Prayer is often viewed as mystical and mysterious, and in many ways it is. But Jesus is actually really clear about it, too. In fact, not many things in the Bible are as clear as the invitation to communicate directly with God! Jesus even gives us specific words for it. And even better, he demonstrates himself doing it throughout the gospels. Instead of trying to muscle his way through life, he regularly escapes to pray, or talks with his Father right where he is. If the Son of God consistently looked to God to receive wisdom and comfort and direction for what’s next, why in the world would I try to get by on my own?
Jesus gave instructions for prayer in his first big sermon, recorded in Matthew 6:
“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. (For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.)”
For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.
I get two main messages from that first paragraph:
- This is for you. Prayer is not for the attention of others; it’s because we need to be with God and to receive from God, and God wants to be with us and provide for us. Most people didn’t have a lot of privacy in their homes in Jesus’s time (one or maybe two rooms) so actually shutting the door might not have been an option unless they had a little closet. Jesus was going to some length to say that prayer might require some special actions. It’s not gonna just happen; we have to show up for it but there will be a reward. The reward is in the relationship, and we probably won’t know about that until we show up for it!
- It’s not a transaction. People who babbled on and on were often trying to manipulate the deities into doing things. Jesus says, no need. Your Father knows what you need before you ask him! There is way more than a transaction being offered here in prayer. It’s about being together heart to heart, spirit to Spirit that causes transformation. And we don’t even need words! This story about Mother Theresa is one of my favorites:
One time an interviewer asked Mother Theresa “When you pray, what do you say to God?” Mother Teresa replied, “I don’t talk, I simply listen.” Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, “Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?” Mother Teresa replied, “He also doesn’t talk. He also simply listens.” There was a long silence, with the interviewer seeming a bit confused and not knowing what to ask next. Finally Mother Teresa broke the silence by saying, “If you can’t understand the meaning of what I’ve just said, I’m sorry but there’s no way I can explain it any better.”
I imagine that Mother Theresa probably learned the hard way that prayer is not so much about getting God to do what we think God should do (heal the sick, end all poverty), but that the purpose of prayer is to absorb God’s heart, and to become more like Jesus, to see even the most depressing circumstances of our world through his compassionate eyes, and to be filled with his love to share.
To be honest, I hardly ever have too many words for my prayers, either. That’s OK, because it turns out that God can do a lot of good work in silence. Centering prayer is way of just being quiet with God, opening your awareness to the invisible but always present Presence of love that holds all things together. Cynthia Bourgeault instructs, “Whenever a thought comes in to your mind, you simply let the thought go and return to that silent attending upon the depths. Not because thinking is bad, but because it pulls you back to the surface of yourself. You use a short word or phrase (I use Jesus) to help you let go of the thought…What goes on in those silent depths during the time of centering prayer is no one’s business, not even your own; it is that place where God is closer to your soul than you are yourself. Your own subjective experience of the prayer may be that nothing happened….but in fact, plenty has been going on, and things are quietly but firmly being rearranged.” That interior rearrangement is a spiritual awakening, an attunement to the Spirit of God who transforms the world through ordinary folks like each of us. Praying like this helps me experience the meaning of the Lord’s prayer:
- Our Father in heaven: We’re addressing God, reaching out for what Jesus brings down. As our love goes to Father / Mother God, Jesus brings it near. My friend, Anita Grace Brown, had a beautiful revelation about that last week. She wrote: “I misunderstood the pace of Jesus’s walk with us. I thought that we were as strong as our strongest link (HIM) and that His strength pulled us up with HIM in secure attachment… but HE is our weakest link in a sense–for his pace is staying with the most vulnerable of lambs, the ones with the limp or maybe even without limbs altogether. He always comes down to us. I was always rushing the body in my attempts to witness thriving (a lovely goal!) but that is not how Christ’s upside-down kingdom works (that’s how capitalism works, how the domination system works, how those of us with worldly goals work). The compassionate love of God comes “down” to us through Jesus, just where we are, at our pace. Prayer invites God to deliver mercy in the very human way that God does.
- Hallowed be thy name. God’s name is holy, consecrated, set-apart. I love how the Jewish culture and others describe God’s name as unspeakable. Even the band Iron Maiden wrote a song called “Hallowed by thy name,” and there’s a line in there that reveals the nature of holiness: “Don’t I believe that there never is an end?” God’s name is hallowed because Jesus transcends life and death. He is uncontainable. His name, “God is salvation” tells us that there is more hope incarnate than we might understand.
