Lord, Teach Us to Pray

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?”

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This article also appeared in the January 2018 edition of Faith’s Foundations, the newsletter of Faith Lutheran Church, Three Lakes, WI.

I’ve said it before, but I grew up with a terrible prayer life. In my house, saying prayers in the morning or at night just wasn’t a thing. We said grace around the dinner table, but eventually that faded as well.

I attended a Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod grade school from Kindergarten through eighth grade where we had chapel every Wednesday. Combined with my regular Sunday attendance at my own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, I was praying a few times a week. But it wasn’t personal, one-on-one time with God. I was afraid of praying to God that way because I remember being taught that if one didn’t pray to God in the correct way, God would be upset (I distinctly remember the example of praying for a new bike being a prayer that would upset God). Or maybe that was just an excuse for my already poor prayer life.

Over the years I’ve tried different ways to improve my personal prayer life. I bought devotional books and would get two or three weeks in before giving up because I didn’t like them or they were too cheesy. I tried Lectio Divina (which I really liked) and other contemplative prayer practices, structured Morning and Evening Prayer, but I was never able to find something that held my focus and attention. So for the most part, I simply gave up on personal prayer outside of the random “God I could really use your help” or “Thank you God, that was awesome” prayers at appropriate times.

It’s easy for me to empathize with Jesus Christ’s disciples in the Gospel according to Luke when they beg their master and teacher, “Teach us to pray! John taught his disciples how to pray, can you teach us please?” Prayer isn’t something that always comes easily—not for disciples or even for pastors. Learning how to pray happens in two ways: it happens out of necessity, as in the case of the beloved spirituals of the African American community; or it happens because one is taught. What I needed was someone to teach me how to pray.

How ironic that in the 21st century, it was the ancient monastics who ultimately taught me how to pray. I used them in a sermon a few weeks ago, but I recently came into possession of a set of Anglican Prayer Beads (sometimes also called Protestant Prayer Beads). They were made by one of our lay school students who learned how to make and use them in a class on Spirituality.

Prayer beads have a long history in Christianity. By the 200s CE the desert monastics were using first pebbles and then ropes with knots tied in them to help them count and keep track of their prayers—most often repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer or the Jesus Prayer (not to be confused with the Sinner’s Prayer). Prayer ropes are still popular in Eastern Christianity today. By the 600s in Western Christianity these prayer ropes evolved into strings of beads serving the same purpose. The most recognizable form of prayer beads is the Rosary of the Roman Catholic Church, a beloved item by many of the faithful. (Fun fact: in the early 2000s the ELCA experimented with a Lutheran Rosary for the season of Lent. You can still find information on it if you look!)

In the 1980s the Episcopal Diocese of Texas developed a set of 33 prayer beads to use as an aid in prayer. Unlike the complicated and specific uses of the Roman Catholic Rosary, Anglican prayer beads are meant to be used in a variety of ways, leaving it up to the individual to decide what works for them. As it turns out, that’s what works for me.

For the last few weeks I’ve been using my prayer beads and Bread for the Day, a prayer book based on the Daily Lectionary and published by our own Augsburg Fortress to guide my daily prayer. I use either the Full Circle Prayer that came with the beads or the popular Trisagion and Jesus Prayer. It is the first time I can remember, in 31 years of life, that I have an actual, solid prayer life. It’s a liberating, exciting feeling; I often cry my way through Evening Prayer, though I’m not exactly sure why yet. It’s made for one heck of an early New Year’s Resolution.

Like the disciples, I had to be taught how to pray. It took a long time. But I’m glad I’ve finally found something that works for me. If you’re looking for something to help you pray, maybe prayer beads can help. Maybe they can’t. Maybe something else will help. But never stop looking, never stop seeking ways to connect with the Holy Spirit. It may be one of the most important things you do in your life as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 7

But the history of the church is also one of an ever-expanding tent that will not stop until it covers every people, every group, every outcast.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Text: Acts 15:12-19

“The whole assembly kept silence, and listened to Barnabas and Paul as they told of all the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles. After they finished speaking, James replied, ‘My brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first looked favorably on the Gentiles, to take from among them a people for his name. This agrees with the words of the prophets, as it is written,

“After this I will return,
and I will rebuild the dwelling of David, which has fallen;
from its ruins I will rebuild it,
and I will set it up,
so that all other peoples may seek the Lord—
even all the Gentiles over whom my name has been called.
Thus says the Lord, who has been making these things known from long ago.”

