He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.”  Luke 11:1

“So I say to you, Ask, and if will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you… 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!” Luke 11: 9, 13

One of the requirements of my MDiv program was to study one of the Biblical languages.  I took three semesters of Greek – just barely enough to scratch the surface.  It was mostly written exercises and translation, but once, during the second semester, we were actually called upon to speak: each of us had to memorize a passage from the Bible.  One of the options was the Lord’s Prayer – the version from Matthew, not this one – and I spent weeks working on it.

When called on to recite, I rattled off the entire prayer at top speed – much to the surprise of my professor.  (Who did note, however, that speed had not impacted upon accuracy.)  It’s quite likely that part of the breakneck pace had to do with nerves, but it strikes me that it might also have come out of habit: the familiarity of the words, even in another language, the rhythms at which I was used to speaking them during worship, all impacted upon my recitation.

I don’t think I’m alone in this, or in getting about as much out of such familiar words as I did when they were in a language I barely spoke.  I wonder if Jesus thinks about this moment with the disciples, when we pray, and shakes his head our rote, neat recitations of his prayer.  Because I don’t think that he meant for us to speak those exact words as often as we do.  It really wasn’t Jesus’ way, after all, to give clear, concrete instructions.  This, like his parables, like his metaphors, seems to be meant more as an illustration than as something to be repeated verbatim.  It would seem that what he hoped for was not that we would repeat the words of his prayer, so much as the emphases.

“Prayer does not change God, but it changes the one who prays,” said Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  And whether or not we recognize it, our traditions of prayer point us in this very direction.  How we hold ourselves as we pray – heads bowed, hands clasped, sometimes kneeling – these are physical moves, attitudes of prayer to remind us that, although to one who loves us, not praying to an equal.  That in this relationship, we are the humble supplicants, relying entirely upon the grace and love of a being we cannot, truly, begin to understand.  The very postures in which we pray should change the very nature of our prayer, if we recognized them for what they are: the consciousness that God listens to us not because we’re “all that”, but because God is.

But what Jesus is advocating in this moment with his disciples is not just an attitude of the body –  he gives no instructions, here, about kneeling or bowing one’s head or any other physical stance.  Jesus’ concern is entirely about the attitude of the heart.

Have you ever put off giving bad news, because it will make the news “more real”?  Speaking of death, of disaster, of diagnosis can force us out of a place of denial faster than just about anything else.  It is human nature: things we say become more “real”, and the more often they are repeated, the more ingrained into our lived reality they become.

This is true, of course, of joy as well as of pain.

While I was in school, I remember taking a brief informal survey of classmates one day; and the results were unsurprising.
Those who said grace before meals were more likely to think about origins of their food, the people who had picked it, shipped it, and prepared it.  Those who made mention of their own mortality in their bedtime prayers – the few who might still say, “If I should die before I wake” – were on the whole more appreciative of life, more cognizant of its brevity and value.  Simple words, thanking God for nourishment, recognizing a basic human truth – brought these realities into my classmates hearts in a more powerful, lasting way that informed everything else they did.

Words have the power to turn our hearts.

Which is, of course, what Jesus was usually trying to do.

“Teach us how to pray!” begged the disciples, wanting to be associated with Jesus in a way that was visible and obvious to all.  This was common practice among the religious teachers of the day; John had taught his own disciples a very distinct way of praying, one that would mark them as “followers of John the Baptist” to any who were “in the know.”  Jesus’ followers longed for similar signs – a secret handshake of sorts that would mark them as special.  But the prayer instructions they received – really, the vast majority of the teachings that they received – were not about the body, but about the heart.  Jesus, as he often did, skipped the superficial, outward markings of group membership, gently reminding his followers that membership in God was the greater truth that needed to become real.  And so Jesus taught his disciples to pray: to praise God and recognize God’s power and authority.  To recall God’s promises to care for us, and  our responsibility to each other – including an explicit reminder that how we treat one another is the clearest mirror into our relationship with God.  Jesus teaches his disciples a prayer that calls us out of ourselves, that is all about relationship –  have you ever noticed that it’s a communal prayer, spoken in the second person plural?  It’s not “I” and “me”, but “we” and “us”.  That’s not accidental.  It puts us all in the same boat, and reminds us of our dependence upon one another and upon God.

Which is necessary context, given what comes next.

Because if we, indeed, wouldn’t give our own kids bad things, if persistence is rewarded, then I totally should have had that pony as a kid.

In order to be ordained in the United Church of Christ, we all have to take CPE – clinical pastoral education, usually in a hospital setting.  I had one conversation with a patient that I hope never to forget.  He was excited to see the chaplain, first of all, which made the setting a little unusual.  But he didn’t really want to talk about himself; rather, we talked about his late wife’s illness and death.  I don’t remember, particularly, what disease she had.  I remember mostly that he – my patient – had prayed incessantly after her diagnosis.  He had prayed that it was all a mistake – that he’d wake up and find that it had been a nightmare.  But mostly, he had prayed for a cure for her, as they moved from doctor to doctor, discussing treatment options and side effects.  He had prayed for a cure, but it was as though he was  talking to a wall; the prayers didn’t seem to be going anywhere, didn’t seem to be heard, certainly weren’t being answered.  He prayed, but mostly felt abandoned and empty.

Until one day, an impulse made him change the words that he was using.  One day, for no particular reason, he asked God not to “cure her” but to “heal her”.  And the brick wall vanished.  That prayer, with its simple change, opened his eyes and opened his heart, so that he could see more clearly what his wife needed – not a cure, but healing.  With this new understanding, he was able to arrange time for his wife with several estranged family members; to try to heal the breaches before time ran out, to try to finish some unfinished business.  None of it helped her live longer, but it all helped her to live better, and to die more peacefully.

I asked this man what it felt like, when he changed that prayer.  He took a moment to think, and told me that it had been as though God had been waiting for him to stop navel-gazing and simply pray for HER.  Nothing more complicated than that.

And I wonder if that was all that Jesus was trying to do.

In that time, the style of prayer marked the disciple – John’s followers prayed like John.  But Jesus said, in essence, “don’t worry about style, worry about content.”

Let your prayer change you.

Let your prayer lead you to others, to love, to the Kingdom.

Let your prayer lead you to pray for humanity’s most basic needs: for nourishment, and love, and safety – that we may be delivered from evil.

Let your prayer put your wants and desires in perspective.

Here, Jesus said: pray this, and then just try to pray for a pony.  Go ahead.

Here: pray this, and then just try to walk away the same person you were before.

If you can, it’s worth asking whether you were really praying.

Try this, right now: Pray for your loved ones, that they might be fed, and loved, and and safe.

Now pray for the person who drives you crazy – we all have people like that in our lives!  Pray that the person who drives you crazy is fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray for the faceless millions in Syria, in Zimbabwe, or right here in town: that they are, each and every one of them fed, and loved, and safe.

Pray until it changes you.  Until your heart is turned.  Until God’s kingdom comes.