Lord, Teach Us How to Pray

William James, a 19th-century philosopher and psychologist, says, “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”
If we cannot help it, why is prayer sometimes so hard?

Read Luke 11:1-13

[1]I have a question for you: Why do we pray?  (Some of the reasons…To talk to God)

William James, a 19th-century philosopher and psychologist, says, “The reason why we pray is simply that we cannot help praying.”[2]

If we cannot help it, why is prayer sometimes so hard?

And why do some people seem to always have a beautiful prayer ready at a moment’s notice?

Or maybe it just seems like they do…

In the movie Sister Act (1992), Whoopi Goldberg plays a nightclub singer who is the star witness in a murder case against a mob boss. The police need to hide her to protect her, so they disguise her as a nun and put her in a convent.  Her first day there, the nuns ask her to say the prayer at dinner.  She doesn’t really know what to say, but she’s determined to make it sound like she does, so she says….

Bless us, oh Lord, for these Thy gifts which we are about to receive. And yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of no food, I will fear no hunger. We want you to give us this day, our daily bread. And to the republic for which it stands, and by the power invested in me, I pronounce us ready to eat. Amen.[3]

She starts out a meal prayer, but then bounces from the 23rd psalm to the Lord’s prayer, the pledge of allegiance, and ends with a marriage ceremony.  She’s more worried about impressing the other nuns than she is about talking to God.

In our scripture reading for today, the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray, and Jesus gives them a pattern to follow. Luke puts this along their journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Matthew sets this teaching as part of the Sermon on the Mount and includes this extra bit of instruction:

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this:” (Matthew 6:7-9 MSG)

What follows is the Lord’s Prayer. Luke’s version is a bit shorter than Matthew’s, but you may still recognize it as the Lord’s Prayer. We use the Lord’s Prayer in church, but we can also use it for praying on our own. This prayer from Jesus gives us a template, a way to get started, or a way to end our prayers.[4]

When we don’t know what to say, praying is like writing.  When you sit down to write and you’re staring at a blank page, writing coaches say to just start writing, even if it’s just nonsense at first.  Many a sermon has started out with sentences I later delete, like “Here I am but I don’t know what to write here. God help me know what to say here…” Actually, that is a prayer.  Sometimes our prayers start out that way too.  “Here I am, God, but I don’t know what to say…”

Writer Anne Lamott tells a funny story about her early experience with prayer spending the night with a friend whose parents had taught her to pray using this prayer: “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep.  If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.”  And her reaction was “Heck no, don’t take my soul!  I’m only 7 years old!”[5]

Anne Lamott tells this story in her book about prayer called “Help, Thanks, Wow.”  Those three words are three basic prayers, each one just one word.  Can a prayer be just one word?  Yep. 

Sometimes prayer doesn’t even need words.  In the book Anne of Green Gables, the 11-year-old orphan Anne has only been at the Cuthbert’s house for a few days when Marilla Cuthbert has a conversation with Anne about prayer.

“Say your prayers now and get into bed.”

“I never say any prayers,” announced Anne.

Marilla looked horrified in astonishment.

“Why, Anne, what do you mean? Were you never taught to say your prayers? God always wants little girls to say their prayers. Don’t you know who God is, Anne?”

“`God is a spirit, infinite, eternal and unchangeable, in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth,'” responded Anne promptly and glibly.

Marilla looked rather relieved.

“So you do know something then, thank goodness! You’re not quite a heathen. Where did you learn that?”

“Oh, at the asylum Sunday-school. They made us learn the whole catechism. I liked it pretty well. There’s something splendid about some of the words. `Infinite, eternal and unchangeable.’ Isn’t that grand? It has such a roll to it–just like a big organ playing. You couldn’t quite call it poetry, I suppose, but it sounds a lot like it, doesn’t it?”

“We’re not talking about poetry, Anne–we are talking about saying your prayers. Don’t you know it’s a terrible wicked thing not to say your prayers every night? I’m afraid you are a very bad little girl.”

“You’d find it easier to be bad than good if you had red hair,” said Anne reproachfully. “People who haven’t red hair don’t know what trouble is. Mrs. Thomas told me that God made my hair red on purpose, and I’ve never cared about Him since. And anyhow I’d always be too tired at night to bother saying prayers. People who have to look after twins can’t be expected to say their prayers. Now, do you honestly think they can?”

Marilla decided that Anne’s religious training must be begun at once. Plainly there was no time to be lost.

“You must say your prayers while you are under my roof, Anne.”

“Why, of course, if you want me to,” assented Anne cheerfully. “I’d do anything to oblige you. But you’ll have to tell me what to say for this once. After I get into bed I’ll imagine out a real nice prayer to say always. I believe that it will be quite interesting, now that I come to think of it.”

