A few weeks ago a friend asked me one of those since-you’re-a-pastor kind of questions: “Do you pray every day?” My first answer was, prepare to be shocked here, “no.” Then I gave a second answer, “Actually yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I’ll explain that answer later.
John Shelby Spong told the story of his first wife’s battle with cancer. Because he was the Bishop of Newark, a lot of people knew of her struggle and as he travelled around to congregations he was frequently told that the people were praying for her. Once, after she had outlived her prognosis by several months, one member of a congregation assured him that his wife was alive because they had been praying for her. It made him wonder if anyone knew that the wife of his janitor also had cancer; would she die sooner because not as many people were praying for her?
Spong’s story got me thinking and reading a great deal about prayer. One thing I noticed in particular is that books about prayer often have the word “power” in the title, or at least as a chapter. Prayer must be about power. But then I looked at the prayers of Jesus and they seem to be about the surrender of power.
In this week’s gospel, one of Jesus’ disciples asks him to “teach us to pray as John taught his disciples.” I, of course, want to know what John taught but all Luke gives me Jesus’ answer. You will note that it is not quite all and not quite the same words as “The Lord’s Prayer.” There is another version in Matthew, longer and also not quite the one you know. There is a whole lot of reasons why the one you know is not exactly like Luke or Matthew’s versions, but I’ll save that one for another time.
In his Large Catechism, Luther wrote that each individual portion of the prayer (he divided it into seven petitions followed by a conclusion) was an adequate prayer on its own. Author Anne Lamott characterized the essentials of prayer in only three words: help, thanks, and wow (she wrote a book by that title).
So back to my answer, “yes, but it might not look like what you’re thinking.” I have abandoned the idea of “Santa Claus God” (I don’t recite my wish list), I also do not feel the need to grovel (“I am not worthy”) or butter-up (“you are to be praised”), and as for power – not all that interested in it. Nonetheless, a lot of stuff runs through my mind, including that which worries me, and I wonder what I can do with the worry. And prayer takes place in more places than I imagined: reading, listening to music, playing music, enjoying a fine supper, floating in the pool late at night looking at the stars. What I have noticed, is that my actions tend to follow my thoughts and concerns, and maybe that is the whole point.
Here is a quote from 19th century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard:
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”