We’ve learned a few things about prayer in the last several weeks. We’ve learned we need to approach it with humility and gratitude.
We’ve learned that the first purpose of prayer is to gain a mature relationship with God so that we understand his heart and our own. We’ve learned to ask God to radically re-organize our priorities so that they match God’s own.
So what’s next? A simple line. Or is it?
I love how clear and down to earth that translation is. The one we know better is:
But it means the same thing, right? Give us every day what we need to survive. This seems so simple, but it’s really a complex and important idea. In the beginning, God created a garden that had everything we could ever need or want. It was way more than daily bread. And it was all there as a gift.
But Human beings wanted to make their own daily bread. They wanted to be in charge. They wanted to believe that everything they gained came from their own hands. (I don’t think humans have changed very much.)
Fast forward to the Israelites wandering in the desert. They complained because they didn’t have enough food, so God gave them miraculous food from heaven called manna. They had enough for every day—but they were not supposed to collect more than enough. Why not?
God’s command regarding the manna was a lesson in: 1) remembering that God provides absolutely everything and 2) not being greedy and wanting more than what we need. When the people collected more than they needed, it rotted. That was both God’s signal to stop hoarding and also a reminder that he does provide every single day. We don’t need to worry about the future.
Plan sure, but worry? That’s where this line of Jesus’ prayer comes in.
“Keep us alive with three square meals.” Give us this day our daily bread.
It’s more than a request for provision. It’s an understanding that we trust God with today, tomorrow, and every day after that. We ask for daily bread, not a month’s worth. God wants us to learn how to come to him regularly and trust him for absolutely everything.
Asking for daily bread as opposed to what I need for the long term is an exercise in trust, not a request for food. It’s saying to God—I know you’ll still be there tomorrow for what I might need then. I choose to pick up only the manna I need.
It’s also a way of teaching us to submit to only wanting what God says we need. We request bread, not cake. It’s Jesus telling us, as God told the Israelites long ago, don’t gather more than you need. Make sure there’s enough for everyone. Daily bread is what’s really necessary.
When we say “give us our daily bread,” what are we saying? We’re implicitly saying that we recognize there is an “us.” It’s not just about me.
Part of what we’re asking is that we be willing to share our daily bread with those who maybe don’t have any. When we ask for enough for everybody, we’d better be ready to remember the lines in Jesus’ prayer before this—set the world right. So if I have more bread than someone else, I need to partner with God and making sure we all have what we need each day.
What’s the purpose of prayer? In these lines, it’s to remind us where everything comes from. It puts us in a posture of humility to come before God and remember that he supplies all of our needs. We cannot ever take credit for all we have and gain, no matter how hard we work. Also, it puts us in a place of remembering that he loves to give us what we need because he loves us. And everyone else.
Many years ago, I stood at the checkout in a liquor store in my hometown. I was bringing home the sparkling cider for our family’s Christmas dinner.
The woman behind the register asked: “Are you 21?”
I stammered a moment. “Well, yes, I am. But I don’t need to be. This isn’t alcohol.”
She looked, laughed, and waved me through. “Bottle sure looks the same. I didn’t notice. Merry Christmas!”
I could have presented ID for my purchase—but it wasn’t required. I, or anyone, was freely allowed to buy that celebratory bubbly bottle and take it home.
Often, we feel like prayer is this kind of requirement—ID we must present before we get what we want. We look at it as a hoop we need to jump through. Facts we have to memorize do for a test.
What if prayer is none of that? Neglecting prayer isn’t something to beat ourselves up over, as we might if we’ve failed the test. At the same time, it’s something to be sad about if we miss it. The truth is, like sitting with a best friend or wise mentor, if I neglect the conversation, I’m missing all the goodness of my relationship. There is delicious bubbly, celebratory conversation to be had freely. It’s my choice if I want to take it or treat it like an ACT test to fret over.
As we continue this exploration of prayer (begun in my previous two posts here and here) the next lines of the Lord’s prayer are:
Honestly, how often do we come before God and just say those words? “God, please do what’s best.” Don’t we usually have our own list of things that we think are best? I know I do. We tend to come to God with our plans and wishes and ask him to bless that. Yet one of the first things Jesus teaches us is that our hearts need to want what he wants more than what we want.
