“How to Pray”
If you have young children, and they are like ours, you might struggle with turning off the technology before bedtime. For both children and their parents, screens can be a distraction from the important personal and spiritual connections we make with each other. There is a story of a mother who was working with her six-year-old on the Lord’s Prayer one evening. The child was reciting it perfectly and then got to the end. “Forgive us our sins,” she said, “as we forgive those who sin against us. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from email.” With the proliferation of so much e-mail these days, I am sure you can understand her concern.
We might not realize that the context in which the Lord’s Prayer was offered in the Sermon on the Mount was to help correct distractions and misconceptions that were taking people away from their prayer life with God. There is so much to say about the Lord’s Prayer now and in the future, but let us explore a bit of it today. For it is powerful. Jesus suggested it. It can provide a model for how we pray. So let us pray. Loving Lord, you have shared the loving gift of conversation through prayer. Help us to use it to connect with you. Amen.
Last weekend the University of Chicago’s 2014 General Social Survey was released.[i] It’s considered one of the broadest national survey of Americans’ religious attitudes and showed a record low percentage of Americans attend church regularly, affiliate with organized faith or see themselves as religious. All three areas are at their lowest point since the survey started in 1972. However, the study showed that 57% of respondents said they pray at least once a day and 75% at least once a week. At a time when religious attendance and affiliation has declined markedly, the percentage of Americans who say they pray regularly has actually increased 3 percentage points since 1983.
Notre Dame’s Christian Smith suggests this trend shows that religion is becoming more private and personal, and less public and institutional.[ii] Yet, our Presbyterian Book of Order defines prayer as “the heart of worship… that prayer grows out of the center of a person’s life in response to the Spirit.” Karl Barth said, “Prayer is the most basic theological act.” As Father James Martin put it, “prayers’ longevity results from a basic human need…a human instinct to pray.”[iii]
There is perhaps no question that I have gotten more often from Bradley Hills members than that of how to pray. This has come up from session members and non-ordained. Long-time members and new members. Older members and younger members. Our director of spiritual life tells me that no women’s retreat has received greater attendance than when they focused on how to pray.
The disciples had the same question of how to pray. Luke tells us that the disciples came to Jesus they asked him how to pray. First, as Matthew details, Jesus responded by telling them how not to pray – in terms of how to speak and what to say. Prayer was important to observant Jews. Many of the Psalms were prayers. However, some Jews and gentiles had taken to praying so loudly and publically that it was obvious their intended audience was impressing other people, not communicating with God. Prayer is not performance. So Jesus suggested doing it in private and focusing on God not others. Secondly, Jesus suggested that the words in prayer matter less than we think, for God already knows what we need before we ask it. The main Jewish prayer at the time, the Shema, was recited over and over and there was concern that people were so focused on being precise and exacting in their recitation of the prayers, or that they were going on auto pilot and not thinking about the words. Reformers over the centuries have had similar concerns about some traditional Roman phrases that are said reactively.
Jesus did not put on a seminar about prayer. He did not take out a scroll and outline the steps of prayer. He did not take the Old Testament and read how Moses communicated with God.
Instead Jesus suggests a specific prayer, the Lord’s Prayer. We heard two versions this morning. Matthew’s version in the King James is close to the traditional version we say each week. Luke’s version is shorter and ends differently.
One frequent question that comes up regarding the Lord’s Prayer is why here we ask God to forgive our sins, while in most Presbyterian churches they says debts and they say trespasses in Catholic or Anglican churches.
Jesus spoke originally in Aramaic (though there was a public dispute between Benjamin Netanyahu and Pope Francis last May about whether or not Jesus actually spoke Aramaic, but I will side with the Pope on this one and go with Aramaic), an ancient language somewhat similar to Hebrew. Like Hebrew, Aramaic is considered a flexible language. The Aramaic word used in the Lord’s Prayer, hoba, can mean either debt or sin. So, Matthew and Luke when writing their Gospels in Greek each used a different translation of hoba. There were ophililema for Matthew meaning an obligation owed, and hamartia for Luke meaning moral shortcoming or wrongdoing, missing the mark, in other words, a sin.
Both work. Matthew used debts. Luke used sins. In the middle ages, churches replaced sins with trespasses. In 1549 for example, the English Book of Common Prayer shifted the word sins to trespasses and it became the official version used in Anglican congregations.
However, Presbyterian and other Reformed churches tended to use the words debts or debtors. Some joke, and I say this as a Scot, that frugal Scottish Presbyterians would be ok forgiving someone’s sins, but try to tell a frugal Scot to forgive the debts owed to them……so they had to include that.
On page 16 of your hymnal the traditional version of the prayer uses debts and the ecumenical version uses sins. Our version on Sundays here therefore is a combination, we use mostly the Matthew version on Sundays in the King James with the word sins inserted as Luke would.
I think sins is more accessible, direct, clear and easier to understand. However, there is something about debts that I like too. It’s probably a closer translation to what Jesus meant as it’s the more common translation of hoba.
Moreover, debts not only mean the economic work of Jesus, who forgives for us what we owe to a God, debts don’t really mean just financial obligations. While trespasses are the sins of commission, things we do that are wrong, debts are sins of omission, failures to take advantage of our opportunities for doing good. In other words we our asking God to forgive our debts, meaning our failure to use our time, talents and treasure to help. If you think about what Matthew wrote later in Matthew 25 about the division of the sheep and the goats, in this analysis debts are our missing opportunities for showing love.
Now we say the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday in worship. I and many others find its rhythm very comforting. Thomas Aquinas called it the “perfect prayer.” Saying the actual prayer is helpful and connects us with God, with each other and with Christians everywhere. Its words and what we pray through them are very meaningful. We will unpack their deeper meaning another time.
