“I believe in Howard.” Robert responded. “What? Did you say ‘Howard?’” the reporter asked.
“It has to do with my mother’s maiden name. It was Howard. She came from a big Memphis clan that was pretty close and was referred to as the Howard Family. As a small child,” he went on, “I thought of myself as a member of the Howard Family because it was often an item of a conversation as in ‘The Howard Family is getting together,’ and ‘The Howard Family thinks people should write letters to their grandmother’ –who was referred to as Mother Howard. So when I went to Sunday School” writes Robert, “and the first thing I learned was the Lord’s Prayer, what I heard was ‘Our Father who art in heaven HOWARD be thy name’ . . .I went to bed feeling pretty well connected to the universe for a long, long time. It was a Howard Family Enterprise.
“All human images of the ultimate ground of being are metaphors and, as metaphors go, this is a pretty homey one." And, he continued, “I thought it for so long that even when I passed through all those growing-up stages of skepticism, disbelief, revision and confusion–somewhere in my mind I still believed in Howard. Because at the heart of that childhood image there is no alienation. I belonged to the whole big scheme of things. I lived and worked and had my being in the family store.” (Robert Fulghum, UH-OH) I love this story from Robert Fulghum. It catches the intimacy of the Lord’s prayer and it is a wonderful illustration of a child’s translating strange words into something the child knows about like the little girl who prayed “lead us not into temptation but deliver us some e-mail . . .”
The Lord’s Prayer–or more accurately the model prayer is recorded in the Gospel of Luke as Jesus’ response to his followers when they ask to be taught how to pray. Matthew places the model prayer in the context of a collection of sayings about deeds of piety (fasting, almsgiving and prayer); Luke introduces it as Jesus' response to his disciple's request. Matthew's version is longer and more liturgically full. In the King James translation of Matthew, Jesus is quoted as saying “But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut the door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; . . .” I was always curious when I heard this as a child why we were praying out in the open–why we had come out of the closet–so to speak. Of course not everyone prayed in public. One of the tasks of a new pastor was to learn who prayed in public and who didn’t. It was a social error and even sacrilegious to ask someone to lead in prayer who was known by everyone as one of the ones who didn’t pray in public.
The request, "teach us to pray," by Jesus’ disciples may seem odd since set prayers, repeated at certain times, were common in first century Judaism. The opening of the various forms of the Jewish Kaddish, which was probably familiar in Jesus' time is:
Exalted and hallowed be his great name in the world which he created according to his will. May he let his kingdom rule in your lifetime and in your days and in the lifetime of the whole house of Israel, speedily and soon. And to this, say: amen.
Seen against the background of prophetic thought, Jesus' prayer for hallowing or vindicating God's name stands in close correlation with his concern for social justice, freedom from internal or external oppression, economic well?being, and spiritual vitality.
The petition for the honoring of God's name precedes petitions for the coming of God's kingdom, for bread, for forgiveness, and for success in the struggle against temptation. But it is more than merely prior to them. Those other petitions express what it means for God's name to be held in reverence.
There are many who claim that prayer is a universal natural human impulse. Primitive cave art seems to indicate religious impulses. There seem to be impulses to transcend and connect to something beyond ourselves. There are prayer flags tied to trees in Tibet, Buddhist prayer wheels, piles of votive stones along a roadside in Africa on to which travelers toss a stone as they pass by, houses of worship with candles being lit by worshipers, persons fingering strings of beads as they pray, little strips of paper with prayers written on them stuck in the cracks of the ‘wailing wall’ in Jerusalem or tied on a stick in Tokyo, chants of monks, Christian and Buddhist, chants of native American healing songs; computer web sites with a prayer for the day, Muslims rolling out a prayer rug to pray 5 times a day. One of my sons worked with a Muslim man whose computer contained a program that reminded him of the times to pray.
Frederick Buechner writes, “Everybody prays whether he thinks of it as praying or not. The odd silence you fall into when something very beautiful is happening or something very good or very bad. The ah-h-h-h! that sometimes floats up out of you as out of a Fourth of July crowd when the sky-rocket bursts over the water. The stammer of pain at somebody else’s pain. The stammer of joy at somebody else’s joy.
Whatever words or sounds you use for sighing with over your own life. These are all prayers in their way. These are all spoken not just to yourself but to something even more familiar than yourself and even more strange than the world.”
