Teach Us to Pray

Luke 11:1-13
New Hope Fellowship
July 28, 2019
Brent Beasley

Surely you’ve noticed, in reading the Gospels, how often Jesus went off by himself to pray. Over and over again…
and he withdrew by himself to pray…
and he went up the mountain by himself to
pray…
and he got up early in the morning and went off to
pray.
And here at the beginning of our passage today:
He was praying in a certain place….

In the summer of 2008 I got to participate in the Oxford Summer Programme in Theology at the University of Oxford. They admitted about 75 people from mostly the United States but also places like Canada, England, Australia, South Africa, and Jamaica to spend time there living on campus and taking courses.

It was a great experience for me. The college where we were was Christ Church. It was built in the 1500s by King Henry the VIII.

I was nearly killed almost every day attempting to cross the street as I kept forgetting to look to my right first and didn’t always see that bus coming toward me on the left side of the street. But I survived.

I took four courses while I was there. One of the courses I took was called “Faith, Reason, and the Contemplative Way.” The “contemplative way” is an approach to being a Christian that we usually associated with those in a monastery—
quiet,
setting time for prayer and meditation,
a focus on contemplation more than speaking or
action.
A contemplative approach to Christianity is not limited to monks and nuns, of course. It’s an approach or a “way” that is accessible to all of us.

My professor for this course was a man named Vincent Strudwick. He is what you might imagine an Oxford professor to be like. He is an older man, brilliant but very kind and polite. At one point he mentioned off-hand that he often read the Bible in Latin just to keep it fresh. He even wore this blazer that was kind of like a cape. He talked about “ringing up” the Archbishop of Canterbury. The only thing missing was a pipe.

Vincent Strudwick has lived the contemplative life. For 20 years—from 1950 to 1970—he was a member of an Anglican religious order living in a monastery. He finished his degrees, spent four years studying history, philosophy, and theology, and then was sent to work in the kitchen at the monastery. For a year he worked in the kitchen along with another monk named Dick who had also just gotten his doctorate, feeding 180 monks and seminarians every day. Get your doctorate…go to work in the kitchen.

And they lived in silence. They had what they called the “greater silence” and the “lesser silence.” Most of the day they lived in the “greater silence,” which means they couldn’t speak at all.

Some of the time they operated in the “lesser silence,” which means they could speak if necessary—but not just for idle conversation. But they could speak in lectures or if it was important to communicate something. So Dr. Strudwick said that when working in the kitchen, they worked mostly in silence, but he was allowed to say things like, “Hey Dick, the meat is burning.”

He lived this life for 20 years.

In our class we talked about different people in the history of Christianity who have modeled this contemplative life. We talked about Ignatius of Loyola who lived in the 1400s and founded the Society of Jesus—known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits were monks, but they didn’t just close themselves up in the monastery. They were also missionaries.

Ignatius led his fellow monks to get out into the world and to immerse themselves in the alien cultures in which they were living and working. They did things like map the sewer systems in the places they lived. The Jesuits were out there in the world getting their hands dirty.

They were Christians who were engaged in hands on action in the world. They were the kind of Christians that most of us would admire for their engagement with the world. That’s the kind Christianity that I’m attracted to—a Christianity that is not withdrawn from the world around it but is engaged—immersed— in it.

But as I learned about Ignatius and the Jesuits, I was hit with a very important insight. And that is this: Ignatius realized that if you’re going to be out there in the world, you’ve got to have your heart on fire in here. You can’t sustain a life of action on behalf of God without paying attention to your inner life in God and with God. You’ve got to have your eyes fixed on God, and then and only then can you immerse yourself in an alien culture and at the same time keep your faith.

The Jesuits were out there living among the people and doing practical work on behalf of the city in which they lived, but then periodically they would come back, they would withdraw, for a 40 day retreat. They knew they had to do that.

If you’re going to do the soup kitchen and the food pantry and sack lunches and all those types of things, if we’re going to immerse ourselves in our city and in work on behalf of our city, we’ve got to be serious about our inner life, our spiritual life. We have to take the time to tend to the fire of God in our hearts. You can’t sustain a life of action on behalf of God without paying attention to your inner life in God and with God. Do you hear that? I need to hear that.

Jesus knew this. Jesus knew that if he was going to give the kind of hands on love and compassion that he was called to give, that he needed to get away from time to time and be serious about tending to his spiritual life—to tend the fire of God in his heart.

And he withdrew by himself to pray…
and he went up the mountain by himself to
pray…
and he got up early in the morning and went off to
pray.
He was praying in a certain place….

Jesus’ disciples noticed this. In today’s case, Jesus has just returned from a time of praying, and he was so obviously refreshed and renewed that the disciples couldn’t help but notice it. One of them blurted out what they probably all were thinking and feeling: Jesus, how do you do it? What is your formula for success in prayer? Your radiance and fullness are a stark contrast to our tiredness and emptiness. Would you teach us to pray?

Jesus’ response to this request has become one of the most widely known and practiced teachings in the Christian church. Now, when we say the Lord’s Prayer, as we do every Sunday in worship here, we use the version in the Gospel of Matthew. Luke’s version, the one we are looking at today, is a little bit different.

Jesus, would you teach us to pray? It’s one of the most important questions you and I will ever ask, one of the most important requests we will ever in our lives make. Teach us to pray.

John Claypool once said in a sermon that really the essence of Jesus’ religion is not first and foremost a question of
what you believe or
how you act or
how you worship,
but, rather, how you pray.

