Do you know how to pray? Do you pray every day? Do you feel that when you pray somebody listens, somebody hears you? I am continually surprised, although I should not be, that most people I encounter don’t seem to pray, don’t seem to take prayer seriously. You can say what you want about the disciples, but it’s clear that they want to draw closer to God, and so they ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. And I think that desire is on some of our hearts, too—we just wish we knew how to pray.
Prayer—who hears? How do you direct your thoughts—and isn’t it ridiculous to think that some entity in the world understands the firing of your synapses, the electrons moving back and forth in those grey little cells? “He was praying in a certain place,” Luke says. Jesus was praying so long that the disciples had to wait for him; he prayed so often they were accustomed to waiting. “He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray…” They want to pray—and I suppose we want to pray, because Jesus prays, and because we believe that God heard Jesus. He wasn’t worrying about being seen or being heard by others. He wasn’t worried that God couldn’t understand the signals and the electricity of his mind. He prayed in private, often in the wilderness, but prayed as if God was real, and as if God heard him.
Maybe that’s all the disciples were really asking Jesus—how do you know God hears you? It’s so hard for us to stand alone and say the words that seem to fall on the ground, lifeless. It’s so hard for us to get out of our own heads. It’s so hard to believe that God is in them. So, say what you will about the disciples. They wanted to try to pray. They wanted to draw near to God. They saw that Jesus could pray, and so they asked—teach us. And he did.
He taught them, first of all, that the best way to pray is just to pray. He gave them a prayer to pray, but in giving them a prayer, he simply told them they could pray—prayer is possible. God will hear. Pray in confidence—pray knowing that God wants our prayers. God wants to hear what you have to say. And that’s true for all of us. God wants to hear us. God wants to listen to us. In fact, God is eager for our prayer and delights in our prayer. God has created us to speak, to communicate, to share our minds. And so, Jesus says—share your mind with God. Pray!
Sometimes there is still that embarrassment, that hesitation. You might say to yourself, “I don’t know how to pray,” or “I don’t know what to pray for.” Or, “I don’t want to bother God with my little problems.” I think that’s the one that bothers me the most—your problems are your problems. Please bother God with them. God wants you to bother him.
But it is true that if you are not accustomed to prayer, it can seem ridiculous or strange. And that’s why we don’t have to pray alone. And Jesus knew our weakness, so notice that the prayer Jesus gives the disciples isn’t a private word for each disciple, but a communal prayer. St. Cyprian, one of the early church theologians and bishops said, “Before all things the Teacher of peace and Master of unity is unwilling for prayer to be made single and individually, teaching that he who prays is not to pray for himself alone. For we do not say, “My Father who art in heaven,” nor “Give me this day my bread” .... Prayer with us is public and common; and when we pray, we do not pray for one but for the whole people because we the whole people are one.” Our reading from Colossians stresses our common life together through our baptisms into Christ—so we can come together when we don’t know what to say and pray together the prayer our Lord gave us to pray, to say what we can.
I think praying with other people is the best way to learn how to pray alone. This is why, in our congregation, when you’d like to join, you get a sponsor, who is to pray for you and pray with you. It’s as good for the sponsor as it is for the Wayfarer. It is good to unlock our embarrassment around prayer, our doubt, our trepidation. And the best way to do that is pray with someone. When we pray with others the mystical body of Christ, the mystical union Colossians speaks about, becomes manifest. We hear one another’s burdens and we lift them to God. In that moment we act as Christ for one another, listening and speaking for one another.
And when you pray alone, you are never really alone: Christ is with you. We are all with you, because Christ always brings his friends with him. And when you pray, the Holy Spirit prays with you and inside of you, telling God even the things you cannot put into words. And because God is there, who sees all things and knows all things, you can give God your deepest worries and fears. You can confess your sins, you can tell God your troubles, you can seek and knock and God will answer.
I’d like to repeat to you our collect. The collect is commonly called the prayer of the day, and it called a collect because it is supposed to collect all themes of the day into one prayer. Typically it’s prayed by one person on behalf of the congregation, although here the whole congregation prays it together: “Almighty and ever-living God, you are always more ready to hear than we are to pray, and you gladly give more than we either desire or deserve. Pour upon us your abundant mercy. Forgive us those things that weigh on our conscience, and give us those good things that come only through your Son, Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.” That’s a good prayer—it’s simple, easy to understand. And it says, in some ways, everything that we need to know about prayer. God wants to hear us, God wants to give us what we ask and even better than what we ask, and God wants to forgive us. There can be no shame in prayer, only blessing. Amen.
The Reverend John Zachary Flack