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.

Driving in the Dark

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness–on them light has shined.
Isaiah 9:2

Dude, dude! Move!
Photo by John Greenfield (CC BY 2.0).

Fear me–I learned to drive in Chicago. Though I have since turned it down a notch, I can still scare Debbie with my crazy Chicago driving habits, especially if I am in heavy, frustrating traffic. I know people who won’t brave the Dan Ryan or the Kennedy or the Edens because so many other drivers are the immortal embodiment of Mayhem (like me). That’s never bothered me. Once I get going, I can bob and weave through cars like nobody’s business. I once crossed five lanes in completely stopped  traffic to make my exit 500 feet ahead.

There is one driving scenario, however, that terrifies me: driving in the dark. I’m not talking about “dark-but-lots-of-streetlights-or-other-light-pollution” dark. I’m talking about real, pitch darkness. Without my glasses, any object  more than a few inches from my face shows up blurry. My glasses are scratched, smudged, cracked and broken, which means that the only things allowing me to see are also interfering with that ability. My car’s wind shield is never clean, because I can never remember to clean it. And I’m pretty sure my headlights are long past their glory days.

When I find myself driving long past sundown on a road miles from the nearest town with no lights, my knuckles go white. My heart rate shoots up, and all I can think is, “Please don’t die–there’s a hockey game on tonight.”

Nobody told me it was so dark in the North Woods of Wisconsin. I have never driven in such complete darkness. The lane and shoulder lines are hidden by snow this time of year. There are no guard rails between the road and the ditch, which seems like a deliberate oversight intended to mess with people like me. Only on the sharpest of curves is there a warning sign or guide arrows. Because there are so few towns, all of which are small, there is no ambient light pollution. If my headlights don’t shine on it, I can’t see it. If someone starts coming the other way, the brightness of their headlights blinds me, leaving me to pray that I won’t run off the road before the other person passes by.

“Hey, who turned out the lights?”
“Vashta Nerada” by Rooners Toy Photography (CC BY NC ND 2.0).

Isaiah talks about “the people who walked in darkness” and “those who lived in a land of deep darkness”. When it is just a word on a page, darkness seems so… harmless. Trite. Common. Banal. But when I drive through it, darkness is positively terrifying. Theoden King was dead wrong– one should fear the darkness, because one cannot see deer, ditches, trees, yetis, or the vashta nerada in the dark (quick check: how many shadows do you have?).

It is easy to see why, in the prophet’s mind, darkness is an image for oppression. It smothers you, takes away your sight and your sense of up and down (I still turn off the light and trip on the way to the bed because of this). It has no discernible beginning or end, and no path of escape, except those paths that lead to pain, injury, death, or worse, expulsion.

But, while darkness seems absolute and unbreakable, it can be dispersed. It doesn’t take much. I saw a commercial the other day informing me that the human eye can see the light of a candle at night 10 miles away (that’s 146 football fields, folks). Even that tiny bit of light is enough to break through what was once an overpowering darkness.

I am glad that a little light can do so much–it makes the darkness seem a little less scary, a little less overpowering. Isaiah’s words are a comfort and a promise that light can and will shine in the darkness. The nights here are terrifyingly dark, but, like clockwork, the sun rises again. That’s no little candle (or moon, or space station), but a great light, and I never have to worry about its absence or presence.

In the same way, the incarnation, Immanuel, “God-with-us”, shines a big ol’ spotlight into the heart of human oppression. After his initial proclamation, the first words of Christ’s ministry were, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It is both a warning and a promise–repent, because none can hide in the dark any more; and give thanks, because the kingdom of heaven has come near, its effects are already being felt, and its arrival is unstoppable. When God is present, oppression ends, the darkness is pierced, and all within it can see again.

Now if only I could mount it to the roof of my car…

Featured image: “Sun is Shining” by Narrow is licensed under CC BY NC ND 2.0.

My Name is Ken

Unity, Service, Recovery
Unity, Service, Recovery (Photo credit: MTSOfan)

Last night, I attended a young-persons’ open Alcoholics Anonymous meeting as an observer and cried.

I visited as part of a group, but for me, this was more than an educational experience. It was personal, and it was intense.

I’m not an alcoholic. At least, I don’t think so. Maybe I’m an alcoholic and don’t know it. Alcoholism runs in my family on both sides. A long time ago, I decided to avoid alcohol because I don’t know how I would react. So maybe I am an alcoholic, and maybe I’m not. Either way, I don’t plan to find out. The irony of me being the one visiting AA was painful.

The stories told by the speaker (it was a lead meeting, meaning that there was one main speaker) were intimately personal. I listened to them and realized that I’ve seen similar stories my whole life. I spent many days of my childhood in bars (which is where I discovered, at age 3, that I hated beer; I’ve never touched it since). Fridges and coolers were always full of beer, and I’ve been on trips where people were almost too drunk to get to their beds.  It’s just how it was. That was life. It didn’t used to bother me until a few years ago, when I realized that I had a difficult time telling alcoholics and heavy drinkers apart in my own family.

Though I cried hearing the stories, I mostly cried because I saw so much hope and support. Everyone at the meeting acknowledged their shared reality with brutal honesty, but complimented it with an outpouring of brutally honest compassion and support. I got to thinking how different this was from church.

Churches are full of broken people who refuse to consider that they are broken. Whether we are broken by the things we do or broken by the things others do to us, we are all broken. We have corporate confession on Sunday, but no one is really honest about it. Why would they be? Is it not more often the case that the church stigmatizes and shuns those who are honest about their shortcomings? One day, I hope the Church will be ready to deal with the very reality it teaches: that Jesus came not for those who are well, but those who are sick, and that God proved God’s love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.

At the end of the meeting, I stayed a little longer to speak with one of the leaders. I came away, having made a few confessions and decisions, and knew that I had seen God in those moments.