“Praying” Colchester Federated Church, July 28, 2019, (Luke 11:1-13) Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Prayer is an aspect of our Christian faith that we’re often taught to do as children if we’re growing up in the church.  It’s an important worship element when we gather on Sunday mornings.  We worship God in community—we sing, read scripture, listen to a sermon, and pray together—for one another and for the world.  Prayers can be simple or complex, memorized or spontaneous; prayers can be written down as a poem or prose or even written as a letter addressed to God.  Prayers can be spoken aloud, sung, or lifted up to God in the silence of our own hearts.  Prayers can be famous (like the Lord’s Prayer) or prayers can be something we’ve never heard before.

It’s rather interesting to read prayers that children write to God.  In one of the collections I happened upon a little boy named Robert said, “Dear God, I am American, what are you?”  Mickey said, “Dear God, if you watch in church on Sunday, I will show you my new shoes.”  And Jonathan said, “Dear God if you let the dinosaur not be extinct, we would not have a country, you did the right thing.”

While these prayers are innocent and maybe even silly, they’re open and make some assumptions about God.  Mickey assumes that God is with her in church on Sunday morning—she wants to show God her new shoes.  Jonathan assumes that he can give God praise for allowing the dinosaurs to go extinct; he’s giving God some positive feedback and thanking God for a presumed action.  And Robert is asking God a question, wanting to know more about God.  Maybe these prayers from children are simple, but they reveal so much about what prayer can be for all of us.

Adults can get stuffy about praying.  We may think that we must have a specific formula to speak to God otherwise our prayers are unworthy.  There’s a famous scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when God appears to King Arthur in the clouds (and is depicted as an old white man with a beard and crown on his head).  Arthur falls to his knees and God asks him what he’s doing.  Arthur replies, “Averting our eyes, oh Lord.”  God says, “Well don’t.  It’s just like those miserable Psalms, always so depressing. Now knock it off!  Every time I try to talk to someone it’s ‘sorry this’ and ‘forgive me that’ and ‘I’m not worthy.’”  In the movie, God just wants to have a conversation with Arthur and charge him with retrieving the Holy Grail.  And Arthur is almost incapable of listening to God because he’s so preoccupied with the proper behavior he should show and less concerned with the message from God.

In this morning’s Gospel lesson, Jesus teaches his disciples to pray the prayer that we’ve come to call “The Lord’s Prayer.”  His disciples ask him to teach them to pray after Jesus finishes praying on his own.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is often depicted as going off on his own to pray.  It’s actually one of the distinguishing features of that Gospel.  There are many verses that say things like, “He was praying in a certain place” or that Jesus went off on his own to pray, often before the disciples woke up for the day.[1]  Jesus—the teacher, healer, Son of God, Messiah, Prince of Peace—Jesus was a man of prayer.  His prayer life defined who he was as a person of faith as it was part of his way of staying grounded in his mission of spreading the love of God to those he encountered.

So Jesus taught his disciples a formulaic way to pray, a way of prayer that we still use today.  In our English Bibles, we translate the word Jesus used for God as “Father.”  When we pray the Lord’s Prayer we say, “Our Father who art in heaven.”  In actuality, Jesus called God “Daddy,” in Hebrew the word he used was Abba.  Jesus’ name for God was truly remarkable because Jesus was claiming that he had a special relationship with God, designated by the familiar title he used to speak to God in prayer.

God was not “Yahweh” to Jesus or even “Father” to Jesus, God was “Daddy” to Jesus—a term of familiarity and endearment, a term that suggested a close and profoundly personal relationship.  When Jesus went off on his own to pray, Jesus was praying in a way it seems that few had before, at least not publicly.  And Jesus taught his disciples to pray in the same way, referring to God on more personal terms.  That teaching has come down to us because we can pray to God in a profoundly personal way too.  That’s part of the reason it’s wonderful to hear children pray to God.  It’s not self-conscious—children can and do pray to God about anything and everything.  And it’s hard to think that this openness is somehow stifled as we age.