- Your kingdom come: Here’s an invitation for revelation. This is saying YES to the creative resurrection power that restores the earth. It is asking God to lead, and be in charge. We long for this because we do not see the fullness of it now. We have an eschatological, prophetic hope in this in-between time. We see and experience how broken the world is, and we are, and at the same time we long and pray and live into its healing, bit by bit. Indigenous People’s Day today is a little sign of that movement, a kingdom movement in its counter-celebration. Instead of celebrating the Empire’s attempt to dominate and obscure the humanity of native people, we are seeing and affirming the honor of those people. The kingdom is for those who long for transformation, those who grieve and know that the world isn’t as it should be, but look to God to make it new.
- Your will be done. This part calls us to trust in God’s goodness. Prayer is opening ourselves up to that goodness. It involves an opening of self: being willing to hold loosely what we think we want in order to create space for God to direct, lead, and guide us into a truer and fuller way of being. I might think I know what should happen at any given moment. But do I really know? I need space to discern, to get my initial preferences “out of the way” as my friends in recovery say. When we hold open our self-talk, our interior dialogue, our fears, wants, needs, daydreams, and fantasies, we entrust ourselves to a deeper aliveness. One that is less self-referential and more aware of others. This probably gives us more capacity for “God’s will,” on earth as it is in heaven. Can you imagine heaven here now? I think that’s what we’re tasting in prayer and the communion it can spark with others.
- Give us this day our daily bread. We need spiritual nourishment from God, but Jesus tells us to ask for just enough for today. Our fears makes us want more than daily bread. As an Italian cook, I want bread not just for my own eating, but bread to make croutons and bread to make bread crumbs for the cutlet, and bread dough in the freezer for the morning. But God is calling me to enjoy and use what I have today, and trust for the rest. God is calling me to receive tomorrow’s bread tomorrow. Recently when I go to bed exhausted I have been realizing that’s how it should be. God will give me the inspiration and strength I need in the morning.
- Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors. Jesus was probably more often talking to those who owed debts than those who were owed, at least financially. I think there’s a vibe here that our whole lives are from God. What can we do to give back? Where have I taken more than I needed? Forgive me my sins as I am committed to forgiving. Repentance is a daily part of our calling, and prayer can show us specifically where we’ve been amiss. I believe that it’s only in asking for forgiveness and being forgiven that we are able to forgive others. Jesus connects this so directly. I think it’s no coincidence that Jesus talks about forgiveness in his sermon right after prayer, because I’m not sure that forgiveness is possible without the power of God! It’s hard. But the Spirit can help us, and Jesus tells us to ask for that particular help every day.
- Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. This part suggests, and I think rightly so, that God doesn’t test us. The world is a testy, challenging place, and our own vulnerabilities can certainly lead us into temptation. Jesus is real about that and teaches us to ask for deliverance, the empowerment of his Spirit, to protect us from the ways we might be tempted to give up our life and joy. Prayer helps us know our vulnerabilities AND our salvation. One of my favorite medieval saints, Clare of Assisi, describes prayer as a mirror. We see our vulnerabilities and we also see Christ there, even in them. The love of Christ is greater than any evil the world has ever known, and we can lean into that truth in direct connection with God.
- Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. This calls us the deepest truth and realest reality to our awareness: that all things belong to God, and there is a redemption plan for the whole universe. We only see a bit now, through a glass darkly, but Jesus is returning to remake this beautiful, hurting earth and every life in it. Nothing is wasted. Our lives are not just about our limitations and inadequacy. This is about God, and how we’re part of God’s glory. The Lords prayer is a communal prayer: notice that Jesus uses the word “us.” Jesus is saying that a personal life of prayer expands us into an us. A Body, a movement of Love together.
The time to come in to this place of rest and trust with God is today, as Hebrews 4 describes. My Temple cellmates challenged each other this week to try five minutes of rest with God a day. It’s hard to shut the door on our deadlines and other distractions, but this invitation from God remains. Lord, give us space to make this space in our lives for You, and for us. Help us experience the care and transformation you offer, not just in heaven but right now on earth, as close and regular as our breath and being. Show us the reward of being with You.