Praying to God
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Our series on the Sermon on the Mount continues with a sequel to the sermon last week on almsgiving. Almsgiving, prayer and fasting all fall into the general category of piety, and we all know what Jesus said about that. He warned his disciples,
“Be careful that you don’t do your charitable giving before men,
to be seen by them,
or else you have no reward from your Father
who is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:1)
Giving alms to the poor, praying to God, and fasting to deepen your spiritual life ought not draw attention to yourself. God and God alone is the object of our devotion. This morning we’ll think about what Jesus taught his disciples about praying to God. Next week we’ll deal with fasting.
First, let’s be clear: Jews in Jesus’ day were expected to pray three times a day – at nine in the morning, at noon, and at three in the afternoon. In their praying, they were to offer prescribed prayers they’d learned by memory. For example, there was the Shema – the most fundamental prayer of all Jews – “The Lord our God is one God, and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all Thy heart, mind and soul.” There was also the Shemonēh ‘esreh, a collection of eighteen prayers Jews memorized and recited three times a day.
They were free to pray at other times of the day, of course, and to offer their own petitions, but the prayers of the temple at the appointed hours of the day formed the core of their prayer life. In this context, Jesus taught his disciples that, when they stopped to pray at the designated hours, they were to do so quietly, inconspicuously, and in such a way as not to make a big show of it. He said,
“You shall not be as the hypocrites,
for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues
and in the corners of the streets,
that they may be seen by men…
But you, when you pray,
enter into your inner room,
and having shut your door,
pray to your Father who is in secret,
and your Father who sees in secret
will reward you openly.” (Matthew 6:5-6)
There was an elderly saint in my congregation in Odessa who took this literally. She took me on a tour of her house the first time I visited her and showed me a little bench sitting just inside her closet door. “That’s where I say my prayers,” she said. “You know the Lord told us to go into your closet and shut the door.” Then she confessed, “Well, I don’t always shut the door, but then there’s nobody here but me, so I don’t suppose it matters.” I’ve never known a godlier woman.
Whether you apply Jesus’ words literally or figuratively, the point is: Don’t call attention to yourself.
Also, Jesus told his disciples not to waste their time with a lot of flowery words. God knows what you’re thinking before the words come out of your mouth; God knows your every need before you ask, so make your prayers simple and to the point.
In his commentary on Matthew, William Barclay says that there was a time in the history of the Church of Scotland in which the pastor would lecture on a verse of scripture for an hour, preach for an hour and then pray long extemporaneous prayers. As one minister of the time put it, “The efficacy of prayer was measured by its ardour and its fluency, and not least by its fervid lengthiness.” (Matthew, Vol. I, The Daily Bible Study Series, p. 195)
I got caught up in this myself several years ago. I was asked to serve as chaplain for a local civic club. My duties were simple: I was to say grace before the meal and get a free lunch in return. What a deal. But because others were paying for my lunch—and it was always quite an elaborate buffet—I thought I ought to offer more than just a simple prayer. So, on the day of the meeting, I’d try to work into my prayer the major concerns of the day and any particular needs of the community I was aware of. After a few weeks, the President reigned me in. I offered the prayer, and he responded, “Thank you, Dr. McLarty, for that interesting program.” I got the message and, from then on, I kept it short and sweet. Jesus told his disciples,
“…don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking.” (Matthew 6:7) Then he gave them a brief prayer to go by:
“Our Father in heaven,
may your name be kept holy.
Let your Kingdom come.
Let your will be done,
as in heaven, so on earth.
Give us today our daily bread.
Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.
Bring us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.
For yours is the Kingdom,
the power, and the glory forever. Amen.”
To this day, we recite the Lord’s Prayer, much as the disciples did in Jesus’ day, and as other Christians have done through the ages.
The question is do you merely recite the Lord’s Prayer, or do you offer it as a prayer of the heart? The words are so familiar you don’t have to think about what you’re saying. If you’re not careful, your tongue can go on autopilot while your mind takes off in a different direction.
This is not what Jesus had in mind. Jesus intended his disciples to take this prayer as a model, not a substitute, for their own prayers. And, when you look at it closely, it contains all the necessary ingredients: Adoration, confession, petition and submission to God’s will. You could also include thanksgiving and intercession, but let’s not quibble. Put the elements of the Lord’s Prayer together in your own words and your prayers are sure to be complete.
So, is there a right way to pray? I think not. What matters most is your sincerity. As I said, God knows what you’re thinking before you say it. The words are for your benefit, not God’s. If you’re good at words and can express yourself freely, go for it. Say whatever comes to mind. If you’re like me and need to think about what you want to say first, fine – right it down. God won’t be offended. Prayers of the heart can be spontaneous or carefully formulated. What’s important is sincerity.
