I have read that statement time and time again. It frequently comes up in our lectionary. What proceeds from this request is the institution of The Lord’s Prayer – the most beloved of all prayers. Through Sunday school lessons, confirmation classes, or just through the frequent hearing of the words, we dutifully commit this prayer to memory. The words of The Lord’s prayer are so ingrained in us that even those who have not stepped into a church in decades can join in the prayer through the simple prompting: “Our Father, who art in heaven. . .”
We must not forget, however, that these words are an answer to a very serious request from the disciples. The disciples wish to learn how to pray; they long to hear instructions from He who was their Master and Lord; they desire to receive direction in this most holy and sacred activity.
Today, asking for a lesson on how to pray may seem odd. After all, when is the last time you went to your priest (or Bishop) and asked for a run down on prayer? Do I sit? Do I stand? Should my hands be cupped or open? Should I bow my head or look toward the heavens? Today these types of questions seem ludicrous; yet it was common in ancient times for students to request these lessons from their teacher. Every High Priest, Rabbi, and Teacher had subtle nuances that made up their particular ‘brand’ of praying. Thus, those who were committed followers of a certain teacher would naturally be tasked with learning these particular nuances. Just as John taught his disciples to pray, as Saul was no doubt taught at the feet of his teacher Gamaliel, the disciples now request that Jesus unravel the intricacy of prayer for them.
This got me thinking about my own training in the school of prayer. I don’t know about you, but I was never taught how to pray. Now I have grown up in the church; I was baptised at 13 days old and confirmed when I was 16; I built the foundation of my faith with Sunday school felt boards and Christmas pageant costumes; I went on youth retreats and summer camps; My high school years were filled with youth groups, mission projects, and lock-ins. I even spent three years as a church youth worker before spending an equal amount of time in Seminary. Yet all throughout this process I do not believe that I was ever explicitly taught how to pray. It was just assumed that I would figure it out as I went along.
Is this your experience as well or is it just me?
Where did this assumption that we as Christians would just ‘figure prayer out’ come from? Surely, it isn’t from the Bible. After all, the disciples asked for a lesson in prayer, and all of the statements about prayer in the epistles are made to a community of people for whom it was assumed would be living out their prayers lives together. I suspect that this boils down to the overly privatized atmosphere in which we view all things spiritual today. Our faith is about ‘Me-and-Jesus’ (and notice who comes first!) In many ways, we still abide by the old adage that says it is ‘not polite to speak about religion in public.’ Sure we may drape this under the rhetoric of pluralism and tolerance, but the result is that our spirituality becomes severed from active life.
When it comes to our prayer lives, then, prayer is seen as a solely personal endeavour. No instructions need ever be given, no lessons to learn, because prayer is just about how I function within my “Me-and-Jesus” framework. What is more, given the fact that prayer is seen as something essentially ‘private’ to the individual, we make ourselves the ultimate authority on our own prayer life. This may sound freeing until we realize that we cut ourselves off from any possibility of growth. How can I learn to pray when I am the ultimate authority on what it means for me to pray?
Is it any wonder why so many people struggle with developing an active and rich prayer life?
We see here the problem with such an individualized understanding of prayer. Striving to figure it out as we go, yet lacking the specific desire, knowledge or space to do so, we never achieve the growth (or results) we would hope for in our prayers. Eventually many of us just give up beyond the most routine of prayers said in a frenzied and hurried manner. This leaves much of the Biblical statements on prayer seeming like over-exaggerations without any practical or real-world significance. The charge to ‘pray without ceasing’, for example, is simply an impossibility given the demands of life and our own lack of results in prayer.
E.M Bounds describes this sense frenzied prayer as the manner in in which we ‘drop down and say a few words, and then jump up and forget it and expect God to answer.” This, remarks Bounds, is akin to a ‘small boy ringing his neighbour’s doorbell, and then running away as fast as he can go.” (Quoted from E.M Bounds “Understanding Prayer” pg. 60). There is simply no time given to this holy act. This would, of course, explain our lack of results in prayer; we never stay in prayer long enough to hear God respond. Yet, again, were we ever taught the necessity of listening? Were we ever taught how to quiet our distractions and wait upon the Lord to respond?
We tend to view the matter of prayer as pertaining to what we say, rather than seeing it as internal disposition before our Lord and maker. When this is the attitude by which we approach that most central of spiritual activities, we are lead into one of two serious dangers. Either we do not recognize our prayerlessness as a problem, or we fail to look for the lessons that can move us into a deeper prayer-filled connection with our Lord.
Yet it doesn’t have to be this way. The disciples asked to pray, and Jesus did respond. What is more, the Spirit is present to continue ushering us into deeper experience, if we would but open ourselves to such lessons. E.M. Bounds writes “The strongest one in Christ’s kingdom is the one who is the best knocker. The secret of success in Christ’s kingdom is the ability to pray. The one who can wield the power of prayer is the strong one, the holy one in Christ kingdom. The most important lesson we can learn is how to prayer.”
May we, like the disciples of old, echo the question “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Were you ever taught how to Pray? What resources, lessons, and experiences did you use to develop your prayer life?