Simply Put… Bon Jovi is Right
Like many of you, my earliest memories in church center on prayer. I can remember back to Mrs. Frank’s Sunday school class at Calvary United Methodist Church and cutting prepared words out of construction paper and then gluing the words onto a paper plate. Either the lesson was to teach us that our prayers are connected to one another in a circular pattern, moving around the plate or the Sunday school department had run out of card stock.
I can remember sitting in youth group in the church basement and waiting anxiously as our youth director would call on someone to pray. Oh the anxiety! Not only was I trying to navigate being cool around the girls at the table but I had to also balance my coolness so that the older kids would think I at the least was not weird as they thought I was. Our youth director would call on someone to pray and in that moment of youth group Russian roulette it felt as though my heart was going to jump out of my chest and into the chaffing dish holding whatever pasta dish had been prepared for us that week.
In seminary, of all the places, finding someone to pray at the beginning of class was a difficult task. Perhaps, it was having your professor staring you down while you attempted to muddle through the organizing of words into a prayer that made a small bit of sense or maybe it was thinking that your classmates were critiquing your prayer, word for word, as you spoke.
Prayer causes the anxiety of many people to rise, I know this and you know it, because in any church meeting or to open/close a Sunday school gathering when it comes time to pray it is a though someone pulled the pin on a hand grenade and everyone in the room in running for cover. I have found the best way to get out of praying is to pretend I am one step a head of the class leader but folding my hands, bowing my head, and closing my eyes. We forget that as Thomas Merton put it, prayer acts as the communion of our freedom in Christ with G-d’s ultimate freedom.
Jesus, turned and now making his way to Jerusalem, is asked to teach the disciples how to pray. They have been following him for 11 chapters now and this is the first and only time the disciples ask Jesus to teach them a specific task. The disciples have seen Jesus prayer over and over again as they followed him.
Jesus prayed as he escaped the gathering crowds who had come to hear him teach after he healed “a man covered with leprosy.”
The disciples had seen Jesus pray and they wanted to learn from their teacher how to as well.
And now in a crucial piece of what Jesus will teach his disciples, Jesus instructs the disciples that prayer is an indispensable act as it places the one praying in touch with the generosity of G-d. Prayer, Jesus tells his disciples, offers the one praying and those being prayed over the opportunity to be placed into an intimate encounter with our Creator.
“When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
Luke’s accounting of what Jesus taught the disciples to pray includes less detail than the version from Matthew’s gospel - the version we pray weekly whether attached to our prayers of the people or as part of our communion liturgy.
I first learned the Lord’s Prayer when I was in third grade. I say I learned it because that was the first time in my formal Sunday school curriculum I can remember having someone explain to me what the words meant and more importantly we got to place stickers next to our names on the attendance chart. This attendance chart was conspicuously placed on the door as you walked into the classroom for all to see, and for each part of the prayer we memorized we earned a gold star. The student with the most gold stars at the end of the year won a prize. We stood in front of the class and recited the Lord’s Prayer, the version from Matthew’s gospel not the Readers’ Digest version offered to us in our reading this morning.
There, in front of the classroom, praying this memorized prayer, while my real prayer was that I would get through this and add more gold star hardware to the door, my anxiety rose. My hands became sweaty, I’m sure my voice was pitchy, and I looked around the room for any classroom decorations that might aid me in reciting this prayer.
And I wish I could say that as I’ve gotten older praying has become easier, but you all know as well as I do that prayer difficult. A recent Pew research study found that 54% of Mainline Protestants pray on a daily basis while another 23% pray on a weekly basis. If the Lord’s Prayer is truly a gift as Stanley Hauerwas and Will Willimon suggest, then why do nearly half of Mainline Protestants not pray daily?
After all, if we cannot find the words to pray we have these words from Jesus, given to disciples who wanted learn what to say when they themselves did not have the words. Words that for many of us were etched into our brains way back when we were still breaking in the spine on our first Bibles.
The difficulty we have with prayer is corrected by the words Jesus gave to us to pray. The answer is right in front of us but we are blinded by our anxiety and we fail to see that the purpose of what Jesus told the disciples was to aid them and thus aiding us when we do not have the words to pray.
Jesus has not let us on our own to figure out our relationship with G-d. Every step of the way Jesus spelled out to the disciples just what his ministry was doing and who it was glorifying.
What seems to be a habit we just muddle through was actually designed to aid us when we either don’t know the words to pray or we are unsure of what we even need to pray for.
The words Jesus gave his disciples to pray and the prayer we use today serves is a habit the Church has been living on since the resurrection. Habits can either be harmful or healthy. Smoking we all know is a bad habit. Running and exercising are good habits. You know this. Prayer is the habit that connects us with the one who breathed the breath of life into our lungs while we were being knitted in our mother’s wombs. But the problem with a habit is that often the action becomes a process of going through the motions rather than something meant to build up the body.
There are Sundays where I know there are some of you who just want to get through the service (and I’m not just talking about during the sermon). You have somewhere else to be later in the day or later in the week and while you are sitting on the wooden pew your mind is already in that other place. I know this is true because, believe it or not, clergy go through the same experience. There are days, not when we do not know the words to say, rather we do not even know we need to say them, and like the liturgy that does not change from week to week, the prayer taught to us by Christ serves as the habit we lean into when it feels as though we are bending away from G-d.
So pray is mean to be a habit. Jesus’ prayer frees us from the need to make everything new and novel and spontaneous. This prayer eliminates the socialite assumption that prayer needs to be genuine and spontaneous which is indicative of our bondage to a culture that does not want us shaped by a particular Jew from a place like Nazareth.
Simply put… Bon Jovi is right, we are a community living on a prayer. A prayer mind you, that lacks $15 seminary words and is not longwinded. The prayer Jesus taught to his disciples is sufficient witness to G-d, made truthful by worshipers, through the One who taught is to be prayed.
The unsureness we feel in our prayers is precisely the reassurance Jesus offered his disciples in the parable he told.
The knocking on the door from a friend who is unable to feed his unexpected guests sounds like a silly story to tell. Of course, we think, it would be unreasonable for the man in bed to get up. After all it is late into the night or early into the morning. Just go to the gas station or 24-hour grocery store. But the man knocking on the door, seeking help from his friend for a friend knows that the custom of the day was to welcome traveling family, friends, and friends of friends because as Jesus reminded us in the parable of the Good Samaritan, travel during this day was dangerous. The man knocking on the door knows his friend will get out of bed, providing for his need because the man does not want to receive the glares of his neighbors in the morning when they find out he did not come to the aid of a friend.
“How much more then, will our Creator provide,” is the rationale Jesus moves to.
If the neighbor is asking for bread then how much more will our Creator give us when we petition our need for “our daily bread?”
Jesus offers us, through this prayer and all prayer to G-d, sufficient grace and compassion to ensure our needs, our daily bread is made available. The response we receive from G-d to the need we present may not match the desires we have. The daily bread or the healing we request from G-d may not mirror what we desire and this is where the difficult work of seeking G-d’s will through prayerful dialogue with our Creator begins. This is when we begin to lean into the Lord, bending even further towards G-d so that we can catch a glimpse, we pray, of what G-d’s will is for our lives and for the new creation inaugurated by Christ’s death and resurrection.
As we pray and make the words of Christ not only our prayer but a post by which we build our faith - knowing we were created by a G-d who desires to provide for our needs - know that when you do not feel like speaking the words or that you do not have the faith to do so in the moment, not only is this community praying the words for you, but the church universal is as well. In a world full of division among the church, Christ is still the head of the church, and through prayer we are still connected to Christ and one another.