Jesus' real wants

Jesus was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples asked him for a prayer lesson. Apparently praying doesn’t come naturally like breathing, eating or sleeping, or so this disciple thought.

Why ask for a prayer lesson? Is prayer like an art or a sport, or is it more like already knowing how to talk but wanting to learn what to say? Do we need lessons about when and where and how often and how long we should pray; whether we should close our eyes and fold our hands; stand up or sit down; lower the face to the ground or raise our gaze upward, with hands stretched up and out? We want to do it right, don't we?

Herbert McCabe knows a lot about prayer and I’ve learned a lot from him. He writes,

You must indeed pray for the right things; but the right things are not the noble high-minded things that you think that you ought to want, they are the vulgar and rather infantile things you really do want. Genuine prayer means honest prayer, laying before the Father in heaven the actual desires of your heart — never mind how childish they may sound. Your Father knows how to cope with that.

People often complain of ‘distraction’ during prayer. Their mind goes wandering off on to other things. This is nearly always due to praying for something you do not really much want; you just think it would be proper and respectable and ‘religious’ to want it. So you pray high-mindedly for big but distant things like peace in [Syria] or you pray that your aunt will get better from the flu – when in fact you do not much care about these things; perhaps you ought to, but you don’t. And so your prayer is rapidly invaded by distractions arising from what you really want – [say a job you would actually like or a little less flab in the middle] … Distractions are nearly always your real wants breaking in on your prayer for edifying but bogus wants.

So what am I to do with those pesky distractions?

If you are distracted, trace your distraction back to the real desires it comes from and pray about these. When you are praying for what you really want you will not be distracted. People on sinking ships do not complain of distractions during their prayer.

He goes on to tell me,

Never mind then if your prayer seems ‘selfish’ or childish. If you will be honest in prayer, acknowledging that you are not very altruistic, that you do worry about your own interests, if you will just try to be, and admit to being, as you are, the Holy Spirit, I promise you, will lead you into a deeper understanding of who you are and what you really want.

He says that prayer is all about simply being honest in the presence of God.

When you lay your desires, your true desires, before God, you begin to see them in better perspective. Quite often you find that they are not, after all, the things you really want most of all. If you bring these desires out into the light, not only the light of day, but the divine light, the light of the Lord, you begin to see them as important but not the most important thing to you. And so through the practice of praying, God will often lead you nearer and nearer to realizing that in the end what you want most of all is [that open, honest, transformative relationship with] God. [1]

Jesus prayed quite often, sometimes for hours; he prayed at his baptism (3:21), he prayed throughout his ministry in Galilee, on the way to Jerusalem, and his last words on the cross were words of prayer (23:46). “Lord, teach us to pray,” the disciple said, and probably not because they were curious about schedules, gestures and postures or how to achieve the proper balance among praise, confession, thanksgiving, and so on. The disciples continuously witnessed Jesus’ special attachment to God, whom he called Father, and they yearned for similar intimacy and a similar intensity of desire to serve God’s purposes. Lord, teach us to pray – behind their simple request was a longing:“Tell us, what is it like to be in such intimate communion with God?”

In response, Jesus told them, told us, to say with him, “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” He taught us to pray with him and to trust that the communion he shared with God was open to us. The words he spoke are very similar to what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. The version we use comes from the gospel of Matthew and the long tradition of use in the church. At Vine Street, we still say the prayer using the old pronouns thou, thy and thine, and many of us love how they elevate the words from ordinary speech and infuse them with the aura of things that have been handled and used by many generations before us. Luke’s version of the prayer is utterly simple in comparison, almost bare: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.” There are no embellishments, no flourishes, no fillers – just simple imperatives: give us and forgive us, and don’t bring us to the time of trial.

Jesus teaches us to pray with few words. And he teaches us to speak of God’s holy name and kingdom right next to our need for bread and forgiveness. This is how closely they belong together. We are to speak of God’s eternal purposes and our daily need almost in the same breath. We are to pray for the consummation of God’s creation in God’s glorious reign of peace and to follow that cosmic-scale request with the most everyday petition for something to eat. Relative to the coming of the kingdom, the prayer for bread may seem rather small — unless we consider that in the kingdom of God, daily bread for all is no small matter, nor is forgiveness.

In the first part of the prayer, God’s cause is foremost – your name, your kingdom. The second part is about us – our bread, our sins, our trials. But the prayer isn’t really changing themes from the hallowing of God’s name and the coming of God’s reign to more mundane things. Because bread, daily bread for all of us, is God’s holy will and God’s daily gift.

When we pray with Jesus, we don’t fly away into the weightlessness of spiritual realms. We pray with our hands touching the soil from which we receive bread to strengthen our bodies, wine to gladden our hearts, and oil to make the face shine (Ps 104:15). We pray with our feet touching the earth from which we were made and to which we shall return, trusting the God who made us and who gives seed to the sower and bread to the eater (Isa 55:10).

What is bread?

Bread is seed and soil, sun and rain, sweat and toil, says the farmer.

Bread is flour and water, yeast and salt, skill and fire, says the baker.

Bread is the sweet memory of my grandmother’s kitchen, says the old man.

Bread is expensive, says the low-wage worker.

Bread is power, says the politician.

Bread is cheap, says the rich fool.

Bread is God’s daily gift for us, say those who pray with Jesus.

There really is no such thing as my bread, there is only our bread, and every loaf contains our whole life together. When we pray with Jesus, we pray for bread and with it for our life together, for the land and all who live on it, for gentle rain to moisten the soil, for justice and compassion, and for the love that breaks bread even with the enemy. Our prayer for bread is indeed the prayer for everything that we and our neighbors need for our bodily welfare. We say bread, because there isn’t a more beautiful word for the dailiness of our needs and our dependence on God and the earth and each other.

And because we can and often do eat the bread of life without memory and without sharing, we need forgiveness. Forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. When we pray with Jesus we are reminded that just like there is no such thing as my bread, forgiveness cannot stop with me. God forgives our sins, for all that we have done or have failed to do – in disobedience, in ignorance, or in loveless self-absorption. And forgiveness becomes a way for us to participate in the flow of mercy in the world by unbinding and releasing each other from debts of all kinds.

A disciple asked Jesus for a prayer lesson, and Jesus invites us into the intimacy he shares with God, the fullness of love that opens us to honesty without shame and without fear. Jesus invites us to call upon God as children call upon a loving parent, trusting with our whole being that we belong and eager to grow up.

Jesus addressed God as Father. Across cultures and generations, fathers relate to their children in very different ways. The name does not by itself and necessarily characterize God as caring, nurturing, protective, compassionate, and responsive. The name by itself will stir in some of us memories of distance, of absence or hurt. Father is a word, and fatherhood a relationship, with many echoes and reverberations, not all of them life-giving, and what are we to do with those echoes in this prayer?

When Jesus speaks this name, Father, it is a declaration of mutual love and unwavering trust. Perhaps we can remember that Jesus invites us to pray not just like him, using his words, but with him. Perhaps we can remember that it is Jesus the Son who reveals who the Father is, and not our mixed experiences with fathers or the many patriarchal distortions of life (Luke 10:21-22).

The final petition in this prayer is, Do not bring us to the time of trial, and it is good for it to be the last word, as it were. We ask for deliverance from any situation, any circumstance that would threaten our faith in the God who embraced us in Jesus with healing mercy and forgiveness, and who entrusted us with embodying that good news together.

So let’s continue to pray with Jesus and align our wants with his.

[1] Herbert McCabe, God, Christ and Us (London and New York: Continuum, 2003), 8-9.

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