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7-28-19 — How To Pray — Luke 11:1-13 — The Rev. Dr. Stephens Lytch

       Eugene Peterson tells about an encounter he had early in his ministry at the Presbyterian church in Bel Air, MD. Marilyn was a member of his church, a woman in her mid-twenties, married, starting a career in law. She was getting tests for some ailment the doctors couldn’t diagnose. All the resources of medical science and psychology were at her disposal, so when Peterson visited her, he wasn’t sure what he could do. But he asked her anyway, “Is there anything you want me to do?” Marilyn responded, “Would you teach me to pray?” At that moment she wasn’t looking for a diagnosis, or even necessarily a cure. What she was asking was how to see God in the midst of her pain. She was asking for assurance that God saw her.[1]

       When Marilyn prayed, she may well have asked for a cure, maybe even a miracle. Those do happen. But the effectiveness of prayer can’t be judged by quantifiable results, the way a company calculates return on investment or a charity shows donors measurable impact. Like every other human being who has ever lived, Marilyn’s body would one day succumb to illness or accident. Death and disability and disease don’t abide by our standards of fairness, and every person Jesus rescued from death eventually had to face it again.

       No, Marilyn wasn’t asking for a super natural formula to recite. She wanted to know the same thing Jesus’ disciples wanted to know when they asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They wanted to know how to tap into the force that created the universe, how to align with the power of the one who raised the dead.

       Jesus taught them what has come to be known as The Lord’s Prayer. Over the years, we’ve filled it in a little and added some extra phrases, but it is our model for how to pray. Its first two lines set the framework for all our prayers: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” Before we pray for ourselves or for others, we place all our requests in the context of God’s kingdom.  The kingdom of God is what Jesus’ ministry is all abaout. According to the gospel of Mark, Jesus’ very first words when he began his public ministry, the words that defined what he had come to do, were, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near…” (Mark 1:15) Jesus began God’s work of restoring all of creation to the way God intends it. The prophet Isaiah described that kingdom as the place where the wolf lies down with the lamb, swords will be beat into plows, where those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength and mount up with wings like eagles. When God raised Jesus from the dead, the power of death and corruption and all the things that keep that kingdom from coming to pass were overcome. Those who follow Jesus are enlisted in his work of fulfilling that kingdom. His resurrection is our assurance that everything we do in his name shows the world that God will prevail.  So all our prayers are raised based on that promise and expectation, that God’s kingdom is coming.

       In the context of that prayer for God’s kingdom, Jesus lists three things to pray for: our daily bread, forgiveness of sin, and deliverance from temptation. Let’s take a minute and unpack what each of those requests means when we pray them in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come.

       The first request is “Give us each day our daily bread.” Throughout the gospels, Jesus cautions against storing up too much that will distract us from God’s kingdom. When he sends the disciples out to do his work, he tells them, “Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals.” He tells a parable about a man who decides to build a bigger barn to store all his goods, only to die that very night. When a rich man asks him what he needs to do to have eternal life, Jesus tells him to sell all he has and distribute it to the poor. So this prayer, “Give us this day our daily bread,” is our request that God provide what we need for the day in order to do our part in the work of God’s kingdom. Now, by hard work or luck or maybe even some extra blessing, we may get more than our daily bread, and then we’re faced with the challenge of being good stewards of what we have. But to be a faithful follower of Jesus, all we need to pray for is “our daily bread.”

       Not everyone who claims to teach prayer agrees with that. There’s a strand of religion called the prosperity gospel. Some of its proponents you can see on TV, speaking in giant arenas packed with thousands of people. Those who tout the prosperity gospel quote Jesus’ promises without framing them in the context of the kingdom of God. Their message is that if we believe in Jesus and pray persistently, then God is obliged to give us what we ask for. After all, didn’t Jesus say in the passage we just read, “Ask and it will be given to you… for everyone who asks receives…”? What God really intends, so they say, is for you to be prosperous, and the reason you don’t drive a Jaguar or live in a mansion is that you haven’t been praying right. You haven’t been claiming the promises God has in store. And more than likely, you haven’t been sending enough money to the televangelist.

       Most of us can see through that kind of chicanery. Ever since Simon Magus tried to buy God’s blessings by paying off Peter and John (Acts 8: 14ff), people have been trying to profit from the gospel. But what about when our prayers are for those things that God couldn’t possibly be against, like healing for those we love. How could a loving God not cure my loved one’s cancer? How can a God of justice allow a mass-murderer to take the lives of innocent people? It’s when those prayers for healing or justice seem to fall on deaf ears, for things that are supposed to be Christlike and Godly, it’s in response to those seemingly unanswered prayers that so many people have given up on God altogether.

