31 Maple Street
Bristol, Connecticut USA
April 23, 2023
Luke 11:1-4, Colossians 1:9-14
Rev. Kristen J. Kleiman
“Teach us to pray”, the disciples say to Jesus. They ask him how to pray because they already know why they want to pray. They want to pray because they see what a difference prayer makes in Jesus’ life. They see how this connection, these conversations with God, transform Jesus, and they want that peace, that calm, that resilience, that ability to endure the unendurable. They want to be grounded in and guided by God; so the disciples ask Jesus “Teach us to pray”.
Over the years, I have encountered plenty of people who tell me they don’t know how to pray. What I think they really mean is that they don’t know how to pray what Anne Lamott calls “the good china of prayers”, the “beautiful[ly] pre-assembled prayers” we might find in a book. (Help Thanks Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott, pg 35)
Over the course of two thousand years, the Christian faith has created a misbelief, a myth if you will, about prayer. And that myth is that there is only one way to pray. That prayer has to be flowery, poetic, articulate, and coherent. That prayer can only be created by people who are eloquent, who have faith to move mountains, by people who have it all figured out. That prayer is only carefully crafted words, like the Lord’s Prayer, the Serenity Prayer, or the Prayer of St. Francis
This myth that prayer can only be one way, said and written in one way, created only by one kind of person, this belief creates a stumbling block for us when it comes to prayer, a wall even – because who amongst us is flowery, poetic, articulate and coherent every moment of the day? And who amongst us can remember the carefully crafted words of the Serenity Prayer or the Prayer of St. Francis when we are most in need of prayer and God?
We don’t ask Jesus to teach us how to pray because we think we know how to pray. We think prayer is something formal, something carefully word-smythed, by people whose faith is unshakable. Prayer doesn’t have to be any of those things, actually – especially not coherent, and in the weeks to come, we are going to dispel the myth that there is only one way to pray or only one kind of people who can pray.
So while it is true that we need to know how to pray, it is just as important to know why we pray because if we don’t know why we pray, if we don’t know why prayer is important in our lives, we won’t ever feel the need to pray.
My third year in seminary, a time when I was interning as a hospital chaplain, someone taught me what is called the Jesus prayer. It has multiple versions however the one I learned and still use is taking a deep breath in while saying to myself “Jesus Christ, you are the light of the world” and continuing with “Fill my mind with your peace and my heart with your love” as I breathe out. I found this prayer calmed me as I visited with patients and journeyed alongside people who were going through really difficult medical situations.
Another member of my internship group made the comment that just taking a deep breath would accomplish the same thing. I think they intended to be snarky however why can’t a deep breath also be a prayer? In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul writes, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.” (Romans 8:26)
Breathe in, breathe out, sigh. It’s a prayer. It’s a prayer that calms me in lots of different situations. It’s a prayer that reminds me I am grounded in God. That’s a really transformative part of prayer for me – prayer grounds me in God. On those days when I make the time to sit quietly, read a devotional, take some deep breaths and go one by one through my prayer cards, that whole prayer process feels like it roots me, steadies me in God.
I physically feel the change in my body. I uncross my legs. I plant my feet firmly on the ground. I sit up straighter. I feel the connection with God as I ask God to hold this person in God’s light, as I ask God what I should do about this situation. My words, my prayers aren’t fancy at all. Often the only words I say are “hold this person in Your light”.
Really simple and really powerful. I feel the change to my whole day. Days that I begin with this prayer practice I am calmer and more resilient. I am more Christ’s. I am more open, more open to others and more open to God’s leading. It is an amazing feeling when I feel like I am moving with the Spirit, instead of against the current.
When I begin my day with prayer, with time set aside to talk to God and listen to God, time set aside to breathe in and breathe out, I feel like I can lead a life worthy of the Lord, as Colossians says.
My schedule does not always include time to begin with prayer though. I was tempted to say, “My schedule does not always allow my day to begin with prayer” however the truth is that I could make changes to my schedule. I could make other choices. I don’t feel as grounded when I don’t start with my prayer practice; however this way is only one way to get to God.
My day is filled with lots of opportunities for prayer: the text or email from someone sharing difficult news they have just learned. ‘Lord, I hold them in Your light’. The person who just ran the red light in front of me. ‘Keep them safe, O God’. And when we learn of another occasion of gun violence or another natural disaster, perhaps the most powerful prayer of all, ‘Help’. ‘Help, God’.
I pray ‘help’ because I feel powerless to do anything else. I don’t know how to protect this person from cancer. I don’t know how to keep our children safe from all harm. I don’t know how to balance our church’s budget or create world peace, so I ask God.
I say, “Help” because to summarize a flowery prayer written by William Barclay – because I trust in God’s love, I believe God will hear my prayer; because I trust in God’s power, I know God is able to help; because I believe in God’s wisdom, I am certain God will answer my prayers and in ways much better than any I could think up.
Prayer transforms my life. It transforms my life by reminding me that I am not the one in control. I am not the one personally responsible for solving all of the issues in the world or even in my life. I don’t have to carry these burdens all on my shoulders. I am only one instrument of God, so I pray. I breathe in; I breathe out. I sigh. I say, “help”. I hold people in God’s light, and I listen. I get and stay connected to God.
And that connection to God steadies me, grounds me, and as the prophet Isaiah writes, prayer, this connection to God, renews my strength. It gives me wings like eagles. It enables me to run and not be weary, walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:28-31)
Why do I pray? For peace, for calm, for hope, for resilience, for the ability to live a life worthy of the Lord.
Most of all, though, I pray to get to God. I pray to get to God, who inspires me to be my best self, a blessing to the world. I pray to get to God who wraps me in unconditional love and carries me through the unendurable. I pray to get to God who makes all things possible.