray, simply, for what we need today. That might be the courage to face our illness, or our addiction, today. The strength to endure our heartache, today. The heart to hold our worries without letting them overwhelm us, today. Simply, like food on the table for just one more meal, we are urged to pray for just what we need today.

Forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.

It is so simple. It is so hard: Our willingness to forgive others is intimately bound together with God’s forgiveness of us. And whether or not we feel capable of forgiveness at any particular moment, we lift it to God. We pray it, to the One who not only forgives us, but teaches us to forgive.

Save us from the time of trial and deliver us from evil.

Finally, after all the other requests have been made, we ask protection… again, we are praying as a community. How does that change this petition for us? What trials come to mind when we pray this? What evil do we have in mind?

For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours, now and forever. Amen.

We end as we begin: acknowledging the greatness of God, the incomprehensible scope of God’s power and majesty.

In a moment I will invite all of us to observe a holy Lent through our practices of prayer, fasting and giving. And then we will be invited to mark our bodies with ashes in the sign of the cross—the acknowledgment of our mortality in the sign of Christ’s triumph over sin and death. I invite you, too, to consider letting Jesus teach us how to pray. I invite you to pray his prayer, mindfully, attentively, and openly.

Let’s let Jesus show us his way.

Thanks be to God. Amen.