Teach Us to Pray

Recently a young woman who was to sing at a wedding in our church (a cousin of the bride, I think) met with our music director to rehearse the songs she had been requested to sing. She put the arrangements in front of the director and commented on each one. "I know this one," and "I like that one." Of the last one she said, "I've never heard of this one. I hope you know it." It was an arrangement of "The Lord's Prayer." I think she is in a minority. At least I hope so. I think most people in our culture have heard of the Lord's Prayer. It is, after all, one of the most quoted sections in all of scripture. In our church, and probably in yours, too, we recite it every Sunday and it is often in other rituals and celebrations of the church. If we have been around the church for any amount of time, we have heard a good number of sermons, Sunday School lessons, and Wednesday evening studies about it. While it is not the only prayer we have from scripture, it is the best known and most beloved. It is, after all, our Lord's prayer. We believe that it is a prayer from the lips and heart of Jesus.

But both Luke and the lection for today invite us to see a bigger picture, to see the context in which the prayer occurs. We should remember that the request of the disciple, after all, is not "Teach us a prayer," but is instead, "Teach us to pray," and there is a difference. The prayer is a part of the response of Jesus, and we revere the prayer, but there is more to this response.

Of course, both the prayer and the prayer are modeled after Jesus, and that's a good beginning. I want to live and to pray the way Jesus did. He is, after all, the epitome of faithful living and it is to him and his life that we turn for instruction and for a role model. I have a copy of Ken Blanchard's Lead Like Jesus in my office and when I worked closely with Campus Crusade for Christ in college, we read Robert Coleman's The Master Plan of Evangelism. Both books, and many others, draw illustrations and principles from Jesus' life. He's a good role model!

Sometimes we look for models in other places, too. Some of us of a certain age grew up with a Gene Autry guitar or a Mary Hartline dress, and my brother still has his Hopalong Cassidy lunchbox.

Even today I use the same golf clubs as Davis Love (but with different results). There are, apparently, people who get their transmissions checked where the football coach suggests; and we have a good number of cook books by Paula Deen and Giada De Laurentis around our house. But, oh, we have to be careful with role models! In his delightful The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, Bill Bryson reminds us of the proliferation of cigarette ads in the 50's and 60's, some of them even in The Journal of the American Medical Association! One of my sons who is a cyclist has an incredible photograph taken in the 1920's of the Tour de France, the great bicycle race. All lined up in a competitive row, every one of those cyclists...is smoking a cigarette! The belief of the discipline in those days was that smoking expanded the lungs and was good for the heart muscle. The sponsors of the Tour encouraged it and everybody, apparently citing a good number of doctors and celebrities, complied! My goodness. They had chosen the wrong role models.

In recent years we witnessed the "WWJD" fad-what would Jesus do. The initials showed up on bracelets and t-shirts and Bible covers for a while, but now the fad seems to have ebbed some. But WWJD is a good place to start, a good name for our endeavors. And in this instance, wanting to connect with the God who made us, we begin...where he began. He prayed.

Luke and our lection for today believe that the little parable about the friend seeking bread is a part of the response, too. And while it says little about the structure of the prayer, it says a great deal about the heart and mind of the prayer. Jesus affirms the persistence and determination of the prayer. Persistence has its place here, a revered place, and is an important attribute of the prayer. But, again, let us be most careful. The honored gesture here is not mere persistence, but persistence in a good cause. To be quite frank, persistence in and of itself is no real virtue at all. Jesus affirmed neither the persistence of the rich man who made a fortune and sought to build bigger barns, nor the persistent interference of the Pharisees. No, instead he affirmed persistence in a good cause. The persistence of the friends who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus; the persistence of the women who traveled with him; and the faithful, persistent prayer of the father of the demon-possessed boy. I remember a persistent man from years ago in the community where I served when I finished college and began seminary. He had had an unhappy encounter with the company that had sold him the siding for his house. I don't know whether the problem was their siding or his installation, but I know that he was dissatisfied. He stacked the siding in his front yard, erected a sign proclaiming that the siding was no good, actually installed electric lights, and for years carried on his attack, day and night. He paid the electric bills, paid to have the sign repainted regularly, mowed around the stack of material every time he cut his grass, and saw the object of his scorn every morning when he left his house and every evening when he came home. For years and years he carried on that battle, persistent, persistent, persistent. I don't know what finally happened. I don't know how it finally ended. I don't know how much the battle cost him in money and time, nor do I know what it did to his marriage and to his blood pressure. But he lived with the problem for a long, long time. He was persistent.