We need to come to God not with our list but asking God,—“What’s on your list?” God, do what’s best. How can I be of service in that?
Of course, when we look at Scripture, we know what’s on God’s list. It’s encompassed in that first line—“Set the world right.” God’s list is all about reconciliation of all things and putting the world back the way the Creator intended it. “Set the world right” isn’t a metaphorical concept. It’s really what God wants—things righted in the way they were always meant to be.
“Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” is a plea for all of God’s goodness to be the priority of our daily lives. The purpose of prayer that comes out here is this: To ask that God’s priorities be our priorities.
Once we’ve taken the first steps in prayer, listening to God and knowing who God is and what is on his heart, we already know what his will is. We’ve seen it as we listen and learn. We know that when we say that line—“Your will be done in earth as it is in heaven”—exactly what we’re asking for. So the question is—
How much do we mean it?
Do we really want God to set the world right—because we know that’s going to mean upsetting quite a bit. The world is very wrong, and often the church is right there with it. We know the status quo is not God’s will being done on earth. We also know that we often benefit from the status quo. So praying this line is an exercise in self denial. It’s a check of our obedience. It’s testing to see if we are willing to submit our will to God’s.
It’s not some out there, cosmic idea.
Yeah, I think it would be a good idea if your will was done on earth, God. Somewhere on earth. You know, where things are really bad and people are being exceptionally stupid. Out there. On earth. Vague gesture.
God, make your priorities my priorities. Mold my will in service to yours. Help me to give up the things on my list if they’re not on your list. Give me a heart that cares about the things in the world that are not set right. Give me the courage to partner with you to set them right.
That’s what we’re asking when we pray this line of the Lord’s prayer. It’s radical. That’s why I like to hear it in a translation we’re not used to hearing it in—so that we recognize the crazy upside down world that Jesus is asking us to pray for and know what it all means.
Those are the words Jesus uses to begin what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”
Of course, the version you might know sounds more like:
Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. (Matthew 6.8)
“Hallowed” means a few things. In the NLT, it’s translated as “may your name be kept holy.” Basically, it means something that is set apart. If something is hallowed, we acknowledge it as greater than anything else and different from anything else. Saying God’s name is hallowed is saying that we understand nothing compares to the Almighty God. We set God apart as completely other. Yet, in the same teaching in Matthew, Jesus also says we approach him as we would a good dad. It’s an interesting paradox and also a beautiful one.
Sit with Your Father
“Father” in the prayer adds a connotation of authority—a parent who deserves our obedience and trust. It’s more formal than the “abba” Jesus and Paul use elsewhere. In the following chapter, Jesus’ use of the word parent is more intimate. He speaks of an involved dad who wants to hear the words of his children and supply their needs.
“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” (7:9-11).
In neither case does he mean an austere distant capital “F” father who doesn’t have time for his offspring. His words imply that we are to approach God aware of how deeply he loves us and how much he wants us to come to him.
If we didn’t or don’t have a good earthly father, this may be difficult. We might have to imagine another caring, listening ear.
If a good dad wasn’t your experience, imagine is the ultimate parent who did want to listen to your every question, hear your every thought, and view every picture you ever drew. Imagine what that would have been like, and come near to God knowing that’s what he’s offering.
So one purpose of prayer is to be with our loved one and share our hearts. That’s it. It’s not a big complex thing. It’s something we can do all the time every day on the regular. We share our hearts, our thoughts, our emotions, our hurts, everything. Just as the psalmists did, we let them out to our perfect parent. Some of the prayers in the Psalms are pretty rough! Yet God as parent heard them and recognized the pain they came out of.
Talk Less, Listen More
Of course, children usually also listen to a parent for advice and comfort. We wait to hear, not just speak, because our relationship is a two-way thing. Prayer is not a time for us to do all the talking and God to do all the listening.
In fact, that leads right into the second line from the Message translation. “God, Reveal who you are.” How can God do that if I’m not listening? Prayer is a time for us to come to God and ask that we understand more about our relationship.
Again, it helps me to think about it as I would an earthly relationship with a parent. When we’re children, we really don’t know much about our dads. We might know what they do all day, and we have an idea of their character by how they treat us and others. But we actually know very little about them as people. We are content to think of them only in relationship to us. It’s not until later as we grow up that we realize they are their own separate entity and they have their own complex humanity. The older we get, if we’re fortunate, we know more and more about our dads. We come to know their hearts. We understand what gets them up in the morning and makes them passionate. We learn not just that they love us but why. We see more of how they treat others and more of who they are as a result.
