When you figure out what I’m saying, say it back to me in the English version:
Che sei nei cieli
Sia santificato il tuo Nome,
Venga il tuo Regno,
Sia fatta la tua Volonta,
Come in cielo, cosi in terra.
Dacci oggi il nostro pane quotidiano
E rimetti a noi i nostri debiti
Come noi li rimettiamo ai nostri debitori,
E non ci indurre in tentatazione
Ma liberaci dal Male.
If you walked into a church service on a Sunday morning in Italy, at some point in the service you would hear this prayer. And you would realize, “Hey, I know that prayer, too. We have this in common. Whether we diverge theologically in other respects, we share this prayer.” And we have it in common with Christians in China, Norway, Ethiopia, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Zimbabwe, and all over the world. This prayer marks us as Christians. This prayer has a place in our psyche, in our hearts and souls. People with severe dementia who can no longer hold regular conversations can often still recite this prayer. We pray it every Sunday in worship. Some of you may pray it at other times as well.
So this morning we’re going to look at the context in Luke in which Jesus teaches a version of this prayer. We’ll look at what the prayer actually says. And then we’ll look at some other ideas about prayer in general.
Our text says, “[O]ne of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.’” Apparently it was common for spiritual leaders in Jesus’ day to teach their followers a special prayer. This prayer was part of what identified the followers as members of that particular leader’s group.
Jesus’ disciples saw that in his prayer, he connected with God on a level they had never seen or experienced. God wasn’t just up in the remote heavens. For Jesus, God was as close and familiar as “Daddy” or “Mommy.” Jesus often referred to God as “Abba,” which has that kind of familiar meaning to it.
So part of what we see in prayer is a way of drawing so close to God that the relationship permeates everything Jesus is and does. It is an infinite fount of power, strength, and wisdom. Maybe his disciple is saying, Could I have that, too? Could I know God that closely? How do I do that?
Prayer fed Jesus. We often see him draw apart to spend time in prayer. His disciples have to hunt for him, and they find him often up on a hill somewhere by himself, praying. In Jesus’ last moments of freedom before his arrest, he goes to the Garden of Gethsemane … to pray. And this is anguished prayer. This is the only time we ever hear of Jesus saying, “You know, God, if there is any other way for your will to be accomplished, please make it so.”
Jesus is persistent and consistent in his prayer practice as a spiritual discipline, and he invites us, his followers, to be this way as well. Be like that pesky neighbor who knocks at midnight asking for bread. “C’mon, I’ll pay you back. But my buddy showed up on my doorstep just now and I’ve got nothing to give him.” The friend responds not because he’s a friend but because the guy won’t stop knocking.
So Jesus tells us to ask, to knock, to seek out God, to be really persistent in our prayers. And persistent about what? Prayer is not a wish list like what we sent to Santa many years ago. We don’t just say, “I’d like fame and fortune. I’d like a job that pays more money than I know what to do with, and a fancy car, and a beautiful girlfriend or boyfriend or spouse, and time to travel the world.” Some of us may have done well, may have all these things. But this is not what prayer is about.
This prayer that Jesus teaches really focuses on how we can become our best selves for and with God. It puts God first in our lives. Notice how the prayer begins and ends with God:
Our Father-Mother, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kin-dom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.…
For thine is the kin-dom and the power and the glory, now and forever.
In the middle come the requests, the petitions.
Give us this day our daily bread.
In a society where hunger is ubiquitous, this can be a literal prayer. Bread: food to nourish our bodies one day at a time.
But we know Jesus talks about food for the body and also food for the soul, as we heard last week in the story of Mary and Martha. Our daily bread could be whatever we need to get through that day.
Forgive us our debts—as we also forgive those who have harmed us. These two phrases are inextricable. Forgive us and we forgive others. This is the key to the whole concept of grace. God forgives us and invites us to forgive ourselves and others. Because when we forgive, we stop being stuck in hatred, revenge, and hurt. We are free to heal and then move on to something new.
Lead us not into temptation. Just this year the Pope approved a change to this phrase: “Do not let us fall into temptation.” [https://www.foxnews.com/world/pope-francis-lords-prayer-our-father-change] And the comments online went on and on. What?! You changed our prayer!!!
Deliver us from evil. Help us get through and come out the other side.
This prayer is about community: give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts….
Each of these phrases ask God to help us be our best selves. Seek forgiveness, let go of past wrongs, steer clear of temptation. God, help us to be our best for you. Whose glory is it? Mine? No, the glory goes to God.
How might our spiritual lives change if we really listened to these rote words of this prayer? If we understood them to be the words of those who follow Christ in seeking God? If we truly heard what this prayer calls us to do and be?
Our best selves—giving glory to our Creator.
Our best selves—seeking God at every turn.
Our best selves—forgiving and forgiven.
Our best selves—steering clear of whatever tempts us, like people in 12-step programs who learn to recognize their triggers for relapse and create escape hatches from that old, bad behavior.
Our best selves—loved, delivered, saved, called.
Practice. A spiritual practice takes just that—practice.
So let’s talk a bit about how we might develop our prayer practice. Because we can be in that conversation with God all the time. Anne Lamott writes,
I do not know much about God and prayer, but I have come to believe, over the past twenty-five years, that there’s something to be said about keeping prayer simple.
Help. Thanks. Wow.
You may in fact be wondering what I even mean when I use the word “prayer.” It’s certainly not what TV Christians mean. It’s not for display purposes, like plastic sushi or neon. Prayer is private, even when we pray with others. It is communication from the heart to that which surpasses understanding. Let’s say it is communication from one’s heart to God. Or if that is too triggering or ludicrous a concept for you, to the Good, the force that is beyond our comprehension but that in our pain or supplication or relief we don’t need to define or have proof of or any established contact with. Let’s say it is … a cry from deep within to Life or Love, with capital L’s. [Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012), 1-2.]
The poet Mary Oliver finds herself falling into prayer simply by being in nature and paying close attention to it, and if you’ve read many of her poems, you’ll know that this is her constant inspiration. Her poem “Praying” invites us into prayer through communion with any little scrap of nature, such as weeds in a vacant lot or a few small stones.
On the camping trip some of us gave this a try. We put some odds and ends on a picnic table: stones, pieces of fern, lichen, fir cones. We read her poem. Each of us picked one item from the table and spent some minutes just looking at it, touching it, experiencing it in detail. And then we shared reflections. Those few minutes in reflection took us to the cycles of life, reflections on a bed of moss and lichen, the miracle of seed spores all laid out in design, connections with a beautiful rock, and more. We remembered how connected we are to all of creation, to all of time, to life and death.
Prayer is a potent resource for us, if we will develop the discipline to use it. And the prayer of Jesus calls us in specific ways to honor God in all things and to live as our best possible selves. We pray this prayer every week, but how well do we follow it? How often do we order our lives to live in accordance with the words we pray every Sunday?
So this week I invite you to pray at some point at least once a day. It could be the prayer that Jesus taught us. It could be a prayer straight from your heart. It could be a prayer asking God for something. It could be a prayer of gratitude or awe. But every day, pray. Pray about what’s in the news, or tell God what’s happening in your day or in your heart. Develop that connection. Don’t worry about making the words eloquent. Just say what is in your soul. Know that God hears you, God loves you, and God savors that relationship with you. And then see what happens.
We are called to be on a journey of the spirit. God lights the way. And one of the ways we learn to see the path is through prayer. Let us, as followers of Jesus, practice finding our steps. Amen.