In what way do you share your life with God?

Claypool said in his sermon that how you pray—what happens or fails to happen there— reflects more accurately than anything else where you are in the continuum of Christian maturity.

Thursday night I was looking over the Lord’s Prayer and thinking about this sermon. And looking over those familiar words, I was struck by how much they are focused on me as the recipient and not as the doer, that God is the primary actor or agent in this prayer, not me.

“THY kingdom come, THY will be done.”

“Give us…our daily bread.”

“Forgive us.”

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

“For THINE is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.”

I had never really thought about it this way before, but MY prayers tend to fall more along the lines of Help me to be this or help me to do that.
Help me to be more kind or patient.
Help me to grow.

In my usual way of approaching things, God is my helper. I am the primary agent of my life. I’m the one who makes things happen. It’s my agenda we’re following. I just need a little help from God every now and then.

Henri Nouwen, the Catholic priest and writer on spirituality, said famously that these are the three big lies that the world tells us—or, in my case, that I tell myself:
1. I am what I have.
2. I am what I do.
3. I am what other people say about me.

I heard Jonathon Merritt talk about this in an interview I listened to Thursday evening when I went for a walk. He said that if you think about those three lies as like a Venn diagram—you know where the three circles overlap—, that’s where he had tried to live his life.

Bullseye. For me, that’s a bullseye.

What these are, of course, are lies about our identity. We all have our unique gifts, unique ways of being, unique struggles. We all have our own issues with our identity.

I have struggled mightily with the idea that God loves me for no other reason than that I am God’s child. I have preached it with great frequency and with all sincerity to others and have seen helping others to internalize that message of blessing as central to my calling.

In fact, when I think back over two decades of preaching every Sunday, I realize that I tended to return again and again to the theme that we are blessed, that our identity is that of God’s beloved sons and daughters, with whom God is well-pleased. I understand better now the extent to which I was preaching to myself.

Eugene Peterson’s son Leif said at his dad’s funeral that his dad had only one sermon—that he had everyone fooled for 29 years of pastoral ministry, that for all his books he had only one message.

It was a secret Leif said his dad had let him in on early in life. It was a message that Leif said his dad had whispered in his heart for 50 years, words he had snuck into his room to say over him as he slept as a child:
God love you.
God is on your side.
He is coming after you.
He is relentless.

Maybe Eugene Peterson was preaching this to himself, too.

How do you pray? Do you reveal even in your praying that you think you are the center of your life? Do I reveal in the way I pray that I actually believe that my achievement, what I do, is the center of my life?

Or do you acknowledge, as Jesus did in the Lord’s prayer, that God is the central actor—
“THY kingdom come, THY will be done.”

“Give us…our daily bread.”

“Forgive us.”

“Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.”

“For THINE is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.”

How do you pray?

I think an important message in all this is that our
activity and
actions and
efforts to do good
have to be rooted in the power of God, the goodness of God, not in our own power.

So if we’re going to immerse ourselves in doing good things, we’ve got to be serious about our inner life, our spiritual life. We have to take the time to tend to the fire of God in our hearts. You can’t sustain a life of action on behalf of God without paying attention to your inner life in God and with God.

How do you pray?

One of my favorite images for the Christian life is given in a scene in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. There is a turbulent scene in which a whaleboat sails along the rough ocean in pursuit of the great, white whale, Moby Dick. The sailors are laboring fiercely, throwing all their attention and energy into the task.

It is the conflict between good and evil, the chaotic sea and demonic sea monster versus the morally outraged man, Captain Ahab.

In this boat, however, there is one man who does nothing.
He doesn’t hold an oar;
he doesn’t strain; and
doesn’t shout.
He is still amid the crash of waves and the furious activity of the sailors. The man is the harpooner,
quiet and
poised,
waiting.

And then Melville writes this sentence: To insure the greatest efficiency in the dart, the harpooners of this world must start to their feet out of idleness, and not out of toil.

You could set that sentence alongside the Gospels’
and he withdrew by himself to pray…
and he went up the mountain by himself to
pray…
and he got up early in the morning and went off to
pray.
He was praying in a certain place….

There are a thousand good things that need to be done in our world. And we as Christians are called to be a people of action; we have much to do. We’re not called to just sit here in this sanctuary and make ourselves comfortable.

But if the harpooner is rowing and not ready with his dart, he’ll never complete his task. If the harpooner is exhausted, running around frantically on the deck of the ship, he won’t be ready and accurate when it’s his time to do his thing.

In other words, don’t get so pulled into the tumult of activity that you never get still enough to be ready when the time comes for you to do something significant. You never go off to a quiet place, and you’re not ready when the time for your significant task comes.

You’re not ready—you don’t have the capacity— to respond to God’s call because you’re never still. And there are no resources being developed on the inside.
[Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor, p.24-5]

You’re not ready because you think it’s all about you. Your work.
Your responsibility.
Your achievement.
Your power.
You think you’ve got to row and bail and kill the whale—all of it.

Jesus didn’t go to pray because he didn’t have anything important to do. He went to pray because he had so much important work to do he had to be ready.

Jesus, for the sake of the world, teach us how to pray.

God, YOUR kingdom come.
YOUR will be done.
Give us our daily bread.
Forgive us.
Lead us away from temptation and evil.
Because the kingdom and the power and the glory are all yours.
For ever and ever.
Amen.

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