I never got that chance with my own dad. But when I think about it, I can see the parallels with my heavenly parent and how that relationship should go. As a young Christian, I only knew God in terms of what he’d done for me. I didn’t understand God at all except as it related to me. As I matured, I saw more of who God is. I saw how Jesus behaved and what he said. I saw how he treated other people.
The longer I am in relationship with God, the more I hear his heartbeat and know what he is passionate about. The more I come to him in prayer, the more I understand about who he is and who I am as a result.
Teaching through Leviticus can do strange things to you.
Between all the sacrifices and laws and weird details about menstrual cycles and eating shellfish, some things began to come together for me in ways they hadn’t before. Rituals and disciplines have been part of the Christian life for centuries. Yet how often have we neglected their importance in recent decades? I know I have. I’m not a ritual kind of person. I love novelty, and I don’t like to do the same thing twice very often. (Unless it’s reading/watching Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice. These can be done multiple times a year, if necessary.)
What I hadn’t noticed is that these rituals that define and describe our life with God are catalogued in Leviticus not as a bunch of strange laws but as a way of making order in a chaotic world to draw us toward our Creator.
Now, we don’t participate in sacrifices or casting people out of the tent for a week. We do, however, practice rituals and disciplines that order our lives with God. The most important is prayer.
What the point of prayer? It seems reasonable to start focusing that question with what we call the Lord’s Prayer—a small part of Matthew 6 where, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he told them. It’s not a magical prayer that we use to get what we want from God. We don’t just repeat it and hope that good things will happen because we do. It’s not a mantra or a spell. But it is a good example and pattern for us to follow in prayer. So in asking the question—why pray? It’s a good starting point.
The doctor I see for my Restless Leg Syndrome has helped me learn new bedtime routines that make the difficult task of falling asleep with RLS a little easier. Now, I know that if I want to succeed in a good night’s sleep, I start a few things in the hours before.
I stretch. Maybe do a few yoga moves. I take a few turns around the dining room table and, if it’s really bad, apply some heating pads. Much earlier, I’ve forgone caffeine early and exercise during the day. I turn off all the screens by nine. This last one is huge. Along with taking the medication she’s given me, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to sleep.
Our hearts in the minutes before prayer also require some routines and exercises to prepare us for a good conversation in prayer.
“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?
“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6.5-6, Message)
First of all, Jesus tells us to find a quiet secluded place. Why? So we won’t make a public production of our prayers. We need to be able to get alone with God and focus on him. The last thing we need is to focus on how other people are perceiving how we pray. A lot of people, including myself, the pastor, don’t like to pray in public. There is an important place for communal prayer, and I think we need to all practice it. But first, we need to practice being alone with God and being honest with him. If we don’t get that straight, we won’t pray together straight either.
The World Is not a Stage
Jesus has just taught his followers the same concept regarding giving. When we give away our money, time, or whatever, we’re not supposed to do it in a showy way. We quietly obey God by being generous while keeping it to ourselves as best we can. It’s not a false humility where we actually take pride in being so humble and secretive about how awesome we are. It’s a quiet humility that knows everything we have is from God anyway, and our ability to give is the results of God’s generosity.
Then, Jesus teaches the same thing about prayer. Don’t pray as a show. Pray as a relationship between two beings.
I wouldn’t go to my spouse and, wanting to chat about our plans for the weekend, create a dramatic production of my pitch and sell tickets to the neighbors. This isn’t how a relationship works.
If we’re focused on making a production of our prayer and worrying about how others see it, we’re not really focused on God. We’re not putting ourselves in a place of humble acceptance of whatever he has to say. We’re thinking of ourselves, and that is a terrible way to approach prayer.
We all know people whose voice changes when they are praying in public. They suddenly have a “holy voice” instead of the regular one that they use with us. It’s kind of weird, but most of us do it sometimes. We think we have to put on a holy voice to sound like we are being holy in front of other people. But really, Jesus asks us to come and speak like we’re talking to someone we love, and it should sound that way. Otherwise, we’re in danger of pride as we pray, and that will definitely keep us from hearing God.
