How many of you are familiar with the Mitford series by Jan Karon? She writes about an Episcopal priest, Fr. Tim Kavanaugh, and the sleepy little town where he ministers. I have mixed feelings about the books; they have a lovely sweetness and innocence to them—but they are also an expression of the author’s displeasure with the way the Episcopal Church has evolved over the last fifty years. The world she paints is set in contemporary times but reflects the church of her childhood—when there were no pesky women clergy, when the authorized prayer book was from 1928, before clergy were urged to establish clear boundaries between their personal and professional lives, and tended to burn out because they couldn’t say no…I get through them by reminding myself that they are fiction and most of the people reading them would be completely unaware of these problematic aspects, and acknowledging that in themselves they really are sweet and uplifting.
One of the key threads that runs through all of them is “the prayer that never fails.” When a character is struggling with bad health, or a family conflict, or the consequences of some bad decisions, someone will ask, “Did you pray the prayer that never fails?” The person prays it, and lo and behold, things end up working out for them.
The author doesn’t immediately reveal what “the prayer that never fails” is, so you can imagine I was getting a little annoyed with what looks like magical thinking, this understanding of prayer as a kind of vending machine—put enough prayer coins in and out will pop the result you want. We all know that there are times that no matter how long you pound on the doors of heaven, sometimes you don’t get what you want from God.
One of the people at the Wednesday Eucharist commented that our reading from the Gospel of Luke today is missing “the prayer that never fails.” In fact, as this passage is translated in the New Revised Standard Version, it almost seems to encourage someone to treat God like an automated prayer fulfiller.
The disciples see Jesus praying and they ask him, “teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” I read this week that a teacher—be it Jesus or John or one of the religious zealots—was expected to teach their disciples how to pray in their own particular way. “Teach us to pray” they ask Jesus, and he responds with what has come to be called The Lord’s Prayer.
It was not even an entirely original answer. Jesus takes apart traditional prayers from the Kaddish, the morning blessings and evening blessings, and puts them back together in a new way, a way that will cause the disciples to really think about what they are saying.
It is kind of ironic that their request to be taught a new, fresh way to pray resulted in a prayer that is so often said by rote without giving much thought to its content. Jesus wasn’t actually prescribing an exact set of words said in an exact order. But through the ages we have allowed it to become rigid. Whenever I use the contemporary form of the prayer I can feel someone or another resisting it, wanting to say, “That’s NOT how that prayer goes!”
The truth is, the words Jesus used were NOT “our Father, who art in heaven.”
They were more like “abwoon debashmayo…”
I love that the Lord’s Prayer is a point of unity across denominations. It is the one thing we all pretty much agree upon. We may occasionally stumble when we’re someplace that says debts when we say trespasses, and there may be a little grumbling when I use the contemporary version instead of the traditional one, but the basic ideas are all still there. We have done it a disservice by codifying it in 16th century Elizabethan language. We think of “thees and thous and thys” as very formal language, distancing us from the one to whom we are speaking. We have forgotten that those were the familiar forms of the word you and your, meant to express a closeness, a scandalous intimacy with the divine. (If you know this prayer in a different language that still makes the distinction between familiar and formal, you may already have a sense of this.) This was not the language you used when approaching a king; it was the language you used when whispering to a loved one in the dark.
I pray this prayer with people in all the stages of human existence: celebrating a new life in baptism, blessing a new home, uniting two people in marriage, before surgery, after surgery, in nursing homes, at their death beds and at the grave. We teach our children to say it at bedtime. Martin Luther included it both morning and evening in the daily devotions included in the smaller catechism. It is an anchor in times of trouble, something steady and familiar to hold onto when it feels like the world is collapsing around us. But if we take it seriously and really think about what we are saying, it is also a challenge to the status quo. There are some radical thoughts in there. Think about what you are asking when you pray “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is heaven.”
That’s revolutionary talk, that is.
Oh, but there it is. The part I mentioned earlier, the line that Luke leaves out. The prayer that never fails.
Thy will be done.
It’s the antidote to thinking that we will get everything we want if we just pray the right way or long enough or hard enough. I said earlier that there is a danger in reading this passage, with the short parable about the friend in need at midnight, as encouragement to just keep harassing God with your prayers, even when any hope of you getting your way is long gone.
I read this week that the problem is that it comes down to the inaccurate translation of one Greek word: anaideia. Somewhere along the way, it was translated into English as “persistence” and it stuck. We like the idea of that, don’t we? That if we just push hard enough, long enough, God will cave in and we’ll get our way. It lets us stay in control, doesn’t it?
But it turns out that it’s not a very good nor accurate word choice. A better word might be shamelessness. Audacity.
Abraham was pretty shameless in his encounter with God in the first reading. I always hear it as a sort of reverse auction…”50, do I hear 50? Can I get 45? 40? How about 30, do I hear 30? 20? Can I get a 10? 10? Going once, going twice…”
It’s not the content of our prayers that is audacious; it’s the willingness to approach the Creator of the Universe with all the intimacy of a child crawling into its parent’s lap. The shamelessness of waking someone up at midnight to help us with a problem. Jesus is telling us not to be afraid to approach God with all our deepest hopes, desires, fears, dreams…Curl right into God’s presence and be real with the One who already knows you better than you know yourself. Trust the Source of All Life, All Goodness, All Blessing to give you good things. Maybe not the things you want or ask for—but the things you need. Stay there with your Heavenly Father (or Mother, if that imagery works better for you) and rest. Don’t do all the talking—give yourself time to listen. To accept and receive the love God is offering you. To be changed by that encounter so that your prayers become less what you want God to for you, and more what you want to do for God.
Thy will be done, we pray. God’s will be done.
The prayer that never fails.
Jesus was trying:
To help them make the shift from thinking that prayer was our attempt at changing God’s mind to our attempt at allowing God to change our minds.
To open us up to the possibility that God not only cares about us but has a dream for us.
To discover that we don’t just believe in God, but that God believes in us—and our ability to work cooperatively to make this world in which we live look a little bit more like the kingdom to come.
To worry less about tomorrow and accept that God will provide what we need to get through this day.
To learn not just to forgive particular trespasses, but to create an atmosphere of forgiveness, so that hurts don’t fester and poison our whole being.
To request both freedom from sorrow and pain and the strength to endure it when it inevitably comes.
To never let go of the hope that good is stronger than evil, love is stronger than death, the grace of God’s kingdom can and will displace the corruption of earthly empires.
To pray with audacity until we are a people guided not by fear, but by love—love that is world-changing.
It may take a while sometimes, but I do believe in the prayer that never fails: God’s will be done.