Scripture (Luke 11:1-13) can be found here…
Jesus was praying in a certain place.
Jesus prays a lot in the gospel of Luke. He is a pray-er. He prays when he is baptized. He prays when he is healing people, before, during, and after. He prays when word starts to get out about him—when he becomes a sensation, and people start following him everywhere—sometimes, huge crowds of them.
Jesus prays after he has unsettling encounters with the religious authorities, when they tell him that his acts of healing and kindness are breaking the law. Not long after that, he tells his disciples to pray for people who abuse them, and to bless those who curse them.
Jesus prays about who he is, and what he is supposed to be doing with his life. He prays about his call to ministry, and what it means.
He prays for his disciples, his friends, that their faith will be strong, whatever may come. He tells them to pray for that, too.
On the night on which he is betrayed, Jesus tells his friends to pray that they won’t come to a time of trial. Then he weeps, and he prays the very same for himself.
And then, as he is dying, Jesus sends up two prayers from the cross. He prays, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” And he prays, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”
Jesus prays a lot. And so, on this occasion when he is praying, one of his friends says, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
New Testament scholar Matt Skinner has this to say:
It’s a very personal, intimate thing, one’s prayer life. Getting started at praying is less like learning how to drive a car, how to play the banjo, or even how to preach. For most, it is more like learning how to kiss. You learn some by watching others do it. You should be discerning about whom you will allow to teach you. You certainly make mistakes. And maybe you always worry deep in your head that you might be doing it wrong.
Lord, teach us to pray.
On the surface, it appears that Jesus gives his friends a fairly brief prayer: a prayer designed to cover most bases of what life might throw at us each day; a prayer it won’t be too hard to learn by heart.
Do you remember the first prayer you were taught? For a lot of us, it wasn’t the Lord’s Prayer. Some of us were taught,
Now I lay me down to sleep; I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Feels like a kind of heavy prayer to lay on a little kid. There are new, kinder, gentler versions of the prayer.
Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep,
Lord, be with me through the night, And keep me 'til the morning light.
As a little Catholic girl, first I was taught, not the Lord’s Prayer, but the Hail Mary, which, if you look closely, isn’t so much a prayer as a greeting, and a request that she, the mother of Jesus, pray for us. I didn’t learn the Lord’s Prayer (which we called, the “Our Father”) until I was preparing for my First Communion.
Do you remember being taught to pray? I agree with Prof. Skinner. It is an intimate moment. Maybe we are seated around a table, when someone older reaches out and suddenly we’re all holding hands, connected, and someone begins to speak, and we realize, they’re not speaking to us, but to someone else… someone we can’t see… and now, we’re not only connected to one another: we’re also connected to God.
Or maybe we are in our jammies, being tucked in for the night—can’t get much more intimate than that—and our parent, or grandparent, or babysitter is showing us that we can fold our hands, and bow our heads, and close our eyes, and speak to God, either out loud or in our hearts. Connection.
Some of us wander into a room and find someone else praying—and we watch, and we wonder, and maybe we ask about it later. Maybe we don’t.
I really think Skinner is onto something when he compares learning to pray with learning to kiss.
We watch other people. Do they seem comfortable? Do they seem like experts? Do we instinctively feel either, “Oh, I could never do that,” or, “Hey, that looks nice.”
Jesus’ friends have been watching him pray, and, it seems, they think it looks nice. Maybe more than that. Maybe it looks like something they desperately want. Maybe it looks like connection. Maybe it looks like the kind of conversation you can only have with One who knows you most intimately. Maybe, sometimes, it looks like an argument between a married couple, where the outcome is never in doubt, but the sparks are flying.
Maybe it looks like rest. Maybe it looks like the gathering of vast forces for strength, or renewal. Maybe it looks like peace.
And, of course, we want to be discerning about who we ask to teach us—if we ever do ask. We may ask the person who looks comfortable praying, or who does it every day without fail, or who seems to benefit from it in some way we can’t quite put our finger on. We usually don’t ask the person who doesn’t seem interested, but we could. We sometimes don’t ask the person who says they have a hard time doing it, but we should, because maybe persistence is the point—Skinner says that he has learned, through praying, that he has the attention span of a goldfish. I expect a lot of us have learned that about ourselves.
