Too many years ago to matter much, in the early days of a novice’s ministry, I was taught how to pray. It’s embarrassing to admit I needed instruction having faithfully attended church all my life and having had the opportunities for prayer lessons in my Catholic catechism classes and later, in CCD classes in preparation for my official entry into our hometown Roman Catholic church as a confirmed youth. But, it happens. The art of praying always seemed beyond me. I didn’t think I could do it and wasn’t sure I should; after all, prayer was something religious people do and, certainly, I hadn’t viewed myself as “religious”. I was a reluctant church attendee. I went because Mom and Dad insisted.
So, the day I learned what prayer was all about I was making a visit to a man in my very first pastorate. It was my job to visit the elderly and the shut-ins and George fit that category. He was in a nursing home. Back then, visiting didn’t come easily either but, I had already failed as a youth group leader and the senior pastor had to justify the position of Associate Pastor and find something that I could do. I didn’t want to fail at this too. So, I went to see George.
Having lived a good, long life, George was an old man back then and he was also a man of faith as he was to prove in the brief time we were together. There are things I remember about that visit: George’s small but comfortable room, how nervous I was as I tried to think about something I could say to him, which was further aggravated by the unfortunate fact that George had wet his pants and didn’t seem to notice. It all felt very human and in some way, very humbling. I remember pushing my thoughts away from George’s wet pants and trying to focus on what he was saying. I wanted to end the visit without a prayer but George wouldn’t have it and quite without knowing why, I found myself confessing to this very human man who had soiled himself, my own human and unfortunate failing. I really didn’t know how to pray.
Growing up in a Christian family, a lifetime of religious instruction, more years of education than many, two degrees and more letters than necessary attached to my name and seminary training to boot and here I was a flop as a pray-er. George ordered me to take a seat. I did. Then he proceeded to teach me why we pray. His words weren’t profound; just common sense but I’ll never forget them. We pray because we need to – that’s what he said, and then he went on to say, “Not because God has a need for us to pray.” We need to talk to God; that’s all prayer is…talking to God, just like George was talking to me and just like I was trying to talk to George.
In every church I’ve served as a pastor, I make certain that the Lord’s Prayer is heard and said by all. As I assume the role of pastor in any given church, this may mean I might need to change the order of worship so that the Lord’s Prayer will be prayed while everyone –from the oldest to the youngest – is together in worship when we say it.
The Lord’s Prayer is the one prayer most of us know by heart. We learn it at a very young age and repeat it every time we come together as a worshiping community. Even those who claim never to pray may know this prayer. In situations so dire that words can barely diminish the pain of loss or grief, this prayer may likely bring some relief to our hurt and to our pain. Its simplicity and its ability to unite us gives us comfort and reminds us of how truly human we are.
When the Disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, they admitted their need; they exposed their human frailty. Jesus offered not just to teach them to pray, but in a best sense of action put to words, prayed with them…. “Father, hallowed be thy name.” Over the years, generations of Christians have taken the essentials of the prayer and put it in words that would reflect the time and the culture in which they lived. The essence and meaning of the prayer never changes though the way we say it may change as a reflection of our lives. “Our Father, who art in heaven.”
Simple as it is, The Lord’s Prayer is also a profound statement of faith. It acknowledges the transcendence of God in the words “who art in heaven” and it expresses the “otherness” of God in the words “hallowed [or made holy] be thy name”. It also acknowledges who is sovereign and in charge… it is God’s kingdom we claim, God’s kingdom that reigns now and always. But it also acknowledges our need and our humanness as God’s own children in the petitions we offer: “Give us, Forgive us, Lead us, Deliver us.” We have permission to step into a holy place and converse with God, permission to receive a connection between God and ourselves…prayer is talking to God…a conversation that is hardly one-sided…a dialogue in which our relationship to and with God is reinforced and blessed. And for those reasons, the Lord’s Prayer comforts us, why it is so important to hear it, speak it, and share it.
Douglas John Hall, professor emeritus of Religious Studies, McGill University in Montreal says:
“…the whole assumption of this prayer is that it is uttered out of a condition of real necessity. The one who prays thus is driven by great need—there is neither the inclination nor the time for dissemblance or pretense. The object of prayer…is not so much to lose oneself in the contemplation of the Divine as to find oneself—to become, so far as possible, who one is.”
Hall points out, we are dependent; we need forgiveness, we seek to be led and to be delivered from our own faults and sin. We seek God and God connects with us and us, with God. Prayer is, as George once claimed, simply talking to God. Our task, if we choose to think of it as a task, is to keep talking so the path between us – God and you and me will draw us ever closer to not only the Divine Being who is transcendent and other than, but also, sovereign in our lives.
I often think about George in all his frailty as a human being, soiled and aged, deeply marked by life’s circumstances and his own experiences and yet, clearly, wiser than me. He knew how to talk to God and he knew how to open the way for me so I could hold my own conversation with God. I am grateful. Amen.