Teach us to Pray – submitted by Rob Haskell

Lord, teach us to pray (Luke 11:1)

It almost sounds odd to hear the disciples making the request, “teach us to pray”.  I’m not sure that we think of prayer as something that can be taught. For us prayer is something deeply personal, something emotional, an intimate connection between God and the individual that no one else can speak to. We tend to treat prayer as something that is better caught than taught, better intuited than instructed.

I’ve always noticed how in many Hollywood films the hero will triumph in the end through an act of sheer will. He is up against professional killers, or the unstoppable forces of nature, or insurmountable odds, and he doesn’t stand a chance. But because of his love for his family, or because of that special someone who is in peril, or just out of a ferocious desire to live, he snatches victory from the jaws of defeat.  And you think, “No normal person could do that” (shoot their way through a horde of menacing bad guys, swim against a tsunami, turn back time, or whatever). But answer is that, yes they can! Why? Because of the greatness of his determination. All the training that the other guys needed can be bypassed, says the subtext, if you are determined enough or if you love enough; if you feel enough.

This is mostly nonsense. You don’t suddenly acquire survival skills just because you feel strongly about something. Strong feelings are a major asset, but you still have to do the hard work of learning. But I suspect that we tend to think about spirituality in ways that are similar to Hollywood’s “victory through sheer will” approach. If you feel strongly about something, we think, that will be enough to do it well.

But the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, and Jesus did not respond by saying, as we might, “There is no way to teach it. You just have to feel your way into prayer.” In fact, he gives them a very concrete example of how to do it: How to address God (“Father”), that prayer is to him (not Jesus or the Holy Spirit), that our first prayer concerns ought to be God-ward (his kingdom, his glory, his will), that our needs ought to be secondary to that higher reality and not the main focus (only one line of the prayer is dedicated to them), and finally that our prayers ought to be integrated into our life of discipleship (we ask to be forgiven by the same measure as we use to forgive others). These are all very learnable things. And in many cases, we really need to learn them!

Aside from teaching us how to pray, these instructions also have the effect of defining the Christian practice of prayer. Prayer is actually quite popular today and is practiced in a variety of religious traditions and spiritualities. But is there a sense in which prayer can be called Christian? I think so. A Christian prayer is one that models the Lord’s Prayer. I’m not saying this to dismiss other approaches to prayer (happily, that is not my job), but rather to define in a positive sense what it means for us Christians to pray. As followers of Jesus, we have a model to learn from and follow. We don’t pray any old way; we pray as Jesus taught us.

For discussion:

 ¿What are some things you have learned about prayer from another individual?

Tell us about your fist experiences with prayer. How did it feel? What did you do?

Have you read any materials on prayer that have been helpful and you would like to share with us?

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