And we may make mistakes in learning to pray. It’s not usually something we “master,” not at once, maybe not ever. I was in Cambridge, MA a couple of weeks ago to see a production of Hamlet. In one scene, we see Claudius, the one who killed Hamlet’s father, and married Hamlet’s mother. He has been kneeling for a while, apparently, praying. But after he stands up, he says,
"My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go." Hamlet, Act III, scene iii.
This, to me, is the trouble with prayer that seems to be at the heart of this passage. We know an expanded version of the prayer Jesus teaches his friends, with more words than Luke offers us. We pray it every single Sunday, usually in one particular translation, traditional among Protestants. And it is so easy to say the words without our thoughts ever, as Claudius puts it, flying up to heaven. It’s easy to recite words we’ve memorized. It’s harder for us to engage those words within. It’s harder for us to experience prayer the way we experience a kiss: as an expression of love, of connection, of the heart.
Skinner suggests, when the disciple says “Lord, teach us to pray,” what he’s really saying is more like, “Show us your heart” or “Tell us—what is it like to be in communion with God?”
That’s why I don’t think the words we know as “the Lord’s Prayer” are actually the heart of this passage. I think the context in which Jesus prays, and the persistence he urges in the words that follow, are at the heart of this passage.
Jesus prays when he is baptized, the moment when God shows up to claim and bless him, saying “You are my Son, my Beloved.” And so Jesus teaches his disciples to pray: Father: Hallowed be your name.
Jesus prays when he heals people, before, during, and after. And so Jesus teaches his disciples to pray for that time when all God’s people will participate in healing and caring for one another. Your kingdom come.
Jesus prays when he becomes a sensation, and people start to follow him around—sometimes, huge crowds of them, who need to be fed, and then, Jesus prays as he breaks bread for crowds of 5,000 and 7,000 people at a time. And so he teaches his disciples to pray: Give us each day our daily bread, what we need.
Jesus prays after he has unsettling encounters with the religious authorities. Not long after that, he tells his disciples to pray for those who abuse them, and to bless those who curse them. And so he teaches his followers to pray, And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
Jesus prays about who he is, and what God has called him to do. He prays for his friends, that their faith will be strong, whatever comes. On the night on which he is betrayed, he tells them to pray that they won’t come to a time of trial. And so, he teaches his friends to pray, And do not bring us to the time of trial.
And then; Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing… Father, into your hands I commend my spirit. And, so, from the cross, he teaches his disciples that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory are God’s, and even the violent death of God’s beloved Son does not change that. In fact, it reveals it, more powerfully and persuasively than ever.
Show us your heart, Jesus. Tell us what it is like to be in communion with God. And he does. Jesus shows and tells us that prayer is his response to everything that happens to him. That every moment of his life—from coming up out of the water sputtering, to walking slowly through a crowd healing, to lifting his eyes up to heaven while sharing, to moments of introspection and discerning, to climbing a mountain for the purpose of resting, to preparing those he knows and loves best for suffering—there’s hardly anything Jesus does that isn’t surrounded, immersed, enclosed by the act of praying.
No wonder his friends look on in wonder. No wonder they want some of what he has. And no wonder he gives us the most magnificent shorthand for how we can do that too.
Lord, teach us to pray. Let us look upon you as a pray-er, and see the ways in which we, too, can turn our hearts to God, whose name is holy; to God, whose kingdom we can participate in now, in our pursuit of justice, peace, and love; to God, who provides us each day with what we need; to God, who is good, and forgiving, and whose steadfast love is from everlasting to everlasting; to God, who does not lead us to times of trial, but who gives us strength for the journey. Teach us to pray, Lord. Show us your heart. And help us to be pray-ers, too.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Matt Skinner, “Dear Working Preacher: Who Taught You How to Pray?” WorkingPreacher.org, July 21, 2019, http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=5367.