In preparing my sermon for this Sunday, I’ve been reflecting on the Lord’s Prayer and on Jesus’ life of prayer in the Gospels. The sermon is titled, “Prayer According to Jesus” (from Luke 11:1-4). No doubt the title is too ambitious for what can be actually delivered.
At some point in the process, a thought came to mind. How often are our questions about prayer concerned with the “technology” of prayer, that is, the “how to” question? In this approach, the point is to enlist prayer in helping me acheive my purposes so that it is important to discover “what works” in prayer. This can lead to the “cosmic Santa Claus” view of prayer: God exists to give me what I want as long as I’m reasonably good and maybe even if I’m not. But Jesus’ life and his teaching of the Lord’s Prayer subjugates the “technology” or “how to” question to the “relationship” or “who with” question. As the late Quaker philosophy professor and spiritual writer Douglas Steere reminds us, “Unless there is a God of whom we can say with Ignatius of Loyola, ‘I come from God, I belong to God, I return to God,’ prayer is a mockery.” The primary issue, the focal question in prayer and in learning to pray is not “how” but “who.”
In fact, because this question of who is the proper end of prayer, it is also the best beginning. After all, this is likely the true reason we began to pray in the first place–to see if God was “out there.” But perhaps we wanted to see if God was out there because we were attracted to the prospect of having another person to bargain with and manipulate as we sometimes do with our other realtionships in order to get what we think we want. As soon as we verified his existence and whereabouts, we turned to what we could gain for ourselves. It is here that we see one of the gracious, purifying works of God in prayer: that of denying our consumption temptation by refusing to be a commodity and thereby laying a foundation within our relationship with him for all other relationships that we share.
Because God ultimately moves us from technology (how to get it to work out in the way I’d like) to relationship (who I’m growing in self-giving love and mutual fellowship with), we are freed from the technology approach to our relationships with family, friends, strangers, even ourselves. When the disciples asked Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray” and when Jesus is teaching on how to practice spiritual devotion in Matthew 6, he offered a prayer that would carry his hearers, and us, from the “how to” of technology to the “who with” of relationship. It is here that genuine intimacy is possible (“Our Father, who art in heaven”). It is here that we acknowledge him and his purpose first (“hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done”). It is here that our requests are not so much ways to get what we think we need as they are ways of entrusting our lives more fully into his care because we know him and his love for us (“give us daily bread, forgive our sins, lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil”).
We come from God, we belong to God, we return to God. To him alone be “the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.”