I remember hearing from the captain of a British Lifeboat who had been called out on numerous occasions to save the lives of people who found themselves floating in the freezing waters of coastal Britain. He recalled that he had never met an ‘atheist’ when they were floating in the freezing waters minutes from death – all had prayed. He went further to indicate that when people are confronted with the near and certain death experience it doesn’t matter who they are, what they have, or what they have achieved – none of that will save them from freezing to death in that moment.
He said everyone he had pulled out of the waters were desperately ‘praying’. Some to a God whose name was familiar and others who found themselves in a lifechanging, overwhelming moment of clarity. Through this desperate moment there was nothing left to them but to pray – it was all they could do! It often became a fast learning experience as people realised that prayer is something that comes from the deepest places of the human being, a deep and desperate yearning or a cry of desperate hope in the midst of fear, anxiety and pain.
There are many modes and notions of praying. For the most part, praying occurs at some distance, a point removed from real life or hovers around little, even miniscule things, in the context of broader life and living. People pray for a parking spot to open before them or lights to change when running late. Others pray for more money or stuff to fill their already overfull lives. Often, we throw off serious prayers for people we don’t know in situations that seem dramatic and difficult and over which we perceive we have no power to change. It is heart-felt but helpless and I often wonder what I/we believe, or hope might happen. Sometimes prayer seems to be like some form of magical incantation, that if we say the right words in the right way, with the right earnestness God will do what we want and make everything right. Some people believe this works in their life and much has been written and preached along these lines. There are many who have prayed, believing, and have not seen the miraculous they wished to experience and so the questions around the efficacy of prayer rage on. Never-the-less, most if not all people pray at some point in some way or form. Sometimes prayer is directed towards the Divine and aligns with a religious form. Sometimes prayer is unaligned to religious faith and life and is in the form of mediation or contemplation – mindfulness is the latest term.
This week we encounter Jesus’ disciples asking him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1-13). These aren’t people ignorant of praying – they were Jewish. They knew the forms of prayer and praying but still they asked to learn. I presume that they saw in Jesus a deeper praying, a deeper experience that gave him a presence of deeper peace, wisdom and an experience of living that transcended that of anyone else they had ever met. Prayer, in Jesus’ life, led him into the deepest place of living and being and he was more whole, compassionate, present and grace-filled than anyone they ever met. So they asked him to teach them.
The prayer form Jesus gave them began with words, familiar words to many of us. We call it ‘The Lord’s Prayer’. In Luke it is a very brief form (we are used to Matthew’s version, longer and fuller.) but the essential elements remain. This prayer is the significant prayer of Christian faith but never mentions Jesus/Christ, church, Bible or really anything pertaining to Jewish of Christian faith! It really is a prayer for the world as it picks up the essential elements of life and being. It names the Holy, the sacred and seeks the coming of the reality of ‘heaven,’ the way that reflects justice, love, peace and holiness in the world. It speaks of bread for the day – bread for the body, but also of mind and spirit. It also speaks of indebtedness and the forgiveness of our debts – as we forgive those indebted to us. Bread and debt was part of the daily grind and struggle of the ordinary people of 1st century Palestine – as it is for the majority of the world’s population today. Bread to survive this day is an imperative for many people, all of us really, although those who have too much overindulge and lose their lives in the forms addictive accumulation and greed. Indebtedness is also the daily bind for many people and nations in our world. Financial debt keeps people bound and deprived of life. Indebtedness is used by powerful and wealthy to gain power over people and ensure they gain more wealth. The prayer invites us to understand how bread and debt symbolise the essential elements of life and how we live together in relationship with one another. Ultimately, who ‘owns’ the wealth and produce of the world, the minerals and resources?
The prayer seeks deliverance from the trials that test us, or perhaps deliverance through the trials that test us, form us and push us towards a more self-aware and compassionate life that opens our being to other people and the earth itself. The deliverance through testing and trial creates more deeply humble and gracious human beings, with the realisation that we cannot save ourselves and that we are not the centre of the universe – we need other people and we need life beyond the life we live as a gift from God, through the presence of the One who loves us profoundly.
Jesus takes the teaching further by drawing us into a story of desperation and how that desperation results in persistent longing that moves to action. His simple story is of one who has a desperate need for bread to feed family and visitor. The person knocks on his neighbour’s door to seek help. If she is desperate, she will continue knocking until the door is answered, even if it is late in the night. Prayer becomes enacted prayer where the desperation of the heart becomes an action as fulfilment of that prayer. I remember being told once: ‘Do not pray the poor be fed, lest you are willing to provide the bread!’ The essence of prayer and praying is to move us into a new and different place. We come into the presence of God, and if we stop to listen and experience, we find ourselves drawn into the Divine heart where everything changes. We see differently and recognise ourselves humble, and alive in the vulnerable power of love that flows from God into human lives opened to such flow through prayer, contemplation, reflection and meditation. Eventually we move beyond words to ‘be’ in the presence and find ourselves in a moment that is true and deep, rich and pure – we will never be the same. We are invited to knock, seek, ask and that journey arises from a heart-experience that grows deeper as we learn.
Jesus concludes his teaching by promising that the Spirit of God will be given to anyone who asks – this is the only promise in this teaching moment. It is an invitation into grace, to journey into that deeper place and to receive the rich joy and peace of being’ in God. This is prayer of the heart and is the life Jesus invites us into!