Therefore I have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God.’”

Paul caused a lot of trouble when he went out to preach to the Gentiles. Even after Peter’s experience with Cornelius, he and the other apostles in Jerusalem still believed that the Judean people were the only ones worthy of receiving the good news of the risen Christ. Paul’s missionary journeys to the Gentiles were so scandalous that a council had to be called in Jerusalem. Ultimately James, the leader of the church, decided that yes, the Gentiles should be included in the church, and that the Judeans should no longer trouble them over it. Not that it would have made much of a difference to Paul—with or without Jerusalem’s permission, he was going to continue his mission to those left out by the Jerusalem church.

The church has always struggled with reaching out to those on the margins, the outcasts, those left out and forgotten. Whether it was Gentiles, Romans, women, eunuchs and sexual minorities, former “enemies”, people of other ethnicities and nationalities, the poor, or anyone else typically left out by society, the church has had to overcome its own prejudices to truly see and understand the radical nature of God’s welcome and availability of God’s grace.

It’s a never-ending process of self-discernment, self-reflection, self-criticism, and yes, self-forgiveness. We’ll never get it perfect. We’re human beings; human beings striving for something better, something greater, but human beings nonetheless. Despite our best efforts, we’ll fall short. It’s important that we recognize it, work at, and forgive ourselves when we don’t live up to God’s expectations for us.

But the history of the church is also one of an ever-expanding tent that will not stop until it covers every people, every group, every outcast. God has worked tirelessly and impatiently to keep sewing additions to the tent so that none will be left out in the sun. And God has always used people like us—like Mary, Saul, Simeon, Peter—to do it. Through us, God rescues the outcast, the forgotten, those on the margins; and through them, God rescues us. Thanks be to God!

Let us pray: God of all people, in your eyes, none are forgotten, none are outside, none are left out. Take your vision of the church from concept to reality, from unfinished to finished project; and may your grace know no bounds, no limits, no prejudices. In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Ceske Pivo” by Chris Waits is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Prayfaithfully: The Resurrection and the Outcasts – Part 6

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace.

“Prayfaithfully” is the prayer ministry website of the Northern Great Lakes Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I wrote the Daily Devotions for this week.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Text: Acts 10: 34-48

“Then Peter began to speak to them: ‘I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ—he is Lord of all. That message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John announced: how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him. We are witnesses to all that he did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one ordained by God as judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.”’

“While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Then they invited him to stay for several days.”

Again we return to Peter, that lovable/hate-able, bumbling fool who experiences the power of the Holy Spirit and becomes one of the most influential leaders of the church.

Here, he has been sent to the family of a man named Cornelius, a Roman centurion, who is said to be “a devout man who feared God with all his household; he gave alms generously to the people and prayed constantly to God.” Cornelius, being a Roman, is obviously not a Judean. He’s a Gentile, specifically not of God’s chosen people. After receiving a vision from God, he sends for Peter to come and visit him.

Peter, meanwhile, has his own vision, a vision of ritually unclean animals he’s commanded to eat. Peter, acting as a proper Judean for maybe the only time in the Bible, politely refuses. The Law says hes’ not allowed to eat those, so he won’t. In response, a voice from heaven commands, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” After visiting with Cornelius, hearing about him and his family and their visions, Peter launches into this speech, when he finally realizes that the good news of the risen Christ is indeed also for the Gentiles, the “unclean”, the outsiders. And just like with Philip in the Ethiopian eunuch, he finds nothing preventing them from being baptized and receiving the full grace of God. In fact, God seems so in a rush to get Peter to welcome these outsiders, they receive the gift of the Holy Spirit before they’re baptized! God is impatient when it comes to dolling out grace…

It takes Peter and the other apostles a while to truly understand the breadth and scope of God’s saving grace. Poor Peter has to be lit on fire, give speeches, and have visions before he gets it. Accepting those on the outside doesn’t come easily when one spends their entire life reinforcing the separation between the in-group and the out-group. But the way I see it, if even Peter can come to this realization, then with God, nothing is impossible!

Let us pray: Impatient God, you delighted in revealing to Peter your intentions for all people, Judean and Gentile, in-crowd and out-crowd. Delight in us as well, revealing to us the breaking down of the barriers that separate us. Come quickly Lord Jesus! In the name of your Son we pray. Amen.

Featured Image: “Evelyn’s Baptism” by Robert Bejil is licensed under CC BY 2.0.