Prayer is based on a relationship to God, so the essence of prayer is simply talking with God. Think of it as being friends: How would you like it if you had a friend who never spoke to you? It wouldn’t make any sense. Neither does it make sense to honor God as the sovereign Lord of your life without telling God what’s on your mind and listening to what God has to say to you in return, through the voice of the Spirit.
The image of prayer I like best is that of the character, Tevya, in Fiddler on the Roof. To refresh your memory, Tevya is the milkman in the little Russian village of Anatevka. Every morning he milks his cow, fills his milk cans, loads them on his rickety two-wheel cart, hitches it to an old horse that’s one step away from the glue factory, and walks through the village ladling out fresh milk for the neighbors.
As he walks, he talks to God. Throughout the day he carries on conversations with the Almighty. For example, in one scene he’s running late and has to pull the cart himself because his horse is lame. It’s an altogether bad day for Tevya, so he says to God, “Sometimes I think when it gets too quiet up there, you say to yourself, ‘What kind of mischief can I play on my friend Tevye?'”
In another scene, he looks at all the hardship and suffering around him and reflects on the fact that the Jews are God’s chosen people, and he says to God, “I know, I know. We are your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t you choose someone else?”
Tevya loves to quote the Bible. In one scene, he gets carried away and says to God, “As the Good Book says … er, Why should I tell you what the Good Book says?”
My favorite scene is where Tevya sings, If I Were a Rich Man. It begins with a typical conversation with God, where he says, “Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?” Of course, you know the song:
“If I were a rich man,
Ya da deedle deedle, deedle deedle dum.
All day long I’d biddy biddy bum.
If I were a wealthy man.”
Tevya speaks to God without pretense or apology. He brings to God all that’s on his mind and heart. God is his ever-present companion and friend with whom he openly shares the experiences of everyday life. That, to me, is what prayer ought to be about.
Now, let’s go back to the scripture lesson for today and ask: Given what Jesus said about going into your room and shutting the door and not praying on the street corners to be seen by others, do you think there’s a place for public prayers?
I do, as long as they’re not perfunctory. Perfunctory prayers are obligatory and generic. For example, last week we went to Arkadelphia to see Kathy’s grandson, Tate, play in a Little League tournament. (They won the State Championship, by the way!) Prior to the first game, the teenager hired to keep the score and run the clock asked everyone to stand for the invocation, which she read from a little piece of paper someone had given to her. It had something to do with being a good sport and not hurting anyone. She concluded by saying, “Play Ball!”
No offense, but that’s perfunctory. Public prayers ought to focus on the issue at hand – like asking God’s blessing on the President at his Inauguration; or asking God’s mercy on the dead and injured in the wake of a storm; or seeking God’s guidance in the aftermath of a tragedy like 9-11.
Public prayers like the invocation at a banquet or the groundbreaking of a building can serve a useful purpose, as long as they’re straightforward and to the point and don’t draw attention to the one offering the prayer. They capture the spirit of a common faith that unites us as one community, one state, one nation under God. They serve a purpose.
So do little prayers said in public places, like thanking God for the food before you eat. After all, if you say grace at home before each meal, why shouldn’t you say grace when you’re in a restaurant? It’s not as if you should be ashamed for others to see you praying. Hopefully, when others see you quietly bow your head and hold hands with the others at the table, they’ll be inspired to follow your example and thank God for their blessings, as well.
Finally, what about published prayers? There are any number of books of prayers to choose from. Reading the prayers of the saints, whether ancient or modern, can inspire your own prayer life. For example, I love the prayers of Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury in the 16th Century:
Almighty God, unto whom all heartes be open, all desyres knowen, and from whom no secretes are hyd: clense the thoughtes of our heartes by the inspiracion of thy holy spirit, that we maye perfectlye love thee, and worthely magnify thy holy name: through Christ our Lorde. Amen.
And Dag Hammerskjöld, who prayed,
Give me a pure heart that I may see Thee.
A humble heart that I may hear Thee,
A heart of love that I may serve Thee,
A heart of faith that I may abide in Thee.
And Reinhold Niebuhr who prayed,
God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.
And who can forget the prayer of St. Frances of Assisi, who prayed,
“Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
Where there is injury, pardon;
Where there is doubt, faith …”
Let’s wrap it up. Nothing stands more squarely at the heart of faith than prayer, for prayer is born of a close, personal relationship with Almighty God. So, pray often – not once or twice – but throughout the day. Let God be your constant companion and friend. Enjoy God’s company and share your thoughts and feelings with God along the way. Do this on a daily basis, and soon you’ll come to know what Austin Miles had in mind when he wrote:
I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2010 Philip McLarty. Used by permission.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.