[Jesus] was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them,
“When you pray, say:
Father, hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
And forgive us our sins,
for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.
And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
“Automaticity.” This is a phrase that psychologists use to describe the things we human beings do without really thinking about them – those everyday routines that we do with minimal cognitive effort. Some things – like tying our shoelaces or riding a bike – are the result of skills we’ve learned so well that our bodies perform them without fail. Other things – like brushing our teeth or putting on a seat belt – are habits we’ve developed so fully that we don’t even realize we’re doing them. Automaticity can be beneficial, because it frees up our attention so we’re not overwhelmed by even the simplest of tasks.
But in other parts of our lives, we don’t want to be on automatic pilot or to rely on programmed skills or habits to get us through. In some situations, we need to give our full attention to others. Spouses can quickly tell the difference between an automatic, “I love you,” and a heartfelt expression of genuine love. Our kids can tell the difference between an automatic, “How was school today?” and a parent’s honest, authentic interest in the events in their lives. Friends can tell the difference between an automatic, “How’re you doing?” and the compassionate reaching out of one soul to another.
Do you think that God hasn’t yet caught on to the difference between our expressions of genuine spirituality and our automatic, rote readings of the Lord’s Prayer? We pray these words every week in church, even singing the words on Communion Sundays. We often recite the Lord’s Prayer at weddings, at funerals, often with our minds and spirits on full automatic. The words are so familiar that we can be on “cruise control” for the entire prayer.
For too many people, in too many situations, the Lord’s Prayer has become little more than a meaningless mantra, or even worse, a kind of “good luck” saying.
A man in Missouri shares this story about his high school football days (from well before the recent Supreme Court ruling concerning prayers on the field):
“I remember reciting that prayer with the Neosho High School football team for four years. Every Friday night, right before we’d go out to play, the whole team would gather around in one moment of sanity, as together we said ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ and ended it with ‘lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’ Then two or three seconds later, we’d all scream, ‘Let’s kill ’em!’ “
The tragedy of that story is that it demonstrates how the very prayer Jesus gave us to keep us spiritually alive and alert – and not tied to praying simply “vain repetitions” – that VERY prayer we’ve managed to turn into the BIGGEST vain repetition of all.
Today’s Gospel reading talks about staying in the fullness and freshness of God’s Holy Spirit. Jesus promised us that we can stay open and connected to the power of the Spirit. “Ask,” he insisted, “and you will receive” – not just some of us, not just those with special gifts, but everyone.
Jesus gave his disciples their own prayer so that they could live a deliberate and connected life – fully open to God’s Spirit. The Lord’s Prayer was never intended to be a creed or a catechism, repeated exactly the same way by all Christians at every stage of their lives. (I grew up in a church where we prayed “forgive us our debts” – “trespasses’ was way too Catholic for me!) The Lord’s Prayer is only a template, a blueprint, showing us how we can reach out to the power and love and grace God offers to us every day. Jesus says: All we have to do is ask.
Still, I know there’s something compelling and comforting about a mantra. Ritual and tradition are important. There are, and need to be, mantra prayers. Consider the quieting peace that comes from repetition – our worship service is full of predictable elements of worship, the Lord’s Prayer among them. But to stay really connected to God’s Spirit, we have to expand our understanding of a “mantra” and view it as the repetition of attitudes and relationships, instead of just the recitation of words alone.
I’d like to suggest that a Christian mantra, inspired by the Lord’s Prayer, has at least three components:
One is a daily scripture reading. This doesn’t necessarily mean books of scholarship about Scripture, or study guides and manuals for contemplating Biblical verses. I suspect few of us practice a rigorous examination of scripture passages on a regular basis. (Our beloved Ed Shaffer was truly an exception!) But the ability simply to keep ourselves grounded in God’s Word through repeated readings of the Bible is important. The United Church of Christ offers Daily Devotionals that I know many of you receive – a daily Bible passage followed by commentary by various authors. (If you’re unfamiliar with these, please let me know and I’ll send you the link.) There are pamphlets like the Daily Word, The Upper Room – any number of publications.
Daily readings filled with the stories of our tradition can make our faith richer and fuller. Daily scripture doesn’t make us more pious; it increases our faith. Scripture is a miraculous gift of God – because despite its antiquity, its misuse by the church over the years, its abuse by its doubters and its overuse by literalists – the Bible still speaks a fresh word from God to us every day.
A second suggestion is daily prayer. I’m not sure the Lord’s Prayer was meant to be a “daily prayer.” It only points to the fact that God wants to hear from us every day. Persistence in prayer is key to today’s passage, as we read about the man pounding on his neighbor’s door in the middle of the night. Jesus counseled his disciples to be persistent in prayer – to the point of peskiness.
My family has a cat named Ellee, who spent several years living with my late father. Since his passing, she’s been back with us, bringing along some of the expectations she developed while my dad cared for her. He kept a hairbrush close at hand for whenever Ellee wanted some attention, and that hairbrush now resides next to my laptop. Every morning as I sit at my desk, Ellee will plop herself next to my computer and wait for me to pick up the brush and run it through her hair. Every morning. Every day. If I simply pet her a couple of times, give her some words, “Oooh, you’re such a good kitty,” she’ll continue to station herself – with her butt planted right on top of my computer’s mouse if possible – until I give her her “brushies.”
And every day, Ellee prevails. I give her her brushies – not because I love her, not because she’s a good cat, not because I want her to be happy. I give in because I just want her to go away! Her persistence pays off.
Jesus encourages his disciples to go continually into God’s presence in prayer. God, unlike pet-owners, delights in our clamoring in prayer all hours of the day and night. And that persistence is shameless. Jesus tells us to place confidence in the assurance that we’ve got God’s ear, no matter when we call. Prayer can happen in seconds — short moments in the cracks of our day — and it can happen for hours at a time, even throughout a whole night.
Finally, my third suggestion for a Christian mantra is a relationship with others. Reading the Bible and praying to God are faith mantras we do on our own, but we also need to read and pray, praise and question, with others, in groups large and small. We need that communal, cellular contact with faith every day of our lives.
Part of our spiritual woke-ness and alertness depends on opening up our hearts and spirits to the sounds and sights of other people who are seeking God’s presence too. And that’s one reason we’ve got the church. We need to be spiritually connected to others, and the church grants us that gift. From the prayer group to the youth group, from feeding others to clothing others – we are bound together, as we reach out to God.
Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. May we all walk through that opened door. Amen.