The tradition in which I grew up rejected ritual. We didn’t even use the Lord’s prayer regularly in worship because that was too formal (too papist). Some churches in that tradition even refused to have a printed order of service lest it lack sincere spontaneity. But boy, you better collect the offering before the sermon or people would complain that you had ruined church.
James Glasse former president of Lancaster Theological Seminary tells of a time when he was assigned to a church in central Tennessee where part of his task was to get the local Presbyterian church to do things decently and in order which included using the Book of Common Worship with its prescribed prayers for the day. After the first service one of the elders met him at the door and said, “Young man, as far as I’m concerned a prayer read out of a book doesn’t get through the ceiling.” So at the next meeting of the Session Glasse called on the elder to pray. Glasse thought to himself, “Okay fella, you don’t like the way I do it, you do it!” Without hesitation the elder rose and prayed “Lord we thank you for bringing us here to do the work of the church. Guide us by your spirit to do all things according to thy will. Forgive us of our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.” Glasse thought to himself: “When I get to where I can pray like that, I won’t need a prayer book.” So at the next meeting he again called on the elder to pray. The man hopped up, closed his eyes, threw back his head and said “Lord we thank you for bringing us here tonight to do the work of the church. Lead us by your spirit to do all things according to thy will. Forgive us of our sins for Jesus’ sake. Amen.” Glasse comments that right then he knew that it didn’t matter whether our prayers were written down, from a book, or tattooed on the back of our eyelids. Somewhere along the way we learn to pray by overhearing prayer words.
So we, as well as many traditions every Sunday use a version of the prayer Jesus taught his followers so that the words are so ingrained in our minds and hearts that they are wonderfully automatic. Pastor Stephanie Frey relates that while making nursing home and hospital calls one day she visited several people who were on oxygen. Some gathered as a group to receive communion. There was a slim green hose running from each pair of nostrils to a machine piping in pure air to make his or her breathing easier. When they prayed the Lord’s Prayer together she was struck by the strength with which each of these people prayed. She writes, “Their bodies were weakened in many ways, yet the prayer flowed vigorously from their lips, as if the prayer as well as the oxygen was helping them breath.”
“According to Jesus,” Buechner writes, “by far the most important thing about praying is to keep at it.” That seems to be the point of the second part of today’s lectionary reading.
I confess I am not sure what to make of the story Jesus tells his disciples after he has given them the model prayer. An annoyingly persistent neighbor comes pounding on the door of a house nearby, looking for food to give to an unexpected guest. It’s midnight, and the irritated occupant calls out in exasperation, “Get lost!” He can’t believe the temerity of the neighbor willing to disturb him just when the dogs in the alley have finally quit barking and his kids have finally drifted off to sleep. He doesn’t want to have his tranquillity upset. According to Jesus, however, the neighbor persists, and eventually the poor householder relents, not out of the charities of friendship but simply for the sake of his own peace and quiet.
What kind of image is that for talking about prayer? Does it mean we have to knock on the gates of heaven until our knuckles bleed? Surely not. As some commentators claim that the householder does not represent God but is to be a contrast to the divine. I am more inclined to say what I think the story does not mean just as I am more comfortable saying what prayer is not. (It is not magic, it is not telling God what God does not know, public prayer is not a place to give a sermon or make announcements or brag.) So why does Jesus invite us to be as shameless and irritating in our prayers as that noisy neighbor at midnight? I like the suggestion by a commentator who said, “We should persist until prayer becomes the ongoing conversation between us, God’s creatures and the Creator. Then we will never come away empty-handed from prayer, because even if we wind up with none of the things we thought we needed, we will always wind up with God attending and answering our prayers in ways we hadn’t imagined.”
So the word for today seems to be “persistence.” Don’t hang up, even if all you hear is silence.
A soldier during the second world war relates that when he was about to be shipped out for a tour of duty overseas, he called his wife from a coin operated telephone at an Army camp on the West Coast. The operator cut in on the conversation to indicate that more money was needed to continue so he said “good bye.” and hung up. As he walked away, the phone rang, and he answered it, expecting to be told of extra charges. “I thought you'd like to know,” the operator said, “that just after you hung up, the woman said, ‘I love you.’”
Don’t hang up on prayer. Amen