When Jesus responds to one of his disciple’s request to teach them to pray, he invites them – and so he invites us – into his world, into God’s world. And it takes some adjustment on our part, even more – a radical re-orientation - in order to enter that world.
Before returning to Duke Divinity School to teach, Will Willimon was for several years a bishop in the United Methodist Church in Alabama. In that ministry he would often visit and preach at different churches in his conference and he discovered, as he put it, “that physical deterioration has become the contemporary North American’s main concern in prayer.” Or, as a Lutheran colleague of mine put it to me a few years ago when he was talking about praying at his denominational gatherings, “All we seem to pray about is body parts.” Now of course we care about one another, and we want healing and comfort for one another – and so naturally we bring this to God in prayer. This is not inappropriate, but Jesus’ model for prayer (which has become known as the basis for the Lord’s Prayer – in whatever version) teaches us to enter his world, to pray for the things that he prays for.
I think that anyone who takes the life of prayer at all seriously has to come to terms with how often we think or prayer or treat prayer as a kind of divine arm-twisting – that its purpose is to somehow convince God to do things that God may not otherwise be inclined to do. (Now you might get that idea from the little story about the reluctant friend that Jesus uses to illustrate his teaching – more about that in a moment.) But prayer, as Soren Kierkegaard said, “does not change God, but it changes the one who prays.” Prayer in obedience to Jesus is about bending my feelings, thoughts and yearnings toward him and what he would have me feel and desire, think and yearn for.
In his book Simply Christian, N.T. Wright says that this prayer that Jesus taught is in large part about God’s kingdom coming on earth as it is in heaven which, as he puts it, “pretty much sums up a lot of what Christianity is about.” The prayer says, in Wright’s words, “I want to be part of his kingdom movement. I find myself drawn into his heaven-on-earth way of living. I want to be part of his bread-for-the-world agenda, for myself and for others. I need forgiveness for myself – from sin, from debt, from every weight around my neck – and I intend to live with forgiveness in my heart in my own dealings with others. And, because I live in the real world, where evil is still powerful, I need protecting and rescuing. And, in and through it all, I acknowledge and celebrate God’s kingdom, power and glory.”
When we say that in teaching his model of prayer Jesus invites us into God’s world – it’s important to point out that we are really there all along; it’s just that there’s a lot that would keep us away from that awareness, from acknowledging that this is so. And when that is the case, prayer falls victim to the situation at hand, and if we pray at all it’s only when we think we “need” it or when we “feel” it, or when religious ritual calls for it. I believe that no prayer is wasted, and that the heart of God is always open – but prayer as Jesus teaches is about shaping and molding us into our true identity as children of God – in such a way that we become part of the answer to what we pray for.
One of the things that tends to block our entry into God’s world – or turns our hearts and minds away from it - can be seen in the disciples James and John when they insist that they are able to withstand for themselves all that Jesus was to go through. This comes up when they seek to advance their own promotion in the government they expected Jesus to set up: “Can you endure what I am to endure?” he asks them. “Yes sir,” they say, “we can do it” – not knowing what they are saying. But they are confident in their own faith, which would be found wanting, as with all the others, when they perceived that God had deserted them, as their Lord was taken from them and they were powerless to do anything about it. It is similar to how our own confident faith is so easily shaken when God has not answered our prayers in the way that we thought they should be answered.
Strangely enough, I think of dogs in this connection. Dogs are amazing creatures in this way: If they lose a leg, they are perfectly happy with three. If they lose an eye, they are delighted to see you with the one they have left. We humans aren’t so resilient. Pain in its various forms – physical, emotional, spiritual – can crush the spirit. And so we pray, “Save us from the time of trial, Lord. Deliver us from evil.” “Spare us, have mercy on us.” Because these kinds of trials can undermine our faith, and in our weakened condition we can fall away from God – we surely can. We know this when we observe how quickly people can begin to blame God when bad things happen to them or to those they love. We know this when we find ourselves falling away from faith, overcome with worldly concerns, when we lose a Christly perspective, a kingdom perspective. At such times our prays can become – if we pray at all – for God to provide first aid – not to transform us, to reshape our longings, desires and needs.
In his simple teaching on prayer Jesus was once again opening the door into God’s world, into kingdom living. As we walk through that door in a persistent prayerfulness – because we have been persistent, because our eyes and our hearts are open to kingdom realities – we see that indeed God does keep us from trials, that God does deliver us from evil – constantly! We can’t see that if our prayer is only reactionary. As we live more and more into the world of prayer we come to understand more and more that God’s strength is brought to perfection in our lives precisely through our weakness and our need – and our hopeful faith. This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote in his second letter to the Corinthians: “So, living for Christ, I am delighted when I experience weakness, desperate needs, persecutions and sufferings. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” Our strength is in the Lord, not in our own confidence or abilities. There is a strength there – but it is the kind of strength and can be taken away or cut down at any time, and with no warning.
Jesus taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come, that God’s reign would be complete in our world, and in us. It sometimes seems that there is such a long way to go. There are too many things to pray about (which is why it is important to be disciplined and regular in our prayer life). And certainly our world does not honor weakness, just the opposite. In nature’s world that which is weak does not survive. In the human part of that world we are maybe more sophisticated about it, but the same is largely true. Don’t show weakness because you might be taken advantage of. We seek to protect ourselves from threats, real and imagined – and as long as things are going well enough we might give God some of the credit. When they don’t, we cry out to God in desperation, for that too is natural for us. Our Lord teaches us to pray, knowing that evils will befall us, and temptations to sin will come with them, and our only sure defense is God whose strength is perfected in our weakness. If prayer is only a reaction to the evils that come, then we’re merely asking God to catch up with us: “Now I need you Lord.” But when we pray in persistence, even when we don’t “need” to, we come to understand that God has something more in mind for us than freedom from trials.
Prayer flows from faith, and faith does not depend on the conditions in which we find ourselves at any given time – but on the one in whom faith finds its home. When it comes to persistence in prayer – as Jesus talks about in the two brief stories following his model for prayer, such persistence should at least match the persistence of suffering and evil in our world. “For still our ancient foe,” Martin Luther wrote in his most famous hymn, “doth seek to work his woe. The body they may kill; God’s truth abideth still. His kingdom is forever.”
For you and me - does our faith depend on the condition or circumstance in which we find ourselves at any given time – or does it depend on the one in whom faith finds its home? We pray as the Lord taught us to pray, as Barbara Brown Taylor puts it, “not so we get the words right, but so we can get life right.” So we’re going to pray until the kingdom comes on earth as it is in heaven. We’re going to pray in thanksgiving for the provisions of each day, and as long as any of God’s children go to bed hungry at night. We’re going to pray as long as we need forgiveness for our sins, and as long as there are others we need to forgive. We’re going to pray as long as suffering and evil persists, as long as God’s world is scarred by war and disease, by hurt and hate. We’re going to pray until God molds us into the kind of people that are fit for the kingdom.