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Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
For some Christians, the forty days of Lent is a time to give up something they enjoy. You may have chosen to give up chocolates or alcohol, or some other satisfying pleasure. It can be a helpful discipline, for then, every time you are tempted to enjoy or imbibe you will be reminded of what Jesus has done for you. Of course, there are those who are simply giving up their New Year’s Resolutions. And others still, are tempted to give up church for Lent. Somehow, I don’t think that’s a discipline that really encourages anyone to meditate on Christ’s sacrifice. There is, however, an alternative Lenten practice. That is what I would like you to consider tonight. Instead of giving up something, you may try to do something new instead. It is for this reason that I have chosen to focus on the discipline of prayer.
Regardless of one’s age, we do all find ways to pray. A mother told her young son to go to bed and to be sure to say his prayers and ask God to make him a good boy. Unfortunately, when the boy’s father was passing by the bedroom door, he overheard his son praying: “And God make me a good boy if you can; and if you can’t don’t worry about it ‘cause I’m having fun the way I am.” Yes, we can all muddle through our prayer life. But even Jesus’ disciples, those who were closest to him, came to him one day and asked, “Lord, teach us to pray.” There must be a trick or secret to a meaningful prayer life?
My friends, this Lenten season I would like you to consider the purpose of prayer in your life. And in particular, to consider the wonderful treasure you have been given in the Lord’s Prayer.
Let us begin with the question, “Why should we pray?” Many people pray, but they often pray for the wrong reason. There are some people who treat prayer as the great wishing well in heaven. Just as when they were children and they waited for the first star to appear and fervently recited the verse, “Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight. I wish I may, I wish I might, have the wish I wish tonight,” so as adults, they offer words to God with similar requests. When a heavy snowstorm closed the school in one town in southern Minnesota, and the children were allowed to return to school a few days later, one grade-school teacher asked her students whether they had used their time away from school constructively, to which one little girl replied, “I sure did, teacher. I just prayed for more snow.” As the late American humorist Fred Allen said, “Yes, many adult Christians spend the first six days of each week sowing their wild oats, then they go to church on Sunday and pray for a crop failure.” For them prayer is nothing more than a heavenly wishing well.
There are others for whom prayer is a bargaining table. I often jest that Minnesota is the land of 10,000 lakes, 10,000 taxes and 10,000 ways to gamble. More people pray before the high altar of the One Armed Bandit than before the altar of the Church. You can hear their prayers, “O God, let it be this one,” as they pull the handle and wait for their divine answer. These are the negotiators. They are afraid to commit themselves until they know exactly what they’ll receive in return. They would like to pray, but they’re not quite sure of the consequences. Prayer and the sign of the cross are simply lucky charms for them, a rabbit’s foot, a part of a superstitious routine. These cautious believers are afraid that God might have greater demands than they are prepared to offer.
Truthfully, some people are equally convinced that not even the pastor prays until the stakes are high. I once jokingly told my office manager that if anyone called for me while I was in the sanctuary, she should tell the caller I was at a casino. She replied, “Oh, Pastor Haug. They’re not going to believe that of you.” To which I responded, “Well, they’re not going to believe it if you tell them I am in the sanctuary praying either.”
And finally there are those for whom prayer is simply a last resort. As a hospital chaplain, I heard the words spoken over and over. I would ask, “Would you like to pray?” And the patient would sigh, “Oh, it couldn’t hurt.” Mind you, as a pastor I believe in 11th hour religious experiences, I just don’t base my ministry on them. I have known far too many sad and torn families whose 11th hour Christians died at 10:30.
Perhaps in your faith journey, you have grown to believe that prayer is nothing more than a heavenly wishing well, a holy bargaining table or a divine last resort. And you have been disappointed. Well, if that is your notion of prayer, then my friends, you should give up prayer for Lent. It is a waste of time and energy. But I don’t think that is the reason the disciples came to Jesus asking him to teach them how to pray. Prayer, you see, is not God’s channel for dispensing earthly prizes for good wishes. Prayer, above all, is God’s means to touch your heart and soul, and to change it. And it is your means to touch the face of God.
Mind you, Jesus’ own disciples had some odd notions of prayer. They had grown to believe that prayer was a public art form. They thought that if you simply knew the right phrases and cadences, and piled up the words for all to hear, God would listen to you. Or so they believed. But instead Jesus taught his followers the opposite, “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” That is a word for all of us to hear. Yes, by all means it is good to be able to lead family and friends in prayer. And it is wonderful to share your witness of God’s wonders. But it must always arise from your own personal conversation with God.
So how should you begin to speak to God in prayer? There is perhaps, no more well- known introduction to prayer than this. “Our Father, who art in heaven.” Even before the Christian faith came into the world there was a great heritage of the fatherhood of God in the Jewish faith tradition. There were sayings that were dear to the Jewish people. “You are the sons of the Lord your God.” And “I am the Father to Israel.” Yes, the ancient Jewish world understood the mercy of God as that of a loving Father, but they also understood the demand of a Father’s obedience.
Fearfully, men and women stood before God. They recalled the Old Testament image of the poor, agonized Job, who heard from the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” They remembered the prophet Jeremiah who envisioned God as a potter at work. “Like the clay in the potter’s hand, so are you in my hand, O house of Israel. Can I not do with you as the potter has done?” Yes, they imagined a Father God who could be distant, angry and vindictive.
Jesus, however, gave a new richness and meaning to the fatherhood of God. Jesus’ own choice of the word, abba, father, encourages us to look at God in a different way. The word is intimate, gentle and tender. This word abba, you see, is more than the formal title father. Abba is the word little children in Israel and Palestine, even today, use to address their fathers. Our own equivalent would be papa or daddy. Of course, to translate Father so informally in the New Testament, and to speak that way in prayer would sound disrespectful and absurd to our modern ears. But it does give us the sense in which Jesus invites to come to God. We are to come to God, with our neighbors, with the same simple trust and confidence that little children come to their fathers whom they know and love and trust.
The beginning of any prayer, you see, is not about using the right words and phrases. Prayer is about making your relationship right. But it takes work. Maybe that’s why Jesus said that you are to begin in the privacy of your own home and behind closed doors. Your relationship with God is like the relationship you have to your own family. Human relationships can deal with many challenges. They can be heated, gentle, argumentative and forgiving. But true relationships can never be absent or apathetic. Human relationships need involvement and engagement. The same is true for your relationship to be right with God. The purpose of prayer is simply to perfect and complete your oneness with God and then in nurturing that relationship so that he can be as dear to you as a loving Father.
My friends, this is why we must learn to pray aright- and that is where we begin our meditation on the Lord’s Prayer this Lenten season. Our Lord Jesus has not taught us to pray in order to open the way to a heavenly wishing well, a holy bargaining table or a divine last resort. But our Lord Jesus has taught us to pray so that we may experience the divine gifts of a new life, a new perspective, and a new integrity offered in a welcoming hand. And these gifts, and so many more, come to us from a God who invites us to know him and call him our Father. And that is just the beginning. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.