Lord, Teach Us to Pray | January 19, 2020

Gott, laß meine Gedanken sich sammeln zu dir. Bei dir ist das Licht, du vergißt mich nicht. Bei dir ist die Hilfe, bei dir ist die Geduld. Ich verstehe deine Wege nicht, aber du weißt den Weg für mich.

My soul groaned the words, over and over again. Gott, laß mine Gedanken…Ich verstehe deine Wege nicht…over and over again, my soul brought these words to my mind. The longing, yearning, of my soul in a language other than my native tongue. I had learned the words, taken them to heart, and they had become a part of the language of my soul.

I was lost, unsure of what path to take or where I would even find a path to take. It was a dark time in my life, a crucial moment where I knew I was in the forge and I hoped the fire would refine rather than destroy. That was all I had at the moment, hope. And so I prayed that simple prayer: Gott, laß meine Gedanken sich sammeln zu dir. God, let my thanks rise only to you. With you is the light, you do not forget me. You are helpful, you are patient; I do not understand your ways but you know the way for me. Ich verstehe deine Wege nicht, aber du weißt den Weg für mich.

That was the deep prayer of my soul, one it uttered over and over again: I do not understand your ways, but you know the way for me. It was less a prayer of confidence that such was true but rather a request: let me see, let it be known in me, that you do in fact know the way for me; let me see that the fire of this forge will refine, not destroy.

My soul groaned. The words of old songs I learned long ago came back to me; the language of my soul. The words I had formed in my innermost parts through repetition and worship. The words of Psalms, the words of the Taize community, rang within me, tuning my soul to prayer.

Today, we begin a series on the prayers of Jesus. In our hearts, we ask this question of the disciples: Lord, teach us to pray.

Let’s hear Jesus teach us to pray in our gospel lesson. It comes from the sermon on the mount.

Scripture

Prayer is a journey. Prayer is a groaning and longing of our soul. Prayer is the language of our heart, given to God.

I arrived at the top of a mountain, huffing and puffing, my lungs feeling the sting of the cold air, and saw the vista. All I could do, overtaken by the joy in my heart, was say, “I lift my eyes to the hills, where does my help come from? My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.” Psalm 121, in its entirety, resonated deep within my soul, causing my heart to offer praise to God.

But we have to come down from the mountain, and when we do, sometimes my soul groans, “my tears have been my food day and night while people say to me continually, ‘where is your God?’” The words of Psalm 42. Then my soul remembers, “deep calls to deep at the thunder of your cataracts,” as the depth of me cries out to God from the pain, challenge, or hopelessness of the valley of the shadow of death.

And when I arrive back at the mountain top, I recall the words of David, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” Indeed, when I find myself in that “valley of the shadow of death,” I know I can “fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” We all know these words; those of Psalm 23.

In times where I experience a new beginning, a rebirth, a mini-resurrection of my soul after a period of difficulty, I hear the words of one of my most cherished hymns: “This is a day of new beginnings, time to remember and move on. Time to believe what love is bringing, leaving behind the pain that’s gone…Then let us with the spirit’s daring step from our past and leave behind our disappointment, guilt and grieving, seeking new paths and sure to find, Christ is alive and goes before us, to show and share what love can do. This is a day of new beginnings. Our God is making all things new.”

Repetition, having traced and retraced the same words, the same meanings, has given my heart language to groan, yearn, praise, God, from the depths of me.

Which is the point of the prayer Jesus teaches the disciples.

He gives them not instructions for formulating their own beautiful prayers with amazing words, lyrical patterns, and beauty that would astound anyone. No, he gives them a prayer to recite, to say over and over again.

And we must ask ourselves what that’s about? At rotary, one of the members asked me why I say basically the same prayer over and over again. His inference was clear: I wasn’t praying right if I repeated the same prayer time and time again. I’ve gotten that feedback before at other churches I have served.

Protestants that we are, we can be averse to repetition, saying that there’s no life in it. That somehow all prayers must be extemporaneous, off the cuff; otherwise, how can it be straight from the heart?

Straight from the heart like: “As the deer longs for water, so my soul longs for you.” Psalm 42 “O praise the Lord for he is good, his steadfast love endures forever! Let the redeemed of the Lord say so, those he redeemed from trouble.” Psalm 107

That’s the challenge Jesus notes in his instructions: pray straight from the heart. Don’t be like those pompous people who construct beautiful prayers to impress others. They aren’t praying to God but, rather, praying so other people can hear them pray. And that’s not prayer. They aren’t praying from the heart.

