Over an after-golf drink, I asked my late cardiologist friend Michael what the most important thing was his patients needed when he offered advice. “Empathy,” was his reply. He supervised a large staff and taught other docs at a major Toronto hospital. He had years of training and expertise, but fragile people need more than that when they are concerned about their heart’s health.
Jesus Teaches us to Pray
LIKE MY CARDIOLOGIST FRIEND, JESUS KNEW THAT INSTRUCTION DELIVERED WITHOUT EMPATHY AND COMPASSION WOULD BE OF NO TRANSFOMATIVE BENEFIT.
Years of experience with patients had taught him to listen deeply, express understanding of their particular condition and advise and consult with compassion. It’s difficult to take even good advice from experts who deliver it in a callous or unfeeling manner.
“Teach us to pray” said one disciple to Jesus. When Jesus looked at his friends, it wasn’t just his 30 years of living as a carpenter’s son but his 40 days of intense prayer and testing in the desert that shaped his response. Like my cardiologist friend, Jesus knew that instruction delivered without empathy and compassion would be of no transformative benefit.
Jesus knew his religious history, his Father and his disciples. As a human, he was an expert on conversations with God. When Jesus offered his words of wisdom they were full of love, compassion and designed to free his friends to learn how to converse with the Father in the same way he did.
The Gospel writer Luke tells the story this way: “Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation.”(NLT)
Let your imagination take you to that moment where Jesus and his friends are face to face and he pauses after their request for teaching. What is on his mind? Thousands of recitations of the “Lord’s Prayer” may have dulled us to his empathy and compassion for his friends. He understood their longing for connection with the Father, the normal human reticence that makes us unsure of our approach to God and what prayer ought to look like.
His empathy connected to their human vulnerability and his compassion motivated him to offer help that was more than just an academic or liturgical device. Let me invite you to respond to Jesus’ invitation to conversation with his Father – it is a prayer that in its formal and frequent use has lost meaning for many of us. I firmly believe that it is good heart advice for shaping our prayers.
THE BACKGROUND OF INTIMACY
It is easy to forget that Jesus knew that words are never enough for engaging us in truly life- transforming learning. Jesus entered his own school of human experience to demonstrate the loving and compassionate understanding God has for our human frailty. Jesus could say all he wanted from a lofty eternal perch, but it means much more when he shares our sweat and toil.
At the beginning of his earthly ministry, Jesus spent forty days alone with his thoughts, fears, hopes, ambitions and plans for his mission. He faced hunger, challenge to his focus on the Father and the fragile vulnerability of life. Jesus had thirty years of life under his belt but all indications are that the Father, Son and Spirit knew that an extreme test of his body, will and spirit was necessary to prove Jesus’ capacity and commitment to leave all the perks of power and position – and fully embrace life as a human being.
Luke the storyteller makes a lovely bridge between Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan river and this wilderness school for Jesus; Then Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan River. He was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where he was tempted by the devil for forty days. Jesus ate nothing all that time and became very hungry.
After standing in line with all the rest of the baptism seekers, Jesus embraced his humanity by being baptized by John the Baptist.
And then Jesus heard the ultimate affirmation, “You are my dearly loved Son, and you bring me great joy” (Luke 3:22 NLT). What had he done to elicit this amazing statement? He humbly blended in with the crowds wanting to prepare for his arrival. There was no distance between the Son of God, redeemer, creator and those with whom he jostled down to the river’s edge to stand before John.
Knowing this deep love and knowing that his very existence brought joy to the Father, Jesus didn’t launch his ministry just yet. Instead the Spirit took him to a period of stress and deprivation to immerse him completely in the vulnerability of human life - no softening creature comforts to dull the experience.
Isolation, exposure to the elements and food deprivation all combined to be his only companions – save the inner voice that led him through several challenges to prepare him for his ministry.
In a lovely little book Poverty of Spirit Johannes Baptist Metz makes this eye-catching statement
Understood correctly, our love for ourselves, our “yes” to our self, may be regarded as the “categorical imperative” of the Christian faith: You shall lovingly accept the humanity entrusted to you! You shall be obedient to your destiny! You shall not continually try to escape it! You shall be true to yourself! You shall embrace yourself!
Our lives begin in circumstances and times that are not of our own making – and yet we are launched on a lifelong challenge of growth. When Jesus went to the desert he was engaging this process of loving his human-ness, as he was loved by the Father – even though it was a hard road ahead.
MACBETH OR JESUS?
Recently I was immersed in a performance of Shakespeare’s Macbeth at the Stratford Festival. The trigger for the tragedy is Macbeth’s meeting on a “blasted heath” with three witches who give him a threefold salute:
All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Glamis! All hail Macbeth! Hail to thee, Thane of Cawdor!
All hail Macbeth, that shalt be King hereafter!