I don’t think that what Jesus meant in the Sermon on the Mount was that every time you pray you should only say the words of the Lord’s Prayer. He is not saying, “When you pray, only do the Lord’s prayer.” For one thing Jesus had just gotten done, in part, warning his disciples not to just say the same words over and over so they lose their meaning.
Secondly, the Bible tells us several times that Jesus, or John and the disciples went off to pray and yet nowhere does it lift up Jesus actually praying the Lord’s Prayer. There are examples of Jesus praying for strength in the wilderness or giving thanks to God at the last supper or praying they “know not what they do” on the cross and the Gospels don’t tell us that Jesus ends those prays with the Lord’s prayer.
What I think is going on is that Jesus wants us to pray not only the words but learn the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer and let that help guide our prayer life.
When people are looking for a model, an order, to follow for praying, the most common order of how to pray in our pastoral books has the acronym ACTS. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. That means when we pray we are to start with praising God, then confessing, then giving thanks, then making our supplication or request.
In a way our worship services follow this order. We start by adoring God. We confess, then we give thanks to God after the assurance and then experience God and take our requests to God in prayer, our supplications, in response.
Yet inspired by the Lord’s Prayer, I prefer ASCT Adoration, Supplication, Confession and Thanksgiving.
I like to begin by adoring or praising God. Then I get my request, what I am praying for, out of the way. When one comes to God praying for something, it’s on your mind anyway, you might as well get it out and ask for it. I also believe getting the supplication or issue or concern about first is more real, it creates the kind of conversation that we want with God, as if we are telling our problem to an old friend.
Then I confess. I like that next because it helps me pretty quickly get out of my self and realize it’s not about me. Confession helps me move away from the issue I prayed for.
Then I like to end with thanksgiving rather than the supplication. The Heidelberg Catechism suggests that the whole life of a Christian should be an expression of gratitude. It’s like the boy, Oliver, in the recent movie St. Vincent, who simply prays, “Dear God, thank you. Amen.” The medieval church leader Mister Eckhart said that if your only prayer was “thank you,” that is enough.
When we end with gratitude we get out of self and realize our problem is not all there is. Nothing helps us move on from the problem we were praying about like articulating what we are thankful for. Pastor Bill Hybles said if you have a mountain of things to pray about, don’t focus on the mountain, focus on God. If you focus on the mountain it will seem overwhelming. If you focus on God it seems ok. When you end with supplication, you end the prayer focused on you and what you want. When you end with Thanksgiving, you end with God. If we end thinking about the problem, we go away from the prayer thinking still about the problem. If we end with thanksgiving we end thinking about God’s blessings. I find I leave the prayer session feeling better because I put my concern in the context of my relationship with God and with all I am thankful for.
The Lord’s Prayer follows this pattern. It starts with Adoration, “Our Father, Hallowed be thy name.” Then building to the supplications, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” Then the ask/request, “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Then confession, “forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Then it ends with what seems like two petitions of being led from temptation and evil but I think the word “for” here indicates a connection with the doxology which ends the prayer, “For thine is kingdom and the power and glory forever. A doxology of thanksgiving that God, not evil, is in charge.[iv] Ending not with one’s self or problems but with the affirmation of thanksgiving to God.
If you find this, or a related pattern, helpful as you pray use it. Or if another is helpful I’d love to hear about it. Or if you are struggling with prayer we are happy to connect on it.
Jesus said God already knows our concerns. The words may not matter as much as the spirit of our prayers. For we do not pray in our own power. The Lord’s Prayer comes from Jesus and so does the strength to pray to God in a meaningful way, whatever our concerns. I believe when Jesus says intentionally “pray like this” he is also suggesting we pray in the spirit in which he was praying. Jesus says “in this manner” pray. Here is our model and manner. He contrasts his praying with praying “like others.” He says pray in the manner of the Lord’s Prayer.
That means being open to God. Prayer is a conversation, not a performance, and we should be open to the presence of God through the prayer. Not just focusing only on our words, but on God’s presence. Not speaking so loudly that we drown out God’s still small voice.
It means being guided by God. The Lord’s Prayer starts and ends with the reminder that God is in charge. So we pray that God’s will be done. As we move through Lent towards Holy Week and the cross we recall that even in his darkest hour Jesus prayed that God’s will be done too.
It means noticing God. Prayer settles us and helps us be more present. It focuses us and strengthens our faith. It calms us and connects us with God and each other. So that we can notice God all around us. That is why C.S. Lewis said “I pray not because it changes God, but because it changes me.” Our director of spiritual life suggests that many of us pray when we are open to a relationship with the spirit in our everyday lives we just don’t call it prayer. For example, a member of our vitality task force was at a meeting unrelated to church and suddenly made a spiritual connection to God in her everyday life and recognized it as prayer. People who pray report having higher sensitivity to God and to others. It’s why our Lenten focus on prayer in worship has helped me notice God’s presence and guidance more fully.
In a world of distractions and competition for our attention and allegiance, prayer, and the Lord’s Prayer in particular, has endured. As you go through Lent, when you recite these timeless words, learn from the text and spirit of the Lord’s Prayer, be led by Jesus’ example, by God’s love and by the Holy Spirit. For in them is the kingdom and the power and glory forever. Amen.
[i] Scott Clement. “Study: Americans still pray even as religious practices wither. Washington Post. March 7, 2015.
[iii] Ibid; James Martin. Jesus: A Pilgrimage.”
[iv] We will leave out of this discussion any dispute about whether Jesus said the words here, or whether, as Luke suggests, perhaps he didn’t, or whether Henry VIII added this doxology or when/who might have added it.