So the first thing Jesus teaches us is those beautiful words—“just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”
When we shift our focus, and it happens without us realizing it usually, God’s grace becomes so apparent. We feel God’s presence. We forget about ourselves and we begin to think about our Creator. We begin to think about listening instead of speaking.
Isn’t it beautiful that the writer tells us we can pray very simply to God because he already knows what we want and, more importantly, what we need? There are no special words to say to get what we want. Our focus is not supposed to be getting what we want. It’s supposed to be talking to God. It’s kind of like when I was a kid and came into the living room and just sat down at the foot of my dad’s chair and leaned on his knee. I didn’t want anything from him. I just wanted to be in his presence. I loved being with him. That’s what God wants from us when we come in prayer.
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” (Matthew 6.7-8)
It’s Also not a Vending Machine
My daughter regularly grumbles about the vending machine at work. I have to agree with her—there is nothing worse than putting in your dollar, pushing the buttons that correspond to a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, and seeing a bag of pretzels drop in the slot instead. This is not what we ordered. We paid good money, and we got a dud.
Yet a lot of people approach prayer similarly. We believe that if we put in certain words, a holy vocal timbre, or the right dollop of faith, what we want from God will drop in the slot. When it doesn’t happen, we get ticked off at God.
Prayer isn’t a formula. Prayer is definitely not a transaction. God isn’t a vending machine ready to offer us what we want if only we find the right buttons to push. Can you imagine treating someone you love like that? No one feels loved by a manipulator.
With a loving God, we can pray very simply. Prayer, first of all, is about a relationship. It’s about chatting with and listening to the one who loves you more than you can even imagine. That’s what Jesus is trying to get across when he tells us to approach God quietly, with humility, and without pretense of games.
Next time, we’ll begin the famous first words a lot of us know: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Does it feel like a new year yet? I’m not sure. In some respects, we have hope this year we didn’t have a few months ago. A vaccine to end, or at least mitigate, our new reality hovers on the horizon. It trembles there, offering some measure of hope to what otherwise feels like a very old year already by February. My husband has received it, as a front line worker. I’m in group 3, and you can bet I’ll be in line.
On the other hand, January looked little different for many of us than did November or December or all the interminable months before them. We’re still here. Still isolating. Still waiting. The difference, of course, is that for those of us in the northern hinterlands, we can’t even go outside for a respite in January, and we have no holidays now for a looong time.
Left to our own devices, increasingly on our own, we develop coping skills or we wither, and personally, I’d much prefer to cope. One of the helpful things for me has been to learn a bit more mindfulness. I know—some of you have got this down like a pro. If you’re like me though, stopping to breathe isn’t really what you do.
(Never underestimate the excitement of a new planner in my life. The perfect planner is akin to the holy grail for this 5.)
Mindfulness isn’t usually written in that planner. Neither is rest. Enter 2020. The year that finally (I hope) taught me that those things are not just good ideas—they’re survival. They’re also part of God’s perfect plan for us from the beginning.
We’re supposed to rest. We’re meant to breathe. God designed humans beings to sabbath—to STOP (literally, that’s what it means) and take time to notice our world.
So I have been learning to Stop. Pay attention. (Another very important word in the Bible–usually translated as “listen” or “hear.”.)
One of the things I’ve begun to do is sit in my chair in the morning and notice my senses. I take a few deep breaths and sink into the chair, closing my eyes, just paying attention to my small world.
I notice the heat kick on. I give thanks for heat.
I hear the tea kettle in the kitchen. I offer gratitude for a husband making me tea. That thought leads me to say a prayer for his patients that day, for their well-being and their families.
I hear a cardinal chirp outside the window, and I am thankful God created birds, going so far as to create beautiful birds of vivid color and different design. Why? There was no need. But a creative God chose to give his people the gift of diversity on the wing.
Another day I might choose to focus on what I can smell. The licorice scent of Earl Grey steaming out of my tea mug. Oh, thank you for caffeine. And thank you for making it taste good in so many varieties.
The smell of cat fur, as the little 7-pounder nestles into my lap, a place she finds comfort, and I find comfort and gratitude knowing a creature trusts me at that level.