“You must kneel down,” said Marilla in embarrassment.

Anne knelt at Marilla’s knee and looked up gravely.

“Why must people kneel down to pray?” If I really wanted to pray I’ll tell you what I’d do. I’d go out into a great big field all alone or into the deep, deep, woods, and I’d look up into the sky–up–up–up–into that lovely blue sky that looks as if there was no end to its blueness. And then I’d just feel a prayer.[6] 

Anne does go on to say a “proper” prayer that satisfies Ms. Cuthbert, but I like her idea that a real prayer might be something she’d feel out in a field or in the woods, looking up at the beautiful blue sky.

What sorts of places make you feel like prayer? What about you? What works for you?

Grand architecture (manmade and natural). Music. Art. Walking. Gardening. Doing dishes.

The Lord’s Prayer starts with praise. “Our Father, who is in heaven, holy is your name” is like the beginning of a letter.  Starting off our prayers this way reminds us who we’re praying to, God who reigns over all the universe who is holy divine.

In the book How to Pray, author Pete Grieg suggests a different way to start – with silence.  He uses the acronym P.R.A.Y.  Pause, Rejoice, Ask, Yield.

Pause – Be still, breathe.

Rejoice – this is the praise part. “Holy is your name.”  “Thank you.”

Ask – this is the part we know best.  Jesus tells us to ask and keep on asking.

Jesus says, “ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you.” (Luke 11:9 ESV)

The NLT version emphasizes the ongoing nature of prayer: “keep on asking…keep on seeking…keep on knocking.”

In other words, don’t give up.  Then Jesus tells a parable about a shameless neighbor who goes next door asking for bread in the middle of the night.  This just sounds crazy to us, but in the middle east this isn’t so crazy.  To Jesus’ listeners, the crazy part would have been that the neighbor said, “No, go away, I’ve already gone to bed.” [7]

In that culture, hospitality is a village-wide effort, everyone pitched in, and it was pretty common to have visitors late at night because in the desert people would travel at night to take advantage of the cooler temperatures.

Jesus says to Ask, and Seek, and Knock.  One commentator says that Jesus is telling us to pray like a salesman with his foot in the door.[8]  That’s a very persistent salesman!   We need to keep on asking, keep on seeking, keep on knocking. 

God says something similar to the people in exile through the prophet Jeremiah.  In Jeremiah 29 he said, “If from there you seek the Lord with all your heart you will find him.”  (A promise!) They had been used to going to the temple in Jerusalem to pray, but now they were captives in Babylon.  How could they pray now?  Jeremiah says it doesn’t matter where you are.  What matters is that you seek the Lord with all your heart.

Keep on praying.

The last letter of the acronym P.R.A.Y.  Y= yield.  Trust God’s goodness. Jesus says, “What parent doesn’t like to give good things to their children?  How much more will our heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask?”   God is faithful and generous, and Jesus tells us to expect that God wants to give us what we ask for.  Isaiah tells us this, too:

Isaiah 30:18  Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you;
    therefore he will rise up to show you compassion.

Forgive us, God.

With all this, it seems like prayer should be easier. But sometimes prayer is just hard.

And sometimes, prayer is entirely beyond our capacity in the moment.  Maybe we’ve all been there.

God understands. 

Psalm 46 has great advice for those moments: “Be still and know that I am God.”

So let’s take some time to pray right now.

–pause–

Fathering Mothering God, Reveal who you are.
Set the world right.
Keep us alive with three square meals.
Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others.
Keep us safe from ourselves and the Devil. (Luke 11 Message Version)

O Holy God,
so much to pray for; one prayer is not enough,
so may our pledge this day be to offer new prayers
each morning, each night,
as we revel in Your presence, humble ourselves in Your mercy,
strengthen ourselves in Your love.
Through Christ our Saviour and Lord.
Amen[9]


[1] Photo by Ümit Bulut on Unsplash

[2] As quoted by Phillip Yancey in Prayer, Kindle Edition, pg. 4.

[3] https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0105417/characters/nm0000155

[4] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of Luke (Philadelphia, Westminster Press), pg. 147.

[5] Anne Lamott, Help Thanks Wow: Three Essential Prayers (Riverhead Books, 2012)

[6] Lucy Maud Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables, digital text accessed here: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/anne-table.html

[7] Phillip Yancey, Prayer: Does it make any difference? (Zondervan, 2006), 146.

[8] Yancey, 146.

[9] https://www.churchofscotland.org.uk/worship/weekly-worship/monthly/july-2022/24th-july-7th-sunday-after-pentecost#reading4

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