Image: Community at prayer, Paulatuk
In our Gospel reading today Jesus speaks to his disciples about prayer. He begins by telling them that praying to God is a very simple matter which should not require elaborate rituals or an abundance of words. In fact, Jesus tells them, there is nothing we can really say about our needs or desires that God does not already know. This begs the question, if God already knows everything that is in our hearts and on our minds why do we need to pray at all?
The problem with this question is that it presumes that prayer is just a tool that helps us get what we want from God. It invokes the image of a young child writing a wish list to Santa Claus at Christmas time. I do not remember ever doing this myself, but I did look forward to the Sears shopping catalog coming in the fall. I would sit down and pour over the toy section and dog ear the pages so that mom and dad knew what I had on my mind as I waited for presents under the tree.
There certainly is a place in our spiritual tradition for petitionary prayer, placing before God our needs, but what Jesus is teaching his disciples is that praying to God is much richer then just trying to appease God and getting Him to see things our way.
Praying is about building and deepening our relationship with God and it is about getting to know ourselves as well. Think about some of the things that Jesus asks us to contemplate as he teaches his disciples the prayer that we have come to know as the “Our Father”.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. We begin by acknowledging that God is divine and holy. All creation belongs to God and therefore we belong to God. We have a place in all of this creation that God has given to us which means that we are not random or meaningless. In God we will find our center, our purpose, and our meaning. We need to remind ourselves of this everyday, that God’s will be done, not ours, because things will begin to go poorly if we start placing ourselves at the center instead of God.
Give us this day our daily bread. As we pray to God for our daily bread we might literally think of the food on our table, but there is a more important food than that. God nourishes us with love and with the Word of God, which is food for our soul. By praying this way, we acknowledge that there is more to us then mere flesh and blood which is fed by food from the land. We also have a spirit which needs to be fed spiritual food. Prayer then is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner for our soul.
Forgive us our debts, or trespasses as we have come to say. We are spirit and flesh. We are creatures but God calls us to holiness, to be like God. We are called to perfect as God is perfect, but we are far from hitting that mark. An honest prayer life reminds us of that and helps us to remain humble. This is why Jesus tells his disciples not to pray in order to attract attention but pray quietly, acknowledging our sins and asking God for forgiveness as we forgive those who trespass against us.
Our prayers bring our attention not just to God but to those around us, to our relationship with others. The health of these relationships is the barometer of the condition of our relationship with God. If we cannot ask forgiveness from our neighbor or if we cannot forgive someone who has done wrong to us, it is only because we have failed to understand the great mercy that God has already shown us.
In this simple prayer, Jesus gives us a manual for our spiritual lives, a way to connect, to correct, and to protect our relationship with the God who loves us and with our brothers and sisters in Christ.