Do you have an Amazon wish list? I do, it’s digital list full of books, music and films that I would like to have, to possess and perhaps more so actually have the time to enjoy. I need none of them, but I would still love to have them. It is part of human nature; to consume.
René Descartes, trying to define what it ultimately means to exist said ‘I think therefore I am.’ In 21st Century Britain our existence seems rest on a different perceived reality - ‘I shop therefore I am’. Western society is built on consumerism. ‘...My wages are gone within a week of being paid. I’m not a materialistic person but I do like materialistic things...’
Just like society, prayer can become a wish list. All that we utter in this divine conversation is a list of things we would like God to sort out. This is illustrated no better than in the film Bruce Almighty. God hands over the running of the world to Bruce, who then has to deal with the billions of prayer requests eventually answering all of them with ‘yes!’ with catastrophic results.
However, when the disciples asked how they should pray, Jesus taught them, what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. It’s interesting that we call it that, because what Jesus gives is not His prayer but a corporate one for all His disciples - we say ‘Our Father...’ In some senses though it’s not a prayer at all, but at a structure, an order, a means to affective prayer.
Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Jesus’ teaching begins with acknowledging God, and His holiness. This holy God dwells in heaven - he is infinite, mysterious and unknowable as this heaven is beyond the limitations of our earthly experience. That said, Jesus reminds us that He is not distant or aloof. If you want to know what God is says Jesus, He is like a tender Father.
We are invited to address this high and holy God as Abba, Papa, Daddy and it displays a wonderful intimacy with the divine infinite. It’s a word used by children when talking to their fathers.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Next comes a call for God’s Kingdom and for God’s will and purposes to be seen and known and felt. A kingdom is the place or places where the King dwells and reigns and is to do with territory. But in God’s case it is also to do with the topography of the human heart and His values, His purposes, His will being exercised everywhere including in our lives, words and actions.
Give us this our daily bread. We do get a section for our needs, but they are for our needs and not our wants. No holidays or shoes, no films or music but the staple, the vital things in life but not just this day but every day.
And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Forgiveness is next, and not just ours, but others - two words are used by Jesus: sins and debts. As we ask for forgiveness from God for our sins, we are called to forgive others of what they are indebted to us by. It’s about our freedom and building new communities between us and God and us and each other - where we are no longer beholden to each other.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil. Finally there is a call to keep us from temptation, from testing, from trial. It should take our minds back to the story of the prophet Job and the testing trials he endured which demonstrated his faith and trust in God. It’s a call to our own holiness. Not being led into temptation and being delivered from evil are in essence about aligning our will to the will of God. Jesus’ teaching on prayer begins with recognising God’s holiness, it concludes with us longing for our own.
Having modeled a structure for our praying that begins with God and ends with us being sent out to live holy lives, Jesus then teaches about how to pray.
What Jesus doesn’t do here is wrestle with what is all too often our experience of prayer - that some prayers remain unanswered. When that happens there are all sorts of temptations to try to explain it away, none of which are entirely satisfactory. We may hear that God does sometimes refuse our request because it’s not His will - but aren’t health, well-being and peace His will? Sometimes you hear ‘everything happens for a reason’, so are we saying that all sorts of violence, torture and illness are somehow God’s will? No and no. Prayers are not wishes - to be granted or not. Prayer is something more.
Prayer is relationship. Those of us who have or have had the privilege of playing a part in bringing up children will know that children understand the word ‘love’ as being spelt ‘T-I-M-E’. How much time do we give to our heavenly Father? On their deathbed no-one ever says, ‘I wish I had spent more time at the office’ but more of often people speak of regret at not spending enough time with those they love the most, developing and deepening relationships, sharing love. Even in those times when our prayer remains unanswered, we are spending time with God, deepening that relationship, discovering that prayer is not about our wills and wants, but about placing ourselves within in His.
Prayer is dialogue. Jesus does encourage us to be persistent - to spend time asking, to spend time getting to know, and listening and waiting for, the loving will of our Heavenly Father to be revealed, to developing and deepening our relationship with Him. It’s a dialogue in that sense. Prayer helps understand His will and purposes for us better, so we can live them.
It is exactly because God is like a tender father, a passionate lover, and a lenient judge, Jesus invites us to pray. Keep asking, keep seeking, keep knocking, he tells us. If a person will answer the door at midnight when a visitor knocks, how much more will God respond to our prayers? And when a child asks for basic nourishment like a fish or an egg, no parent would ever give him something poisonous like a snake or scorpion. How much more will God give good gifts to his children, says Jesus, who ask.
And at the end we say Amen - literally ‘so be it’ - ‘so be it’ whether God answers, ‘so be it’ however God answers, ‘so be it’ whenever God answers. Jesus teaches that prayer is ultimately about us having the sort of relationship with God that enables us to trust Him enough to have His way among us for our good and for His glory, and to that we all say Amen.