Don’t be like the priests in the temple who like to hear themselves talk. If they pray so they can hear themselves and think they’re big stuff, they aren’t praying from the heart.

Don’t be like those who put big, impressive, words and constructs into their prayers, hoping to somehow manipulate or move God to action on their behalf. God can’t be manipulated by our prayers. And such prayers aren’t praying from the heart.

Underlying all of Jesus’s don’t do it this way comments is this: prayer should be from the heart. It should be the language of the heart.

But rather than teach extemporaneous prayer, telling people how to pray off the cuff, Jesus gives a formula, a prayer for repetition. Why would that be? And does that make sense for our life together today?

“Let all the peoples praise you, O God. Let all the peoples praise you. The earth has yielded its increase. May our God continue to bless us. May God bless the ends of the earth.” Psalm 67

It may be foreign to us, for we think of prayer as simply offering our petitions to God. Perhaps when driving, we offer up our needs. Maybe before going to bed, a lifelong habit begun in childhood. None of these things are wrong, but in this repetitious prayer Jesus taught us, the one we call the Lord’s Prayer, we find the foundation for our prayer lives.

First, it encompasses all the different kinds of prayer. The pastoral prayer I gave a bit ago (see below) is an example of that. Not that every prayer must have all these elements, but prayer can have any of these elements:

Address to God (our Father),

Praise of God (Hallowed be your name),

Submission to God’s will (your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven),

Petition for needs to be met (give us this day our daily bread),

Statement of humility and common human experience (forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us),

and Request for help (lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil).

Jesus shows us what prayer can encompass, what the fullness of prayer sounds like, and in doing so, this prayer becomes the foundational prayer for any other prayer we utter.

For any prayer we give comes from this prayer. Perhaps we are praising God; it is grounded in “hallowed be your name.” Maybe we need help from trouble, “deliver us from evil” becomes the bedrock of that prayer. When facing a tough decision or time of discernment, our soul whispers, thy kingdom come, thy will be done. The Lord’s prayer encompasses all the different kinds of prayer we might utter.

And, secondly, the Lord’s Prayer does something else far more powerful. Through repetition, the words get into our soul.

When we aren’t sure what to do, our souls with yearning declare, “your kingdom come, your will be done.”

When someone makes us angry and we need to forgive, the words, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us” reminds us of our common humanity; of how much we ourselves need to be forgiven, which becomes the fuel to forgive others.

When we need to feel close to God, our souls cry out, “abba,” the informal, familiar, affectionate name for God; what we translate as Father.

The Lord’s Prayer teaches our souls to cry out with the familiar words, giving our souls the language they need. When we say the words over and over again, they get deep into our soul. They become a part of who we are. They graft themselves onto our souls in shape and mold us. And so, when we come before God in prayer, those words become the bedrock, the base, of our prayer life. We cannot help but pray these words as our hearts and yearn and groan to God. This is especially helpful when we do not know what to say, for the repetition gives our souls the vocabulary to cry out to God.

That’s the power of repetition. Not that prayers cannot be extemporaneous. But even then, our extemporaneous prayers are deepened, given new life, when they have words to pull from, language the soul and heart have gained, through repetition.

While this scripture is deep and robust and has much to teach us, the main lesson I want to convey this morning is this: repetition gives our hearts the language of prayer.

Every Psalm I quoted to you this morning I recited from memory as I wrote this sermon. The Psalms are the language of my heart, along with some Taize music and hymns. They have gotten deep down in my soul so that, when a deep seated emotion comes into my life, whether for good or bad, whether positive or negative, I experience the blessing of hearing my soul recite a Psalm or hymn that fits the emotion.

In the midst of chaos, I hear myself say, “praise the Lord, you sea monsters!” Psalm 148’s take on the chaos of life, a reminder that God is in the midst of chaos, moving for order.

When disaster strikes, I hear myself say, “We’re marching to Zion,” a line from a hymn that recalls Psalm 132, where the people march up mount Zion to the temple, as they had done for years, but the temple in this case is destroyed. It’s only rubble. In front of them is evidence that suggests God has been faithless. But the people refuse to believe that, defiantly marching up the hill anyway, declaring God’s faithfulness. What a powerful witness. And my soul gives praise for that in the midst of disaster.