He was already Macbeth, Thane of Glamis. He had identity, power and the perks of power. He served the King Duncan and after leading a successful battle on his behalf, was rewarded. He added the title and lands as Thane of Cawdor and with it more power and perks of power.
But that wasn’t enough for him and his conniving wife, the redoubtable Lady Macbeth. The witches’ words on the desolate heath enticed them to want everything immediately. While hosting King Duncan in their home, they engineered his murder and usurped his place and power as king.
Their grasping for immediate power led him and Lady Macbeth to the tragic consequences of their actions. Suicide, deaths and all manner of tragic results ensue – the grasping led to loss and emptiness in all of their lives and destroyed many under their authority.
While Shakespeare’s story is an extreme tragedy, it gets at what afflicts all of us to some degree. Our desire for more, more now and our sense of entitlement can compromise our integrity and destroy ourselves and those around us.
Jesus was led to a different setting, but the conversations and hints of direction from the devil led to a much more constructive outcome. He was faced with at least three significant decisions. First, the chance to shortcut his human experience by magically turning stones into bread. Second, compromise his relationship with the Father and humanity and take shortcuts to power and prestige. And finally take easier shortcuts to avoid the pain and suffering of life.
All of Jesus’ responses to the challenge of compromise were enfolded in the history of God’s story with the nation of his birth. All of his quotes are from Deuteronomy and their reference to the wilderness wanderings of his people. These wanderings were designed for positive purpose:
Remember every road that God led you on for those forty years in the wilderness, pushing you to your limits, testing you so that he would know what you were made of, whether you would keep his commandments or not. He put you through hard times. He made you go hungry. Then he fed you with manna, something neither you nor your parents knew anything about, so you would learn that men and women don’t live by bread only; we live by every word that comes from God’s mouth. (Deuteronomy 8:1-5 MSG)
Jesus faced the tests to take shortcuts, grasp the perks of power and avoid the struggle that is central to each one of our human stories. Unlike Macbeth, Jesus embraced the pain of struggle, the pangs of hunger, the focus on the Father’s purpose and his embrace of human life at its most vulnerable.
WHEN ALL IS STRIPPED AWAY
We have all been faced with these moments – some more dramatic than others. A few years ago my daughter Heidi called to ask if I could come to the scene of an accident. Her truck had collided with an out of control vehicle that ricocheted off another on a highway nearby.
My grandson was with her. I headed out to the scene to collect him while the investigation continued. “We are fine,” she had said, but it didn’t prepare me for the scene. I parked near the emergency vehicles and walked the shoulder of the highway until I saw her truck beyond the worst of the wrecks.
I gathered up my grandson and took him home until the police delivered Heidi to our home several hours later. They were shaken. So was I. The next morning I faced my vulnerability.
In my morning prayers I expressed my fear and frustration that when all is said and done, I cannot protect even my closest loved ones from the hazards of life. I did not like the vulnerability and exposure of life, but I stayed with my prayers.
I realized that when all is stripped away, all I am and have is my relationship with the God who loves me. And that is a safe and secure place to be. I often act out of a different set of values and do all I can to avoid the vulnerability of being human – but Jesus knows this better than me and invites me to walk with him in it.
So when his close companions sat in front of Jesus to learn about prayer his answer was shaped by expertise, experience and his own profound human experience. It is a simple prayer addressed to “Father,” about the father’s character, kingdom - and then our daily needs for food and ongoing need for fresh starts, restored relationships and strength of character to do the right and good thing.
But it is also Jesus’ gentle invitation to join him in his praying for the world and to be in alignment with the mind and heart of our loving God. He knows us. He longs that our connection with his Father will be deeply shaped by his love. He longs for us to embrace and love our own human-ness – with all its vulnerability. As we love God and ourselves we can be empowered to love the world we serve.
DIGGING DEEPLY INTO THE PRAYER JESUS TAUGHT US
Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy. May your Kingdom come soon. Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. And don’t let us yield to temptation.” (Luke 11:1-4 NLT)
These are great and intimate ways to sit quietly alone or with friends to be in conversation with God and listen to the inner moves of the Spirit in our own lives. Let’s take it slowly and in conversational flow:
“Father” – When Jesus said “Father” what was his tone of voice and expression of intimacy? He lived in dependency and love in his relationship with the Father. Jesus spoke as the beloved of the Father and invites us to do the same. He opens the doors by his life and work, he empowers us to be safely and openly in conversation with the Father of all. How do we imagine the Father? Do we experience his love and rest assured in his kindness to forgive? Jesus invites us to pray with him to the same Father who is his intimate companion in all of his life and work. We are invited to share the fatherhood of God with Jesus and all who pray with longing and need.
Sometimes our prayers are private and quiet. Other times we are with friends or in communities of prayer. The focus is first outside our own concerns and preoccupations and on the eternal God who loves us and hears us.