And I also have on my shelf that "best-selling religious book (and I use the term loosely) of recent years." It's about finding our best lives and how prayer and perseverance are a part of that. On page one there is an illustration of a fellow who wanted a bigger house; on page two is an illustration of a young woman who wanted to be Miss America. We are encouraged then to visualize such tangibles in order to live our "best lives." Oh, I would have hoped that we had learned a long time ago that persistent prayer that chases square footage and carat weight is destined for disappointment. While we affirm persistence and prayer, their results are not always tangible rewards or measurable victories, are they?

What does persistence in prayer mean for you and for me? Persistent prayer is virtuous not when it honors our own prejudices and frustrations, but when it yields and seeks the mind and heart and spirit of God. And we can realize those things, I think, in an older car, in a smaller house, and with a third-place ribbon.

And did you notice that when Jesus talked about prayer, all his pronouns are plural and the parable details a relationship between two friends? There's a lesson here, too, and the plurals and the parable are not accidents. Our most effective prayer arises from our participation in the community of faith, from our participation in the church. We really aren't islands complete within ourselves. We need each other. We strengthen and draw strength from one another. And we forget that too often.

In Marietta, Georgia, where I live, this broadcast will air early on Sunday morning. Perhaps it's early where you are, too. If it is, I hope you are getting ready for church. I hope you are getting ready to find your parking place, to get into your Sunday School class, and perhaps you're the one who makes the coffee and sets out the doughnuts. I hope you know who's in the hospital, which children's class needs a substitute teacher, who is responsible for the youth group supper tonight, and whether the choir will wear robes on this hot July morning. Those tiny questions, seemingly so insignificant, are the questions of the faithful community. They are the lifeblood of the church, and you and I believe that they have eternal significance. We believe that we are to live out our lives in community, hand-in-hand, heart-in-heart with one another. We believe that how we get along with each other says a great deal about how we love God and the kind of people we want to be. The wonderful writer and musician Marva Dawn was a guest in our church recently. She told the staff that we, the church, are responsible for loving the whole world and we practice, she said, by loving people in the church. She said that she thinks God tests us sometimes by putting us in the church with some people whom we just can't stand! If we can love those people, it seems, we can love anyone! Is that true for you? Is it true in your church? Do you get the feeling that God has put some really difficult people in your church for you to practice on?

In a staff meeting recently we talked about those computer dating services that are really popular right now. You pay your fee and fill out the questionnaire and the company will put you in touch with several people who are just like you! In other words, they will put you in touch with someone who is easy to love. Easy to love. The church, on the other hand, doesn't make that guarantee, does it? Just look at that worshiping body in your church today. If you sit in the balcony, look down at those bald heads or braids or those summer buzzes. If you sit toward the back, look at the backs of those heads in front of you. If you sit toward the front, know that they are looking at you! These people are your brothers and your sisters. Some believe differently about the sun standing still and the wandering in the wilderness. Some believe in a different form of baptism and some will vote differently in the next election. But they are your brothers and sisters, given to you to love and to care for. According to the parable and to the scripture today, we are to pray our most sincere prayers in the midst of this body. We are to join hands and hearts and seek together the will and nature of God.

It is John who records in his version of the gospel the encounter of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery and the crowd that would stone her. You remember what he said. "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And in that moment, I think the church is about as fragile as it ever gets. At that moment the fledgling church is so very vulnerable and so profoundly dependent upon the individuals in that crowd. It only takes one, just one, to destroy the tranquility and unity that is the church. There are times, to be sure, when our spiritual wellbeing and the life of the church are so profoundly dependent upon our willingness to seek the spirit of our Lord in our dealings with one another.

So, then, how do we pray? We pray like Jesus prayed. And we keep on praying. And we pray together.

Let us pray. Teach us, O God, to pray. Teach us to seek your spirit, to seek your will. Remind us again and again that we are to pursue your purposes and not our own, and bestow upon us your grace and your goodness. In the name of the one whose name we bear. Amen.