If we allow ourselves to be vulnerable when we pray, to be honest and open, amazing things can happen.  Theologian Henri Nouwen once reflected that, “Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness, and to touch there what you would rather leave untouched.”[2]  Praying is about relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself (God) to enter into the very center of your person. That is not necessarily the most comfortable place to be.

One of my most vulnerable moments of prayer happened the summer I was a hospital chaplain.  I was called to respond to the Intensive Care Unit after being informed that a patient had just died.  Arriving in the waiting area it was clear that this patient had a large family present at the hospital and I soon learned that the family was Jewish.  When I expressed my condolences, the patient’s wife asked if I could arrange for the entire family to come into the ICU to say their final goodbyes.  After checking with the nurses, we all walked back onto the unit.  I stood quietly by the head of the patient’s bed with his widow as the family shuffled in and out of the crowded room.  At the end, I asked if they would like me to say a prayer for him and for everyone gathered.  His widow tearfully said that she would while gently reminding me that they were Jewish.

I was nervous and wondered if I would be able to say an adequate prayer for this Jewish family grieving the loss of this obviously beloved family member.  Wracking my brain for an appropriate prayer and chastising myself for not paying better attention when we learned about prayers at the time of death from the Rabbi on staff, I began the only prayer/blessing that I guessed would be appropriate.  It’s the Benediction we often use at the end of worship in our Christian tradition and happens to be one of my favorites.  I prayed, “May God bless you and keep you.  May God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.  May God look upon you with kindness and give you peace.  Amen.”

Looking up, I saw the family weeping harder and my heart sank thinking that I just unintentionally spiritually harmed them.  Through her fresh tears, the wife of the man who had just died explained that this Benediction (from the Book of Numbers) is often said at life passages in the Jewish tradition.  It’s called The Priestly Blessing and God instructs Moses to use this special prayer to bless the children of Israel.  One of the family members remarked that even though I said the blessing in English and not in Hebrew, it was wonderful just the same.

This was a profound moment of grace because I hadn’t remembered the origins of the prayer prior to this encounter.  But Jesus was born a Jew, raised a Jew, and died a Jew.  And the early followers of Jesus were all Jews too, including Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.  The Jews of the Jesus Movement incorporated the Hebrew Bible into their new set of beliefs.  It would take hundreds of years for Christianity to become a separate religion from Judaism, and Christians have inherited so many aspects of our faith from Judaism—including the Priestly Blessing.  We’ve made it our own, but the Priestly Blessing began as a uniquely Jewish prayer Moses taught the people of Israel just as the Lord’s Prayer became a uniquely Christian prayer that Jesus once taught his followers.  It’s remarkable that the Priestly Blessing (a prayer that both Judaism and Christianity share) can have such profound meaning in both traditions.

At the end of the day, we remember that Jesus taught his disciples to pray in a specific way and the Priestly Blessing from the Book of Numbers is a specific prayer too.  Because sometimes we may need these prayers in moments where words almost fail us because of what we face—whether that’s a death or some other crisis or even a joyful moment where we’d like to use words that are deeply rooted in our tradition.  There are other times when we just need to have a simple conversation with God or just listen to what God has to reveal to us.  When kids can ask God questions or speak to God with such utter honesty, we should all be taking note.  And like Henri Nouwen reminds us, prayer is about letting God into the very center of your person.

Jesus encourages his disciples to pray.  Jesus is telling us to make the effort.  If we don’t pray, if we don’t open ourselves up to God, if we don’t listen, if we don’t ask the hard questions—nothing will change, nothing will happen; we definitely won’t find answers because we’re not even asking questions in the first place.  Prayer isn’t an easy fix for all the problems of life, but it’s a start.  And our lives will be enriched when we pray the way that Jesus taught us.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Luke 11:1, NRSV.
[2] Henri Nouwen, “First Unclench Your Fists,” Beliefnet, https://www.beliefnet.com/faiths/2006/06/first-unclench-your-fists.aspx