“May your name be kept holy” – Are we conscious of the majesty and creativity of God? We remain silent in God’s presence as we long for his healing, holding and wisdom.
Jesus in his prayers and public teaching often spoke of his desire that all he did and said would bring glory to his Father. His life and work were to reflect the character (the holiness) of God. Jesus invites us to share this passion in our own prayers. May our actions and work reflect the character of the presence of God in us and in the world around us. This prayer phrase bears taking time and space to be reminded of the Father’s desires for the world and how that reflects on his reputation – his very name. Let our good works be evidence of the holy name of the Father we serve.
“May your kingdom come soon” – as we sit silently we explore our own attitudes and ambitions, have we a real desire to see God’s kingdom in evidence in our life, community and world?
Jesus moves us further on our prayer journey to see the world as the place of God’s presence and intention. Just as God’s “word” created the world and all its inhabitants, his ownership and our stewardship of it become part of our prayer experience and longing. We are reminded that our needs are of concern to the Father, but they are seen within a much larger framework of the history of God’s ongoing story with us.
When we move into the latter part of Jesus’ pattern for prayer, we come not only to our needs and desires but also hints of what the “kingdom come” looks like. It includes daily provision, but also the characteristics of our human behavior and relationships.
“Give us each day the food we need” – Jesus knew the importance of bread – it was his first test when he had been hungry for forty days. In our affluence it is hard to connect with the idea of daily bread. I am grateful most days for the generous provision for my life, but Jesus invites us to connect more widely. We join in prayer (which must eventually lead to action) with those for whom this is not yet true. We connect with their hunger, perhaps through other more subtle hungers we experience. Food is not enough, but it is important.
Jesus invites us to see the vision the Father has for the “kingdom”. It isn’t about dominance and power but food, forgiveness, restoration and perseverance.
“Forgive us our sins”- Jesus knows we need help in following him – it isn’t done alone or without the Father’s help. When we fail, even by our own standards, we need forgiveness. Forgiveness removes the shame and guilt that immobilize us and keeps us from moving forward in healthy living. We need daily food and regular nourishment – and Jesus puts regular forgiveness right along with it.
“As we forgive those who sin against us”- Another glimpse into the qualities of the Father’s kingdom is this notion of forgiveness – not just individual but also within home, friendship, community, and globally. Are we reflecting the coming of the kingdom in forgiveness and reconciliation – in word and action? Resentments held and not released damage us as much as others. Our own communities may need the forgiveness of other communities when injustice has occurred. This prayer can take us deep into our relational health – it’s not just a formula to recite.
“And don’t let us yield to temptation” – Jesus knew the pressure of tests of character. Jesus invites us to join him in avoiding shortcuts to experiencing the strength and love of the Father. He invites us to embrace tough experiences as proving grounds for character.
LET’S TAKE A FEW MOMENTS NOW TO GO THROUGH THE FLOW OF THE PRAYER AND HAVE A MEDITATIVE EXPERIENCE WITH JESUS’ PRAYER
These are wonderful, intimate ways to sit quietly alone or with friends to be in conversation with God and listen to the inner moves of the Spirit in our own lives. Sit comfortably and relax. Slow down your breathing. Let’s take it slowly and in conversational flow:
“Father” – How do we imagine the Father? Do we experience his love and rest assured in his kindness to forgive? Can we imagine that we are praying along with Jesus? Using his words, his tone of voice?
“May your name be kept holy” – Are we conscious of the majesty and creativity of God? We remain silent in God’s presence as we long for his healing, holding and wisdom. We ask the Father to remind us how our actions, words and way of living reflect his reputation.
“May your kingdom come soon” – As we sit silently we explore our own attitudes and ambitions. Have we a real desire to see God’s kingdom in evidence in our life, community and world? Do we care about what the father cares about?
“Give us each day the food we need” – Our request is a hint of the coming of the kingdom of God. We are grateful when our daily needs are met. Even as that may be true for us, we connect with the hunger of those for whom this is not yet true. Food is not enough, but it is important. We commit to work for the daily bread of those who are without.
“Forgive us our sins”- We spend time acknowledging our ongoing need for divine mercy and help. A fresh start to our day and our life.
“As we forgive those who sin against us”- We enter into a time of reflection on our relationships in home, friendship, community, and globally. Are we reflecting the coming of the kingdom in forgiveness and reconciliation – in word and action? Do we need to take steps of reconciliation with those we have wounded or have wounded us?
“And don’t let us yield to temptation” – Jesus invites us to join him in avoiding shortcuts so that we too may experience the strength and love of the Father. He invites us to embrace tough experiences as proving grounds for character.
Let’s finish by saying this simple prayer in its unity.
may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
Give us each day the food we need,
and forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”
Listen to the “On Further Reflection with Norm Allen” Podcast
I invite you to listen to “Jesus Teaches us to Pray”, and encourage you to share it with a friend or colleague.