The Episcopal Church of the Holy Innocents 

Pentecost X: prayer

“Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”[1] This is a poignant request. While the uninitiated may assume that it asks for technical knowledge, those who have prayed it through their lives know that this request expresses a deep heart’s yearning to better communicate with God. Jesus’ followers ask Him to teach them to pray, and given the elegant subtleties of English syntax, it is possible at first glance to wonder if they mean that they want Jesus to teach them the prayers that John taught his disciples. Or, do they mean: “Just as John taught his followers to pray, so we now ask that you teach us, your followers, to pray.”  Of course, it is the latter not the former; they’re not asking for the words John gave to his friends, they’re asking for the words Jesus will give to them in the present moment. And He does; He gives them the words that form The Lord’s Prayer, the Our Father, the Pater Noster[2]…arguably as well-known a bit of scripture as any other.

[1] Luke 11:1
[2] The text of this prayer- the one with which we were raised, and the one used in The Book of Common Prayer- concludes with a doxology that does not appear in the Gospel. That doxology was added very early to the liturgy, appearing first in Chapter 8 of a Patristic document called The Didache, c. 100CE. 

This prayer is embedded in our psyches, ingrained in us, tattooed upon our souls. I have stood bedside with persons laboring on the farther shores of Alzheimer’s dementia who, when prompted, can recite perfectly this prayer and seemingly derive comfort from it. Even having lost touch with themselves, they have not lost touch with these words Jesus taught. If all the written and electronic literature of the Christian Faith was lost and we once again had to rely solely on our individual and corporate memories[1], these words would persist and endure long after other words had fallen away into increasingly dimming, fragmented memory.  

Abraham has an extended conversation with God about Sodom and Gomorrah[2], and in that conversation Abraham learns much of himself as a faithful person, and about God’s nature, simply by asking questions and hearing answers. Abraham displays the wisdom (folly and foolishness?) of old age as he takes courage to ask for conversation with God. Abraham trusts the covenant God and he have made; Abraham is not testing but rather exercising that covenant. He wonders aloud with God about Sodom and Gomorrah, and God responds. Abraham has leapt the first and highest barrier in prayer- believing that this is actually a conversation, that what is said is actually heard, and taken seriously, and answered. And look what happens when a human being crosses that threshold! There is a divine and respectful conversation, a conversation with The Holy One makes His conversation partner holy as well, and human life after the conversation is very different than human life was before it. 

Prayer is baffling to most people. For many, prayer feels like an inside joke that they don’t get, and as we are reticent to ask for explanations of jokes we don’t get, so also we are reticent to appear dense by asking for help with prayer…better to ‘fake ‘til you make it’…appear to know what’s going on, and make the moves, and perhaps sooner or later, it will become clear. This makes the public liturgy of the Church a default position: “Well, we say it out loud, together, and the words are written down. As inadequate, incompetent and deficient as I feel about prayer, and even if I get nothing else, I am relieved that I am able to be in prayer in Church on Sunday morning.” And we hope that somehow that scores, that it counts. And it does. It’s a start. 

Too often we assume that our Sunday morning liturgical prayers will lead us into other divine conversations throughout the rest of the week, and they certainly can. But how would your prayers change if you understood your weekday prayers leading you into Sunday’s liturgy rather than the other way ‘round? 

We struggle to lay hold of prayer and have it lay hold of us, and we can misidentify it. We mumble in frustration about how crowded the parking lot is at the mall, or as we pull weeds, we speak to no one in particular about a lack of rain for the garden. And when a parking place at the mall or a bit more rain for the tomatoes happen in what we consider to be a timely fashion, we figure we’d prayed, and God heard us about our mall-errands and our vegetable garden. Certainly God loves us, and it is well within His power to water the tomatoes, but do we really believe that this is the sum and substance of prayer? Is that where divine conversation begins and ends? Leaving it there relegates prayer to the realm of superstition. That may be where it begins, but its authentic Faithful end can never be found. 

As in any conversation, prayer has a “you talk, I talk” rhythm, and hearing the answer to prayer is even more baffling for most people than saying what’s on their heart. We’re pretty sure we can formulate our side of the conversation. If we’re striving in our practice of prayer, and we hope for authentic humility for our part of it, we, like Anne Lamott, keep the prayer simple and in three categories: Help Thanks Wow.[3] Ms. Lamott’s succinct spiritual guidance is a good place to start. There are other forms and styles of prayer, however. Not all forms of prayer are strictly conversational. It is worthwhile examining these other forms of prayer as their descriptions are found in the Catechism.[4] 

Once we’ve said our piece, we squint our eyes and strain as we listen for God’s side of the conversation. When it is not an instant response in the human rhythm of conversation, our sensibilities suggest that 1) God’s not home, or 2) we’re just dumb and don’t “get it,” or 3) God’s messing with us.[5] None of these things are true. 

As was true in school, it is true in prayer also that being a good listener, an attentive listener, is an acquired skill. The listening side of prayer requires formation and practice. The formation is continual- the more you pray the more your prayers teach you to pray. Eschewing athletic imagery, and as trivial as it sounds, prayer is rather like a golf swing that, once grooved, has to be practiced. And like any physical skill, if prayer is not practiced, it is lost. The more you do it the better you get at it. 

Love you. See you in Church. 

FBC3+, 24 July 2016, being The Tenth Sunday after Pentecost

[1] ecclesiastical version of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

[2] Genesis 18:22-33; this is a dangerous scene, and it is not where the beginner should start in prayer. It looks almost as though Abraham is playing ‘let’s make a deal’ with God. Indeed, there is a negotiation going on, but it is not a quid pro quo deal that is being “if you do this, then I’ll do that” here. Abraham is exploring the nature of the One with Whom he is in covenant. And Abraham is expressing the tenderness and humanity of himself as the conversation moves forward, wondering about the impending deserved destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Such prayer is to be undertaken with the eyes-averted humility and genuine openness that Abraham shows to God, and to us as we overhear this holy interchange. 

[3] Anne Lamott. Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers. Penguin, New York, 2012

[4] The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 856-857

[5] God knows our limitations better than we do, and my guess is that the very last thing God would do through prayer is mess with us- we’re already a mess. That’s why prayer is essential in the first place.