Prayer: A To-Do List For God?

The collect and readings for the Ninth Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 12, may be found here. The appointed gospel is Luke 11:1-13.

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs. “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

When we lived in Tennessee I would go see a priest about once a month to talk about my life. It did not matter what I said, the issues I brought, or the questions I asked, his first response was always the same, “How is your prayer life?”

In some way our prayer is diagnostic of our life; so much so that the early church fathers, when greeting each other, did not ask about health, life, family, or anything else. Instead, they would ask, “How is your prayer?” How we pray, or even whether we pray, says much about who God is for us, our life and concerns, the way we view the world and one another, and about our relationship with God.

So when one of the disciples says to Jesus, “Teach us to pray,” we can be pretty sure he is asking for more than simply words or techniques. There is a longing and desire deep within him. He has seen Jesus praying in a certain place. Perhaps he saw Mary sitting at the feet of Jesus, listening. Maybe he heard Jesus say that Mary, not Martha, had chosen the better part. He too wants the better part. He wants what Mary has with Jesus and what Jesus has with the Father. That certainly is about more than words or techniques.

After all, the disciples are good Jews and, just like good Christians, they have been taught the words and techniques for prayer since they were children. Childhood is when many of us learned about prayer. I remember the early teaching I received. Put your hands together, close your eyes, bow your head, and tell God what you want. And if you have been good enough, if you trust with all your heart, if you say please and thank you, then God will answer your prayer.

I do not remember when or from whom but that is what I learned. I suspect many of you learned the same thing. I see it in many of the children who come to chapel during the school year. Some of them have apparently been told that the harder you squeeze your hands and the tighter you shut your eyes the better God hears your prayer! Too often we are taught to see prayer as a wish list given to God. Growing up my wish list included:

  • that my family would be ok;
  • that I wouldn’t have any bad dreams at night;
  • that I would get to go fishing and catch a big one; and
  • that I would get good grades.

This to-do list kind of prayer leaves us seeking something from God rather than seeking God himself. I would like to think we outgrow prayer that simply gives God a to do list. As I listen to people pray, as I read the prayer concerns in various e-mails, as I listen to some of my own prayers it seems that giving God our to-do list may just be the predominant way of contemporary prayer. As we grow older often the only thing about our prayer that changes is the content of the to-do list we give God. It now matches where we are in life – finances, jobs, children, marriages, searching for direction and the right answer. We want God to fix our problems, deal with our concerns, and make our life easier and more comfortable. Listen to a group of people pray and, more often than not, you will hear an expression of various health concerns, what one Methodist bishop has referred to as “sick call.”

I do believe God is concerned about every aspect of our lives but the to-do list we often offer God is not how Jesus teaches us to pray in today’s gospel. While we are busy trying to align God with our concerns Jesus is saying we ought to be aligning ourselves and our prayer with God’s concerns. We are to pray according to God’s perspective not ours. That does not mean God is unconcerned or uncaring about our lives but rather that the concerns of our lives seem to work themselves out when we surrender to the concerns of God’s life.

In Jesus’ teaching on prayer those concerns are few and focused.

  • Father, hallowed be your name.
  • Your kingdom come.
  • Give us each day our daily bread.
  • And forgive us our sins, for we forgive everyone indebted to us.
  • And do not bring us to the time of trial.

Jesus is not simply teaching us new words or techniques, and certainly not another to-do list for God. He is, rather, giving us a new direction and orientation for our lives. He is calling us to a deeper prayer, to a deeper level of presence. It is a place of being with God rather than taking from God. It is a place where God himself is the truest answer to every prayer. This way of praying is less about the words we say and more about the life we live.

In Jesus’ prayer we are to know and relate to God in the same way as does Jesus. We call God – Abba, Father, Daddy – just like Jesus does. We know God as the intimate, loving, caring, Father who never abandons or hurts us. When that is how we know God we no longer have to compete to hallow our own names but are free to hallow God’s name.

Jesus is teaching us accept God’s life, vision, and dream for the world, his kingdom, as our own. If we truly pray “your kingdom come” then we must also pray “my kingdom go.” In letting go of our own kingdom we entrust and surrender ourselves to God. That means we must begin to see, speak, think, and behave as does God and when we do we will naturally want to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, speak justice for the oppressed, tend the sick.

This life of prayer Jesus teaches invites us to receive each day as our daily bread. Rather than seeking bread for the day each day itself is the gift of daily bread. We choose how we will use our daily bread to feed, nourish, sustain, and grow life – our own and each other’s.

Our relationship with God is made visible in our relationship with others and how we relate to others reveals our life in God. Our relationship with God and our relationship with neighbors, friends, family, and our enemies, all of whom are as much God’s children as are we, mirror each other. The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that forgiveness polishes that mirror.

Finally, we are to live with eyes wide open knowing that apart from God every trial, temptation, or stumbling block is more than we can handle on our own.

Jesus’ teaching on prayer is the practical application of today’s collect:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

So…. How’s your prayer?

5 thoughts on “Prayer: A To-Do List For God?

  1. Michael,
    We had quite a discussion (post-service) in Sunday School (Spiritual Formation class) yesterday about this passage: 1) are we to “beg” God for what we want and need?; 2) What, truly, is prayer?; 3) Why pray? We have a group who are truly seekers, I believe, and were thinking on a profound level.

    Thanks for your thoughts. I’m going to forward this to members of the class who have email. Think your thoughts will contribute significantly to the discussion.

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  2. Or how is my life. Prayer/Life are interchangeable. I remember one definition of a theologian is one who prays. I have had my life of prayer change to the point that asking today is not a part of my practice, I try to be present and to hear, feel, sense, observe what is in me and around me. Much harder to do in times of crisis or boredom.

    Thanks for the wonderful thoughts and the call once again to my life of prayer.

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  3. This sermon reminds me of the role of the liturgy of the hours in one’s prayer. It is interesting to note that other than prayers for forgiveness at Compline and the Collects at the major hours, the suffrages are only said during penitential seasons (the BCP of course has them daily). My point is that very little of the hours is actually dedicated to asking God for anything. Even in the BCP and other Reformation churches’ daily prayers, there is very little asking.

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  4. I’m on vacation in the Pacific Northwest. In contrast to south TX, today we are experiencing a cool, gray, and rainy day. It’s only 61 degrees. This is the first time in two weeks that I’ve had a chance to visit blogs; I am grateful I came here today. I needed that question and these thoughts as my days are blurred by different locations and activities than usual. Thanks for this.

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  5. “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.” I can completely relate to that in every manner possible.

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