       Jana Childers, a professor at San Francisco Theological Seminary, tells of a friend who had cancer. Childers and her friends took Jesus’ command seriously and prayed without ceasing for her friend. For all their prayers, her friend didn’t get healed, or enter remission, or get a sign from heaven or a visit from angels. But what her friend did get was God. She was able to let go of this life with joy and gratitude and peace, knowing that not even death could separate her from God’s eternal love and care. In her friend, Childers was able to see the kingdom of God.[2] That’s how her prayer was answered.

       Someone was once asked what he got when he prayed. He replied that it was easier for him to say what he lost – anger, worry, resentment, fear.

       That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask. Some of us are reluctant to ask God for specific things like healing or a good job or the right place to live. After all, God has so many important concerns, like keeping the planets aligned or world peace. But that’s taking things to the opposite extreme. Jesus invites us to bring all our needs to God because that’s what we do in our most intimate relationships. The Lord’s Prayer starts by addressing God as Father. A good and loving parent wants to hear even the smallest concerns of his or her child. We tell our spouse or our best friend our wildest dreams and our deepest longings. In prayer God can help us sort out what is small or petty from what is important, and God may help us see that requests we thought were insignificant might be ways that God can carry out the work of the kingdom. Sometimes even if the answer to our requests is no, taking our desires to God can shape those desires into something even better. And at the very least, I’m sure there are times that the things I’ve asked God for have kept God amused.

       We’ve talked a lot about that first petition, “Give us this day our daily bread,” and what it means to ask God for specific things. In the second petition, we pray for relationships with God and with others: “Forgive our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” Of course we know that our sins are already forgiven. God’s forgiveness doesn’t depend on us praying this prayer. Our sins were forgiven when Jesus died for us on the cross. What we’re asking is that the same power of forgiveness that has reconciled us with God, in spite of all we’ve done to disappoint God, to reconcile us with others. We symbolize that reconciliation in our worship service when we pass the peace. When we pray as Jesus taught, we bring to God all our relationships and ask that Christ be present in them so we can treat everyone, whether we like them or not, with Christlike love, the way all people will treat each other when God’s kingdom comes.  

       The third thing we ask in the Lord’s Prayer is “do not bring us to the time of trial.” As we await the kingdom, there are many troubles, toils and snares that confront us. Traditionally, we’ve said, “Lead us not into temptation,” but that sounds like God might  us by the hand and plop us down in some situation where we’re tempted to sin. A few weeks ago Pope Francis changed the wording in the Roman Catholic version of the prayer so that it says, “do not let us fall into temptation.” That new wording is true to the original Greek, and it clarifies that we’re asking God to give us the faith and strength we need so we don’t fall into temptation, not that God is setting traps for us.

       All the things we ask for in the Lord’s Prayer, our daily bread, forgiveness of sins, and deliverance from temptation, are set in the context of our prayer that God’s kingdom come. After Jesus gives that model for how to pray, he goes on to encourage us to pray consistently and boldly. He ends this teaching on prayer by saying, “If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” It’s God’s Spirit, speaking with our spirits, that makes prayer alive and dynamic, not just words spoken into the air.

After World War I T.E. Lawrence, known as Lawrence of Arabia, brought the chieftains of Arabia with him to the Paris Peace Conference. Those men of the desert were amazed at many things, but what amazed them most was the running water in their hotel rooms. In the desert water is scarce. They knew its value. Here it was at their fingertips, free and endless for just the turning of the tap. When the chieftains prepared to leave Paris, Lawrence found them trying to detach the faucets so they could always have water with them in their dry desert homes. He tried to explain that behind the taps were huge reservoirs. Without that supply the faucets were useless. But the chieftains insisted. They were sure they could disconnect the faucets, taken them with them back to the desert, and they would have water forever.[3]

       The power of the Holy Spirit is what makes prayer different from mindfulness. Mindfulness is very popular nowadays. You can learn about it at the Y or download apps to guide you in it. It’s like meditation. You find a quiet place, empty your mind, focus your awareness on the present moment and pay close attention to what you’re feeling and thinking even as you try to empty your mind of all distractions. Those practices are helpful when we pray, but the difference is that in prayer, as we empty our minds of all distractions, we ask the Holy Spirit to fill us. We enter into conversation with God. There are times that we may not feel God’s presence, but we know that whether we’re aware of God or not, God is there.

       Prayer taps into that great reservoir of God’s Spirit that is empowering the work of God’s kingdom. In prayer we place ourselves and all our concerns in the eternal and loving hands of God with the plea, “thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” May it be so.


[1] Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, referenced in “Forming a People Who Pray,” by Andrew Root, Christian Century, July 3, 2019, p. 23.

[2] Jana Childers sermon, “A Shameless Path,” www.malankaraworld.com/Library/Prayers.

[3] Samuel H. Moffett, “Where’s the Power,” The Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. VI, Number 2, p.66.