The psalms, repetition in our prayers, enlivens our prayers, gives our emotions voice, and lets our heart communicate more deeply and thoroughly with God. How many of you can recite the prayer I pray before my sermons? How many of you can recite my typical benediction? That’s on purpose. So that the words get into your soul to enliven your prayer life. Repetition, even in worship, teaches our hearts to sing the praise of God, whether in familiar or foreign times, whether in joy or sorrow, whether in peace or fear.

Lord, teach us to pray. When those deep, hard, emotions of life come, do you have the words to pray? When there are inexpressible joys, when the depths of you cry out in pain, does your soul, does your heart, have the words it needs? If the answer is no, the power of repetition teaches our souls how to pray no matter how difficult, dark, or light, the emotion is.

Lord, teach us to pray, is a request not to learn how to petition God so that we can get what we want, but it is instead a request to learn how to communicate with God so that we can experience the fullness of who God is in our lives. It is a request for a robust communication channel between us and God. And the best way to learn to do that, is repetition so that our souls are formed by hearing the words of scripture, especially the Psalms, over and over again.

So here’s my challenge to you. Pray the Psalms. Daily. For a year. That’s a big challenge and it will come with reminders. In your bulletin is the first installment: a way you can pray the Psalms for the rest of this month. You’ll pray the same passages twice in a row. In the Psalms, you’ll learn to do what the Lord’s prayer teaches us: repetition, instilling the words of scripture deep in our hearts so that our hearts are enlivened in prayer.

Lacey, our social media coordinator, will be putting the month’s listing online every month for this coming year. She will also post to Facebook phone wallpapers that have the psalm readings for each month. You can change your phone’s wallpaper to have the schedule and then use your favorite bible app to read the Psalms daily. We’ll also put the month’s readings at a time in the bulletin. And I have a few paper copies of the whole year if you’d like those.

That way, as you go through life, in its ups and downs, twists and turns, joys and sorrows, your soul will always have the words to give praise, petition, demand, raise in anger, or utter deep joy. You, too, will say,

O give thanks to the Lord for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever…But you, O God, are my joy, do not be far from me. O Lord, come to my assistance; O Lord, make haste to help me…For you have known me from birth, you knit me together in my mother’s womb; surely I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Let the Psalms, as with the Lord’s prayer, become the language of your soul. Practice repetitious prayer, just as Jesus taught us with the Lord’s Prayer.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Pastoral Prayer

Our Father,

We praise you for being known to us as abba, daddy, as we can affectionately call you. That you, the great God of the universe, would be known to us so intimately is a gift.

Hallowed be thy name,

To Moses at the burning bush, and to all of us for all time, you told us your name and made yourself vulnerable. Such is too much to fathom, too much to comprehend, and yet you have done it anyway. What a tremendous gift.

Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,

Abba, all is not well in the world. We know of wars and rumors of wars. We experience division that disrupts the ordering of our lives and even cuts through our families. Too many of us have known illness and suffering. Bring healing to our world, bring peace to our world, bring to our world what you know in heaven, that all may rejoice and say, “Great is the Lord of hosts!”

Give us this day our daily bread,

We rely on you for all things, day by day. Teach us to take life one day at a time. Instruct us to have faith that you will provide patience in abundance, hope in times of trial, peace in strife, and love when hatred abounds. We think we can do for ourselves, a sin we freely confess. We think we can control, another sin we freely confess. Teach us to rely on what you give, day by day.

And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us,

We are only human, prone to wander, Lord we feel it, prone to leave you whom we love. Come, you fount of every blessing, teach us to sing your praise as we humbly confess our sinfulness, our need for forgiveness. When others offend us, when they anger us, when they have done wrong to us, teach us to see how we have done the same, that in embracing our humanity and the humanity of those who have done wrong by us, we can forgive.

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil,

Be God for us. Be the fullness of who you are. Show your power in our lives. Show how you are fighting against evil, righting wrongs. With the psalmist, we hear too many who say, “where is your God?!” Mocking our faith. Show yourself to the world that there may be no doubt who delivers, who overcomes temptation, who makes a way for humanity.

We pray all this, declaring that yours is the kingdom, and the glory, and the power forever.

Amen.

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