No right way to pray

Pentecost 10 – 2016

Luke 11:1-13

Marian Free

In the name of God in whom we live and move and have our being. Amen.

There is a story, possibly mythical, about three monks who had chosen a solitary life on an isolated island. One day the local bishop decided that it was time he paid them a visit. On arrival he asked them how they prayed. Their response was to inform him that every day at regular intervals, they recited, “Jesus, Lamb of God have mercy on us”. The bishop thought that that was good, but he also felt that their prayer life could be enhanced. To that end he spent the whole day teaching them the Lord’s Prayer. In the evening, satisfied that he had made progress, the bishop got into his boat, ready to return to the mainland. The boat had barely pulled out from the shore when the bishop spotted one of the monks splashing clumsily towards him. “Bishop, bishop,” he called, “we can’t remember what comes after ‘your kingdom come’.” At that point the bishop realised that the monks had wisely chosen a prayer that suited them. He commended their discipline and recommended that they return to the prayer that had served them so well. Then he went on his way and the monks returned to their pattern of prayer.

In today’s gospel the disciples observe Jesus at prayer and ask him to teach them to pray as John taught his disciples. They probably know how to pray, but they know that it is usual for a teacher to pass on his particular knowledge to his disciples. Jesus prayed and he prayed often. Jesus’ response to the disciples was to teach them the “Lord’s Prayer” as it has become known. In these words, Jesus encapsulates all that prayer is and could be. The words acknowledge God’s extraordinary nature, our longing that the world as a whole would come under God’s governance, our utter dependence on God for all things, our need to be reconciled with our brothers and sisters, our request for courage to do what is right and our belief that God will support us through times of difficulty. In other words, the Lord’s Prayer encapsulates all that we need to say in prayer.

No wonder this prayer so quickly became part of the liturgical life of the church. The Didache recommended that it be said three times a day (8:3) and our formal liturgies – the Eucharist and Morning and Evening Prayer – gather up the prayers of the people with these words.

The importance of a regular pattern prayer was recognised long before Jesus taught the disciples. As early as the Psalms regular prayer is recommended. Psalm 119:64 suggests that we pray seven times a day including midnight (62) and the Book of Daniel recommends prayers three times daily (Dan 6:10).

Prayer is important (dare I say essential) – not because God demands it, but because our lives and our relationship with God are enhanced through prayer. Communicating with God on a regular basis is the only way of maintaining our relationship with God. Building a relationship with God not only enriches our understanding of God, but ensures that in times of trouble or distress we will be practiced at speaking with God, we will know what we can expect of God and we will be able to draw strength from our deep connection with God. Prayer strengthens our relationship with God and at the same time it reminds us of our utter dependence on God, that all that we have comes from God and that we are utterly dependent on God. It helps us to develop the humility that allows God to work in us and through us so that we might play our part in bringing peace and justice to the world.

A practice of regular prayer enables us to see ourselves as God sees us – to identify and recognise our weaknesses and our strengths, to become aware of any jealousy, bitterness or resentment in our lives (and with God’s help to deal with it.) In this way prayer not only deepens our relationship with God but also builds our understanding of ourselves and of our relationship with others.

Simply speaking, prayer is an acknowledgement of God’s constant presence in our lives and in the world. It is important to remember, as the story with which we began suggests, that our style of prayer must suit us and not be something that is imposed from outside. Prayer is not intended to be a burden but a gift and, as the story illustrates and it can be as complex or as simple, as lengthy or as short as we would like to make it. Short repeated prayers like the “Jesus prayer” of the monks are just as valid as lengthy intercessions. So we might find that repeating the “Jesus prayer” suits our temperament, or that making the sign of the cross when we wake or during the day is a sufficient reminder of God’s presence in our lives, or that a pattern of prayer just before we go to sleep might be more to our style. Our personality might suit the discipline of saying the Daily Office[1] or of setting aside time each day/each week for meditation. We might be someone who is good with words, or we might be more comfortable sitting in silence.

No one prayer or form of prayer is better than any other as long as we pray for there is no other way to keep open that channel of communication with God. Whatever and however we do it, the important thing, in the words of the Archbishop of Canterbury, is that we “just pray” – that we acknowledge God’s presence in our lives and allow our lives to be transformed as a result.[2]

[1] Most modern Prayer Books include prayers for each day of the week.

[2] The English Church has developed a website that encourages us to “just pray”: justpray.uk

 

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