There is a verse of Scripture that continually bounces around my feeble brain. There are few moments throughout the day that it isn’t there. Sometimes it is front and center, reminding me of my shallowness. Other times, it is tucked away in the deep, dark recesses of my mind tugging at my conscience, inviting me to look deeper still, but it is almost always there. What is that verse? Actually, it is not even an entire verse. It is just a single phrase. It is this: “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11: 1).
I think about the disciple who made the request of Jesus. I wonder which one it was. It could have been any of the twelve. It is pure speculation to try to guess which one. What strikes me, though, is the fact that it would come from any of the twelve. After all, these were praying men. They were Jewish. They had been raised and “taught” to pray the Shema twice daily. By this time in their life, they no doubt had spent countless hours reciting any number of other Jewish prayers. They were praying people, yet they had to ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
I feel that way most of the time! I grew up in a Christian home with a praying mom, and a praying grandfather and grandmother. I participated in worship, heard the corporate prayers of the body of Christ, was called upon to pray even as a youth. I have spent over 26 years in vocational ministry, have led the church in corporate prayers, prayed for the needs of the congregation and community, prayed at the bedside of the sick and dying, and I’ve attended classes and retreats (even led a few). Still, that little phrase lingers…more in my heart than in my mind…but, it is there. I find myself saying it almost every time I pause and even consider the idea of prayer…”Lord, teach me to pray…”
I suspect those first disciples saw both the discipline and the power of Jesus own prayer life, and as they did, they noticed something was missing of their own. For all the times they had prayed, for all the times they had recited learned prayers, for all the times they had gathered corporately as the people of God, there was something missing when they saw Jesus pray. So, they came and they asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
Jesus obliged. And, he still obliges to those who ask him…even those of us who have prayed long and often. Even to those who feel their prayers bounce off the ceiling and go unanswered for long periods of time. He obliges because he knows the power of prayer, and the power that was evident in his own prayers he desires to make real in the lives of his disciples.
So, what is it he teaches his disciples? More than simply a model prayer, he desires to take his disciples deeper into the practice of prayer, and I sense in reading his response a pattern to his power. Here is the pattern I see:
Powerful Prayer is Personal
Jesus prayed, “Our Father, which are in heaven…”
Prayer is rooted in relationship. I find myself caught in the mechanics of prayer. I stumble on the “How-to” rather than the reason for prayer. While concentrating on the “how,” I forget the purpose behind my prayer is to bring me into a more intimate relationship with the Father who loves me.
I’m reminded what Richard Foster says about prayer: “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father.” God is not an abstract thought–up there, out there somewhere, but rather a personal, intimate loving Father who desires only the best for His children.
Powerful Prayer is Provisional
Jesus also teaches me that it’s okay to pray for my needs. It’s not selfish nearly as much as it becomes a confession of my dependence upon him for all my needs. Prayer becomes an acknowledgement that we have legitimate needs–for food, shelter and clothing, and unless those needs are met we are less likely to be attentive to the Spirit’s guidance in our lives. I can’t remember who said it, but “an empty belly has not attention span.”
He also teaches that prayer for daily needs is not simply offering our shopping list to Jesus. He is not our divine ATM, and a selfish prayer is to pray “God let me win the lottery and then all my needs will be met.” Rather, a sufficient prayer is to acknowledge our needs to him, lay them at his feet and trust that he will provide. We then come to realize our deepest need–the need for forgiveness.
Powerful Prayer is Persistent
Like a shameless friend who knocks on our door at midnight, who knocks and keeps knocking until we respond, God desires us to keep praying, keep asking, keep seeking, and in so doing, we’ll discover the riches of learning to pray. It’s a reminder that as long as I live, as long as I’m a disciple, he will keep teaching. Learning is a life-long process, one that develops over a period of time. Powerful prayer is not given to a one and done instance.
I suspect that if those first disciples were alive, they’d likely still be asking Jesus to teach them to pray. I find myself discovering the more I pray, the more I need to learn to pray, and the more he teaches me to pray, the more he is able to bend my will to his…and that’s when I make the real discovery of grace…that his purpose all along has been to bend my will to his.
The fact that the little phrase “Lord, teach us to pray” is still bouncing around my mind and heart reveals that my will still has some bending to do.
I’m also reminded what another prayer warrior said: “If I’m praying and not getting what I ask for, it’s not because God is withholding something from me, it’s because he’s got something better for me.”
As the Lord teaches me to pray, I notice that prayer becomes less about changing my circumstances, and more about changing me.
I still have a lot to learn. “Lord, teach me to pray…”
Until next time, keep looking up…