I can detect some lemongrass, so I give thanks for newly mopped floors. I think to pray for those living in refugee camps where keeping one’s home clean is a small comfort they had to leave behind, and concepts like “home” and “floor” now exist not as assumptions but hopes for the future.
These few moments of paying attention center me. They give me a morning “fix” of focus to begin a new day. After spending time quieting my mind and hearing my surroundings rather than my racing thoughts and ideas, I can hear the voice of God better. I’ve set aside my agenda long enough that God can get a word in edgewise.
I find this a good plan most days. My words are too many and too disjointed unless I’ve heard a word from God first.
Science agrees. Mindfulness and centering give us mental focus for our day.
I’m offering this up not as a cure-all for 2021 but as one small thing I’ve found these last few months that help me center myself on where I need to be. Maybe you’re seeking some ways to focus yourself as well this new year. Small things. Baby steps. That’s all we may be able to handle right now, and thank you Lord, that’s often all we need.
May is my favorite month. I gaze out the kitchen window at the brilliant pink crabapple trees standing over blushing tulips. Lilacs come into the house in bunches. Bikes come out for long rides, during which we smell morning rain over the forest preserve prairie. Sound carefree? Don’t let it fool you. This kind of peace doesn’t come easy in May. It’s also my craziest month.
When our oldest daughter got married two years ago, I informed my other two daughters they had to follow suit and keep all the family weddings in May. We could all go away for one big weekend to celebrate four anniversaries, one birthday, and Mother’s Day.
What’s the answer to craziness that threatens to steal our peace? Click on to the rest of this post at The Glorious Table to find out.
I’m sitting here, hands cupped around a hot mug, savoring a moment I never take the time to savor when I’m at home and all the world hedges in around me.
A hot cup of tea. Sunshine. And the presence of God.
Not the insistent, task-driving presence of God I don’t realize I too often imagine. Just presence. With-ness. Nothing else.
Why is this so elusive?
I realized something this morning that scared me. For the first time, the past few months, I have not loved what I do. I am so blessed to love pastoring, writing, everything God has given me.
The land you have given me is a pleasant land. What a wonderful inheritance! (Psalm 16.6)
I assumed it would always be like this. The problem is, making that assumption, I naturally assume that more is better. If work is a good thing, why isn’t more work better? Why isn’t adding a dozen more things to my to do list way more fun? Why don’t I want to tackle them with the same excitement?
So I’ve been adding. And adding.
We’ve reached the tipping point. The other side is darkness and burnout, and I am so close to that edge that I can see the jaws of the kraken. It is not a pretty sight.
I’ve been imagining all the things God will need to take away from me to bring me back from the edge. What has to drop off the list? What must I lose to find joy again, to love the written and spoken word for themselves rather than for what they can do for me and the places they might take me? To love pastoring for the call and not the applause?
To love God for moments like these rather than what he can do for me, too.
We have got this so wrong.
I don’t expect time with my husband or kids to “work” for me in some way. I only want to be in their presence. I don’t plan to leave their presence suddenly energized or enabled to carry out some new task in my day.
But we expect that of God. We don’t simply be with him. Maybe this isn’t a revelation. It is to me.
I neglect prayer because it doesn’t “work.” I don’t feel different. Life doesn’t go better. So why spend those precious minutes I could be working in a pursuit that seems to be staring into space, waiting for lightning that doesn’t strike? Oh, I do pray, because I do believe in it.
But I’ve got it so, so wrong if I’m waiting for time with God to “work.”
Why does it have to “work”? Why does God have to “work” for me? Why do there have to be results? Why can’t we just be? We’re cultivating a relationship, not a business partnership. Relationships take time. They take stillness together. The best relationships happen when we do nothing together but sit and stare and feel one another’s existence. We know that, if we’re blessed to have those relationships. We never ask those people to do anything more than they do by being.
I don’t have to ask God to be for me. He already is. I don’t have to ask him to be with me. He’s never anywhere else. I just have to stop long enough to stand in the sunbeam rather than run through it, hoping for something to stick.
It is time to scale back. Back to the basics of just sitting with God. Asking him to rule the to do list. Giving him veto power over my hours and days and minutes. Listening. Sitting. Sipping. Tasting and seeing that he is good.
This isn’t the blog post I planned to write. But it’s the blog post I needed.