Lord, teach us to pray

Many times in the gospels we see Jesus’ disciples struggling to keep up or getting things the wrong way round. This might be somewhat encouraging for anyone trying to follow Jesus today – a welcomed reminder that following Jesus isn’t always as easy as you might think. In Jesus we meet a new kind of person, someone utterly unique, someone showing us a new way to be human. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that Jesus’ way of doing things takes some getting used to, and we see that over again in the gospel stories. Here’s Jesus carving out a new and living way, and here are the disciples stuck in old and dead paradigms. But now and then the disciples get it right, they hit stride with Jesus, and the beginning of Luke 11 is one of those moments.

In Luke 11 Jesus’ disciples were watching him pray and one day asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” They had noticed not only Jesus’ frequency of prayer (we’re told he often made his way off somewhere to pray alone) but his manner of prayer. Jesus’ life looked different. The gospels lead us to believe that this was very much rooted in serious prayer. So, to follow the logic, if the disciples wanted to live the kind of life they saw Jesus living they’d need to connect the dots. This kind of life has something to do with that kind of prayer. Asking Jesus to show them how to pray may have been the disciples’ wisest move.

You can learn a lot about someone by listening to how they pray. In Jesus’ day, when a follower asked a teacher about prayer, they were also asking about their core teaching, their life thesis, we could say. The disciples wanted to know what Jesus was all about and they expected, rightly, this would bleed into (or perhaps out of) how he prayed. So Jesus gives his followers a prayer, what we now call The Lord’s Prayer, words that have given shape and direction to Christian prayer and life since the very beginning. How does it start?

Our Father in heaven, holy is your name…

For many people prayer can feel rather lonely – like sitting in a cold room trying to work out the problem of God all by yourself. But Jesus’ prayer begins with “our” reminding us that when we pray we’re always doing so together with someone else. Praying “our” is right away a little unusual in the 21st century. Sociologists are now using the term “networked individualism” to describe what many of us are feeling. For all our ways of connecting, of keeping in touch, we’re feeling more and more isolated. This has to do, in part, with being told that the way we become more ourselves is to stand apart, to be an individual. But we are communal beings, and becoming more isolated may not be making us more ourselves, more human, but less. The Lord’s Prayer, then, reminds us right off the bat that – really – we’re all in this together.

Prayer is being in God’s company, of course, but when we pray we’re also in the company of others. Prayer, like all Christian life, is always done together. Many times this means we’re in the same room, praying with and for one another. But we don’t need to be physically praying together to be together in prayer. When we pray we are connected or grafted together by God’s Spirit. So when praying alone we’re never really alone. In the Bible God’s purposes are always worked out into the world through groups of people (a couple, a family, a nation, a global family). A life with God has always meant a life together. In prayer, then, we’re joining in with the teenage girl living in a hillside village, the only Christian in her family. We’re joining in with with the pastor in a dark prison cell cut off from his church. We’re joining in with the elderly woman shut in at home with few visitors. When we pray we remember we’re part of something bigger, a family bound together in God and by God.

And we’re a family of children who call God “Father”. We can only pray this, of course, because Jesus does. Rowan Williams (former Archbishop of Canterbury) says that when we pray how Jesus prays we stand where Jesus stands. Mark’s gospel tells us that at Jesus’ baptism a voice came from heaven saying, “This is my son, in whom I’m well pleased.” (Mark 1.11) Because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection we are brought into God’s family. We get to stand where Jesus stands, and God looks at us and is pleased with us. So when we pray to “our Father” we’re speaking with a God who’s smiling, not frowning. We’re praying to a God who wants our company; a Father who loves nothing more than when the family comes round for dinner.

But that word “Father”, like the the word “God”, carries baggage for many people. Even if you’ve had a particularly great dad, a parent is always bound to let you down. And this is why the next words matter a great deal. “Our Father in heaven, holy is your name…” God’s holiness is not something that can be summed up in a few words (or many words for that matter), but one thing we could say about something that is “holy” is that it is distinct.

To be holy is to be unique, to be different. When we call him holy, we’re remembering that God is utterly unique, totally unlike other any other. What you might expect from God can’t be easily gleaned from what you might have learned from other fathers or other gods. “My thoughts are not like your thoughts…my ways are ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.” (Isaiah 55.8) In the ancient world a person’s name represented or summed up their character. So when we say that God’s name is holy, we’re using it as a kind of shorthand for his very nature, his character. And this is a character who, given his uniqueness, might just surprise us. So praying, “…holy is your name…” is to expect the unexpected. It is to enter into a moment with a God you can’t cajole or stuff in a box. A God who might surprise you.

“Our Father in heaven, holy is your name…” We’re never praying alone, and always as children in view of a smiling Father, a Father we can expect (perhaps more often than not) to surprise us. Perhaps that’s one reason we’d do well to ask keep asking, “Lord, teach us to pray…” We’ve got a lot to learn.