Prayer: Lord, Teach Us
The disciples came to Jesus and asked him to teach them. Specifically, they said, “Teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples” (Luke 11:1, NLT). The Lord answered by giving them the Lord’s Prayer. For us, the prayer not only is a model of how to pray but also is a catechesis in itself, teaching us of things other than prayer. With it, Jesus teaches us our needs and our responsibilities to God and neighbor. He teaches us something in the very clauses we pray. So we pray “your will be done” through the vagaries of life, and we learn something profound about God’s will and our life in him. We learn to be joyful, peaceful, and content (Philippians 4:12, NLT). We learn of the value of our troubles and sufferings, of life’s brevity, and of God’s great love through it all. And we learn it by praying this prayer daily throughout our lives. When life is mourning and death, we pray, “Our Father.” When life is joy and birth, we pray, “Our Father.” When life ticks on uneventfully, we pray, “Our Father.” The constancy of the prayer speaks to us of God’s own constancy. It becomes part of us; we join our lives to it and see our lives in light of it.
In the Didache, we are told to pray the Lord’s Prayer three times each day. The repetition teaches us inasmuch as we are willing to learn from it. This minor prayer rule is perhaps modeled after the prayers of the Jewish people, who recite the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4) twice daily, “when you are going to bed and when you are getting up” (Deuteronomy 6:7; 11:19, NLT). Certainly we can do this little thing. When I go to bed: “Forgive us.” When I get up: “Give us.” At noon: “Your will be done.”
In the recitation the mind descends into the heart, out of which the words flow. The words of the prayer are our needs, our confession, our proclamation of the gospel; they are communion with Christ. The brevity of the Lord’s Prayer avoids vain repetition, while its simplicity commends it to all people, young and old alike. As the Teacher writes in Ecclesiastes 5:2, “Don’t make rash promises, and don’t be hasty in bringing matters before God. After all, God is in heaven, and you are here on earth. So let your words be few” (NLT).
Even so, the depths of the prayer cannot be plumbed in a year or twenty years, even by the wisest among us. It is deeper than the oceans. And it is over a lifetime that it teaches us, converts us, and conforms us to Christ.
Tertullian said, “There is comprised in the Prayer an epitome of the entire Gospel” (De Oratione, 1). It is an epitome of the great mystery of Christ, within whose heart we find “your will be done.” Within that short phrase, the danger of the prayer, Gethsemane, and the gospel becomes evident. Your will be done. It is an epiphany that teaches us wisdom and silence before the God who answers; who gives his life for us for the sake of communion; who, as Bonhoeffer wrote in The Cost of Discipleship, “bids us come and die.”
In Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard writes:
“On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? . . . It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
This prayer, the one the Lord himself taught us, does this. It draws us out to where we can never return. It is dangerous yet essential. It shows us the way to life as an epitome of the entire gospel.