Prayer is easy; prayer is hard. It is both of these together. Sometimes words tumble out, one after another and on top of each other, and then sometimes prayers come only in groans and silence. Most of my best prayers have been either yelling or crying. Just emotive noises, really. So whenever I read this familiar text in Luke, I find myself on the edge of my seat when the disciples ask, “Teach us to pray.” I want to know the answer; I am indeed begging to know the answer. Again. Teach us, Lord.
This is a very good question, Disciples. Bravo! And I think Jesus rewards them for this excellent question by giving them something that Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, in their book Lord, Teach Us call “a gift.” This is an understatement, surely, as we think about how many people, in the days since Jesus first uttered this teaching, have held the words of the Lord’s Prayer on their own tongues.
These are the words to which we come when prayer makes no sense. When we can’t pray on our own-- whether it is because we feel like we don’t have the theological chops, or whether we are jaded and confused, angry and misled, or heartbroken and tired, we remember the familiar words that Our Savior taught us to pray: “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” They echo back even unto ancient Israel, paralleling prayers like the Qaddish and the Eighteen Benedictions. They give us a solid place to anchor our feet when the world feels like it’s sinking.
But perhaps one of the most beautiful things to notice in this passage is what prompts the disciples’ question, and that is Jesus’ very life. In this passage, Jesus is just coming back from praying. He does this a lot, in all four Gospel books: Jesus stealing himself away to pray, crying out in crowds, whispering in the dark. Jesus prays, and the disciples notice. Some of the more crass among us (I will go ahead and do it, since you are probably a pastor and actively trying to avoid crassness) might wonder aloud why Jesus prayed so much, seeing, of course, that he is part of the Trinity and thus knows and knew all the answers.
He knew the answers to the questions on all of our lips after reading a passage like this:
How often should I pray? What should I say? Is God listening? Why do some of my prayers go unanswered? I have asked, seeked, and knocked… why do I still feel like I’m standing outside the door?
But he did pray, often. And in doing so, he set up a practice that his followers, ever since, have mimicked. For what Jesus is modeling is a call to intimacy with God. It invites us to take our place with Jesus, as sons and daughters of God, to call out, “Hello! Our Father?”
And he even tells us that it’s OK to appear a little ridiculous in our prayers. We can come in the middle of the night, begging for loaves of bread. We can come, as the Greek word anaideia suggests, “shamelessly.” We need not worry if we’ve gotten the theological questions wrong, or if what we’re petitioning God for is even the right thing to ask. We can come, still, as little children, who can’t quite put sentences together, who are feeling big feelings that we can’t quite make sense of, and who just want what we want and we don’t know what to do about it. God won’t punish us for asking, he won’t give us snakes or scorpions. Instead, we can trust that God is listening, that God will not be too far off to hear our prayers, even if they are silly or selfish or completely off-base. He is, indeed, Our Father. And, as Frederick Buechner writes, “ even if he does not bring you the answer you want, he will bring you himself. And maybe at the secret heart of all of our prayers that is what we are really praying for.”
There is a woman named Miss Jessie at our church, and she runs the Ministry of the Amens. She’s the only one, out of an entire congregation, who calls out Amen! in the midst of service, and I’m quite glad that she does.She’s the Echoer, the Exhorter, the Caller of Attention to the Good Stuff. She punctuates the truths in the sermon, and she must know, instinctively or otherwise, that the Hebrew word for Amen means “right on,” or “so be it.” What is usually translated in the Gospels as, “Truly, I say to you” is Jesus saying “Amen, I say to you.”
So maybe we should repeat that last word in Lord’s Prayer a few times, whenever we finish praying it, so as to call attention to this very, very good stuff. Maybe you can imagine your own Minister of the Amens saying it in her or his own, strong voice.