Faith In Real Life Blog
Rev. Vernon Gramling
Decatur Presbyterianm Church
April 13. 2023
5 ‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 ‘Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
There are many, many ways to talk about prayer ranging from types of prayer—how to pray—does it work—-what is answered prayer—what does it mean to pray for others, etc—but today I want to talk about prayer as a spiritual discipline which builds and deepens our relationship with God.
At its most ordinary prayer is a conversation. It may seem weird to speak of a conversation when it is extremely rare for the conversation partner to actually speak but the processes of ordinary conversation apply to conversations with God. In ordinary life, Conversation is one of the most basic tools for relationship building. First dates are frequently filled with conversation designed to impress. We want to be liked. We want to be received. We put our best foot forward, we don’t want to make mistakes. And in real life, this is where many people get stuck in their prayer life. We worry about what is acceptable speech, what is too insignificant or selfish, or if we can find the right words. We certainly do not want to sound foolish. But, while these are ordinary concerns, relationships cannot gain depth unless we share more straightforwardly and honestly. We cannot feel safe in a relationship unless we have been authentically seen, known and accepted.
I have a client who describes early dating as meeting a person’s representative, not the person. Meeting one another can only come after there is real vulnerability and risk. Slowly, when we begin to risk sharing more and as we begin to become more curious, safety and connection grow. It marks the shift from “I don’t know what I’m going to do with you” to “I don’t know what I would do without you.” In real life, maturing relationships takes years, but it is a reliable way to build relationships, grow and become more intimate. This same process applies spiritually. Prayer is a conversation with God in which we seek to share our most authentic self with God– trusting that we will be received. In real life, such trust takes years. But when relationships mature, we move from: “What am I going to do with you?” to “I can’t imagine life without you.”
This scripture passage describes this ordinary process. First Jesus warns of the failings of misdirected prayer. He speaks to the religious (his Jewish listeners) and to the secular (his gentile listeners). In the first case, he warns about prayer designed to impress.
“Do not be like the hypocrites…” In such prayer, it is more important to be seen in a good light than to be in conversation with God.” The prayer might be addressed to God, but it really is about us. Its concern is “What will they think of me?” rather than being truly known.
In real life, any of us who have been on a first date or socialized at a cocktail party, know something of this kind of conversation. And I’m sure we’ve been on both sides of the conversation. We sometimes feel talked at rather than with. And there are certainly times in which we were so busy making an impression, we failed to learn anything about or from our conversation partner. It doesn’t really matter why—we might be very anxious and insecure; we might simply be self-absorbed and self-centered; we might feel obligated to defer to others. It might be all the above. But rarely do these conversations lead to connection much less intimacy. The reward for approval is fleeting. A large number of Tik Tock views or Facebook likes pales compared to the promise of sustaining love that God promises us. We should not confuse popularity and approval—-even if it comes from fellow congregants—-with acceptance and regard.
The other warning Jesus offers is not to pray to manipulate God into providing us with what we want. Every child on the planet learns different strategies to manipulate their parents. Proper speech, please and thank you usually go a long way toward parental compliance. How many of us describe our children as little lawyers? Kids use what works for them to get what they want. And all too often we use the same behaviors with God. We make prayer about pleasing God—as if, if we please God, we will be able to receive what we seek. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words…Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
God does not need to hear eloquent speeches for him to hear us. They do not help our case. God wants us to enjoy his love for us. It is hard for us to accept that our stumbling, inarticulate and silence filled words are acceptable to God—much less the questions, anger and doubt we harbor. God seeks our authentic selves. As Psalm 51:17 puts it: “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Jesus says God wants us to be real. It is the only way to begin to trust God’s promise to love us as we are. Authentic relationships require humility and accountability. That is what praying honestly creates. Trying to impress or focusing upon doing it right sabotages rather than helps.
Jesus then shifts to teaching us how to pray and gives us the words of the Lord’ Prayer. This prayer is so familiar we often miss its depth, simplicity and elegance.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
Set apart the name of God. Keep centered on what is ultimate and eternal. The problem in real life is that we bring all kinds of history and projections to the name of God. There are books dedicated to the various ways we have described God and it is a fruitful reflection to consider what God we pray to. Do we need a stern God, a gentle God, a powerful God, an avenging God?
For my purposes today, I will rely on 1 John’s description of God: (1 John 4:7-8) “7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.” When I had to translate these verses in seminary, worship and devotion became very pragmatic. There was still plenty of mystery about how to love but loving became holy. Loving was the way to experience God because God is Love. Loving was the way God was working his purposes out. This seemingly simple idea provided a way to orient and direct my life—whether I did it well. Hallowed by your name.
Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
This acknowledges the torn and broken world we live in. Secular kingdoms depend upon power, comparisons and ultimately upon exploitation. God’s kingdom is one of regard, inclusiveness, and reconciliation. God’s kingdom does not come naturally to us. Our primal selves will always put ourselves first. We need the beacon of God’s kingdom, of God’s desire for us in order ‘to hold fast to that which is good—to refrain from rendering evil for evil.’ We need God’s help, and we need to choose to defer to love. So, we pray that God’s Kingdom and God’s will prevails in our lives.
Give us this day our daily bread.
Prayer is practical. There is nothing too small to pray about. If we remember that though we can ask for anything, it doesn’t mean God is a short order cook serving up our requests in life—or a super Santa who gives presents to good children. It is seductively easy to make prayer requests a litmus test of love. “If you really loved me, you would….” We decide if God is faithful by ‘answering’ our prayers on our terms instead of faithfully and honestly asking for what is important to us—whether that is daily bread, a parking place, relief from cancer—or a messiah who will relieve us from oppression. It is equally tempting to edit our prayers so that we don’t ask too much. Several people in FIRL commented they could more easily pray for others than themselves. There is an unspoken belief that if we ask for ourselves that we are being self-serving. Our job, however, is to pray honestly—to bring our authentic selves before God—and then to wait. It is hard to say aloud what we really want and harder still to wait in the confidence that God will be with us.
Please notice that the often quoted “Ask and you shall receive” does not promise we will receive what we asked for. My mother used to admonish us to be careful of what we asked for. She offered the example of the man who prayed for patience and who was given an inefficient secretary. We have the freedom to ask for whatever is in our hearts. But we must also live in deference to God. It is not up to us.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
We not only bring our uncensored wants before God, but we also bring our brokenness. We ask God to receive us when we turn away from God—when we turn away from loving. We bring our misdirection, our self-serving, our unwillingness to be mindful, our insistence upon our own way. We bring our failures, and our embarrassments before God. It takes great trust to be accountable before God.
In ordinary relationships, to receive forgiveness, we must realize our need for it. If we do not honestly see that we need forgiveness, our offering it will be condescending. There is a circular relationship between what God offers us and what we offer to others. We cannot offer what we have not received. And when we withhold forgiveness, we create the possibility that there are behaviors beyond forgiveness. That is simply not true for God. God forgives. God does not hold our sins against us. When we insist upon holding another person’s sins against them, we are unable to accept God’s forgiveness. There is a circular relationship between what God offers us and what we offer to others. We cannot offer what we have been unwilling to receive without secretly thinking we are ‘better than’ or ranking which sins really count.
It is hard to pray for people we can’t stand. Pick a political figure you think ill of. It doesn’t matter who. It could be Putin, Biden, or Trump. Identify what you find distasteful and unacceptable in them. Perhaps they are self-absorbed, dishonest, and exploitative. Then wait for a time to reflect upon your ways you are self-absorbed, dishonest, and exploitive. If you follow that discipline, you will have to give up your self-righteousness. You may still stand in opposition, but you will not be able to claim to be ‘better than.’ When we authentically see ourselves as broken people, we can make course corrections. When we insist that somehow, we are better than, we refuse God’s forgiveness and stay stuck in our own self-righteousness. It is also true that in real life, sometimes the best we can do is ask forgiveness for inability to forgive. We can only start with where we are. God knows that about us and loves us. It doesn’t hurt to remember the same is true of every other person we encounter.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
Temptation comes in many forms. It is hard to stay focused upon loving when it requires so much uncertainty and vulnerability. We are regularly tempted to put our needs first. We are regularly tempted to seek to control and manipulate others in the name of doing right. We are regularly tempted to judge others and to justify ourselves. It is hard to keep loving at the center of our lives. It is too risky. We must face that struggle and ask for help. Every one of us has done and said things that we knew not to do or say. Every one of us has harbored injuries and offenses that separate and divide. We fail to love as often by inaction as actions. Every one of us justify and explain as if those words make our turning from loving acceptable. Facing our true selves often means we must watch our words or stay out of situations where we might go sideways. This is the prayer of an honest person who knows they need help.
Pray in the confidence that God loves you. God loves the whole of you. Pray honestly and receive that love.
Let it be so.