“Practicing Spiritual Disciplines: Prayer”
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
Follow Me: Biblical Practices for Faithful Living
March 13, 2022
Today we continue our Lenten series on Practicing Spiritual Disciplines and our focus for this week is prayer. With all that is going on Ukraine and other parts of the world, this is a good time to reflect upon the spiritual discipline of prayer.
Why do we pray? How do we pray? What do we expect to happen in prayer?
There is grace in Paul’s statement in Romans 8 that “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:27)
When seeking to pray for the people of Ukraine, the newborn children and their parents, the immobile grandparents who are not physically able to flee the violence, the teenagers and young 20’s soldiers on both sides of the fighting… sighs too deep for words.
Our text for this Sunday is The Lord’s Prayer from the Gospel of Matthew.
The Lord’s Prayer has long served as one of the foundations of Christian faith and practice. The Lord’s Prayer offers guidance not only on how to pray but also how to live. From the very earliest days of the Christian church, the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and the Ten Commandments were required to be memorized by every new member and by every child being nurtured in faith.
Before turning to hear God’s Word in Holy Scripture, let us turn to God in prayer: Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Illuminate your Word for us, that these ancient words may teach us how to pray, just as you taught your disciples so long ago. Amen.
Stan Hauerwas and Will Willimon, an ethicist and a Methodist bishop who served at Duke University at the same time, claim in their book on the Lord’s Prayer that we don’t become Christian by learning creeds or ascribing to a set of beliefs.
We become Christian, we become followers of Jesus Christ, by praying the prayer which Jesus taught us to pray. The Lord’s Prayer is a true gift to us.
We pray the Lord’s Prayer, not in order to receive what we desire or to feel better about ourselves. We pray the Lord’s Prayer in order to reorient our lives, renew our focus, and allow our wills to be bent, once again, toward the will of God.
In Luke’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer comes in the context of Jesus praying in a certain place. His disciples have noticed that Jesus is a man of prayer. They have seen him pray often and watched as he walked off alone to wander the hillsides and pray.
So the disciples approach Jesus and ask him: “how should we pray?”
It was a natural question. The Jews were a praying people. Rabbis often taught their followers set forms of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer in the Gospel of Luke was a response to that timeless request,
“Lord, how then should we pray?”
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Lord’s Prayer comes in the context of the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is outdoors on top of a large hill, probably near the north shore of the Sea of Galilee, teaching about a variety of subjects to a large crowd that had gathered around him. Included in those teachings was his guidance on how to pray, as well as directions on how not to pray.
Jesus said keep it simple. Don’t heap up empty phrases. Don’t make an effort in prayers for beautiful constructions of language and poetry, not if those prayers are more directed at others than at God.
Jesus said those who do so have already received their reward. Instead, go into your room by yourself, close the door, and then use this pattern to pray…
The pattern of the Lord’s Prayer is noteworthy.
If you and I and the Christian Church throughout the world were to begin to pattern all our prayers more closely aligned to the Lord’s Prayer, the very nature of the Church’s work would begin to change.
The Church’s relationship to the world would begin to change. Our daily walk of faith as Christians would slowly be transformed.
A recent personal experience with the Lord’s Prayer happened rather unexpectedly. I was visiting a young man at the Dekalb County Jail. I knew him from the soccer fields and he was an occasional participant in youth group, but after high school he had gotten hooked on drugs and ended up in some kind of robbery in order to feed his addiction.
I found myself at the jail in one of those rooms where the large metal door clanks shut behind you and the door at the other end of the room was not yet open. For just a few minutes, I found myself enclosed, with no way out, with a camera in the corner watching me, and for a brief moment I could relate to what those inmates experience 24/7 for weeks or months or even years on end.
What came to mind was the Lord’s Prayer…and I prayed it slowly and intentionally while waiting for that large metal door to buzz and allow me through.
The pattern of the prayer begins, of course, with God.
Following the address “Our Father, who art in heaven”, the first three petitions are directed toward God: “Hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
Only then does the prayer shift its focus toward our needs.
How often do our prayers begin and end with what we need and want and neglect to pray for what God wants, for God’s will to be done, for God’s kingdom to come?
Jesus teaches us that faithful prayer begins with God, with an address and adoration of God and then asking for God’s will well before our needs are even mentioned.
How might your prayers or my prayers be different if we began all our prayers with the sincere hallowing of God’s name, with asking for God’s will for the world to be done, praying for the qualities of God’s kingdom to come, in our lives, our homes, our communities?
Notice that even though Jesus was teaching his disciples a model for private prayer, not once does he use the words “I, me, my, or mine”. Throughout the prayer we only find the words “our” and “us.”
The prayer begins “Our Father.”
Even alone in our own rooms or our cars or at some remote place in nature, we are not alone in prayer. God created us to live in community, to bear one another’s burdens, and to love one another as Christ loved us. So when we pray, he taught us to say “Our Father.”
“Our” includes everyone. If we pray to God as “Our Father”, then our fellow men and women are included in our prayers as brothers and sisters. Praying “Our Father”, even in private prayers, recognizes ourselves as children of God and our fellow human beings as siblings.
Praying to “Our Father” puts an end to all exclusiveness. Praying to “Our Father” puts an end to all racism. Praying to as “Our Father” puts an end all arguments as to who is better than whom.
Did you know that genetically we are over 99% similar to every other human being on earth? As different as human beings can be from one another, in appearance, language, and culture, we are far more alike than we are different.
Praying to God as “Our Father” recognizes that God is the loving heavenly Father of us all and that all of us are God’s beloved children. This short address is a healthy and constant reminder that all of us are created in God’s image – regardless of our race or gender or nationality.
If pray the Lord’s Prayer and then look down upon or despise someone who is different – someone of a different race or nationality or political persuasion, then we are hypocrites, for we are not living the prayer that we are praying. If we pray this prayer and fail to recognize other human beings as brothers or sisters, then we are missing the force and intention of Jesus’ words.
The very first word of the Lord’s Prayer, “our”, if taken seriously by Christians, would begin to break down the world’s divisions and would begin to transform the world’s religions, as well as its political parties and economies.
The second word of the prayer, “Father”, speaks to an intimate and loving relationship. God is not some big male up in the sky. God is not some grandfather-like figure with a long, white beard hovering amongst the clouds.
Nevertheless, Jesus called God “Abba”, the Aramaic term used by small children for their fathers and sometimes used by adults for respected older males. “Abba”, most often translated as “Father”, is probably more correctly translated in English as “Daddy”. “Abba” – this is one of the first sounds made by an infant, regardless of nationality or language. When you walk the streets of Nazareth in Galilee or the Old City of Jerusalem, you will without a doubt eventually hear a young child come running up to their father crying, “Abba, Abba!”
God had been called “Father” several times in the Old Testament, but no one had ever thought to refer to the great God of all the nations and of the universe as “Daddy.” The God whom Jesus called “Daddy” is a God who loves and protects his children, a God who cares for all his children as a loving parent cares for a child.
To pray to God as “Daddy” means that no one is lost to God, that God cares for all and knows everyone by name. To pray to God as “Daddy” is to pray to the one who goes after the one lost sheep in the wilderness while 99 others wait,
To pray to God as “Daddy” is to pray to the one who holds out his arms all day long to a rebellious and contrite people. To pray to God as “Daddy” is to pray to the one who runs to meet and welcome the prodigal son home with a kiss and an embrace.
Our loving heavenly “Daddy” is the perfect parent – father, mother, caretaker of us all – the one who loves us when no one else loves us, who forgives us when we don’t deserve to be forgiven, who welcomes us back when everyone else would just as soon turn us away.
We cannot move on before we recognize that the term “Father” has been troublesome for many. No one has more influence over what we believe about God the Father Almighty than our own earthly fathers.
If your earthly father is one whom you have respected and desired to emulate, one who provided for you and protected you, then the image of a heavenly father can be helpful and comforting.
For Betty Noble, her father was always her “Daddy”, and they enjoyed a sweet, close relationship of mutual admiration and respect. But sadly, for many, the term “Father” has been an obstacle to faith.
This is why it is important for us all to maintain a broad view of who God is and to encourage theological reflection on the various names for God. However we refer to God, we should never lose the intimacy communicated in the words chosen by Jesus.
As a mother cannot forsake her nursing child, as a father cannot help but protect his children, so does our Lord God love and care for his people.
The first two words of the Lord’s Prayer, “Our Father”, communicate the immanence of God – that is, the nearness of God. “Our Father” is as close as the next breath and as loving as only a perfect parent can be.
But Jesus also included in the address of this famous prayer the words “in heaven.” “Our Father in heaven” is the one who answered Job out of the whirlwind: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began? Have you entered into the springs of the sea? Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? Do you give the horse his might? Do you clothe his neck with strength?” (see Job 38 and 39)
“Our Father in heaven” is the one of whom the psalmist writes:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (from Psalm 8)
While the words “Our Father” communicate the nearness of God, the words “in heaven” communicate the distance or transcendence of God. Certainly the God who created all that is is far removed and detached from my little problems. God can see all humanity at once from a vantage point that puts my little world into perspective. When we consider that God can perhaps see all of history at once, from outside of time, as if looking down from above upon a grand parade of people across the ages, then we realize how unlimited is God’s view and how limited is our own understanding.
Considering the God that is “in heaven” may alter the forms of our prayers. H.G. Wells in one of his novels tells the story of a man defeated by the stress and strains of modern life. “His doctor wisely told him that his only hope of retaining his sanity was to find fellowship with God. ‘What?’ said the man. ‘That – up there – having fellowship with me? I would as soon think of cooling my throat with the Milky Way or shaking hands with the stars.’” (William Barclay, The Lord’s Prayer, p.31)
The poor man was well aware of God’s transcendence, but he could not imagine, nor had his experience included, the wonder of God’s immanence, of God’s nearness and intimacy.
“Our Father…in heaven” is far, far away, Lord of all the universes, and yet as close as the next breath.
“Our Father…in heaven” is able to see at once the whole parade of this world’s population and holds ultimate sway over warfare and world hunger and global warming and cures for cancer, and yet this same God is still present with you in every procedure performed in operating rooms, present in every chemotherapy treatment, present at the birth of and the baptism of every child.
“Our Father…in heaven” views a thousand years as if it were yesterday, and yet, also numbers the very hairs upon our heads and nurtures the healing of our relationships.
Our Father…in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Ukraine as it is in heaven.
Give everyone one of us on this earth our daily bread, and forgive us our sin as we forgive those who have sinned against us. And lead us not into times of trials or temptations, but deliver us from the forces of evil, for thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory, forever.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church
March 13, 2022