I Don’t Pray Anymore

Luke 11: 1-13

He was praying in a certain place, and after he had finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” He said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”

And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.

So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”

I don’t remember when I stopped praying. It wasn’t a conscious choice or anything, but like so many things, it just slipped away unnoticed. Prayer became foreign, something that I did when I acted out the part of someone I used to be. That’s a comfortable role to play, and I knew it well, but as time goes by who you used to be becomes further separated from who you are, and the space between you and yourself can be avoided no longer. I don’t remember when I stopped, but I do remember when I noticed. I was praying at the time.

During the unnatural pause that all pastors employ before saying “Amen”, I noticed that the very thing I was doing was something that I didn’t do anymore, unless I was doing it for someone else. My pause became unnaturally unnaturally long, and I sheepishly muttered “Amen” in what many in the congregation probably assumed was moment of deep personal piety. I sat down. I stared at the oscillating fan hidden from view behind the pulpit wondering when the last time actually was. I prayed a lonely prayer, “Lord, what am I doing?” I stood up as the choir finished, and I preached on faithfulness or something. I don’t remember.

Listening to religious people tell me how to pray has always been like listening to the cool kids tell me how to dance. “See, like this!” “Ohhh, like this?” “Yeah, no.” Eventually you just figure out your one public dance move that gets the least amount of looks and you stick with it for life despite social occasion or musical genre. Or you get drunk, which doesn’t work as well with prayer, especially in public.

Praying in public has always been easier for me than praying in private. Public prayer follows a pattern, and it was always a little game to see if I could connect what was happening immediately around me into a timely biblical reference moving towards a satisfying conclusion. For me, making it a game was the only way I knew how to do it well. But out of public view, I never knew what to do, I never got anything out of my efforts, and I always felt like a fraud.

Religious people are as incapable of understanding the effect of their religiosity on the rest of us as good dancers are of understanding the effect of their sweet moves on those who have finely tuned their one acceptable dance. Watching people enjoy dancing is enjoyable on its own, and I’m glad you can do all those things with your feet, but your presence actively makes me want to stand by the wall and watch – without participation.

For people like me, who struggle with what to say in the lonely one sided conversation with God, Luke 11 comes as a relief. The spiritual demands of Christianity are like when a great dancer demands that you dance, to dance publicly, to do it every day, and then demands you enjoy it. But the story of Jesus teaching his disciples how to pray is like a great dancer teaching you the steps to The Macarena. The steps are easy. The tune is catchy. And, there are few things that bring comfort to a petrified dancer like simple, choreographed steps. The Lord’s prayer is The Macarena of Christian life.

Unlike the prayers of the religious which are often long and overly-spiritual, Jesus’s instructions for prayer in Luke 11: 2-4 focus on regular people’s most pressing and most common needs. The instructions are just three verses long and consist of only five parts: 1) Blessing the name of God, 2) Appeal to bring God’s Kingdom, 3) Appeal for daily food, 4) Appeal for the forgiveness of debt, and 5) Appeal to avoid trial.

Throughout the Gospels and in the lives of those who listen to Jesus and hear the words of Luke is the ever-present crisis of peasant life. Can our land provide us with enough food to survive? Will we go into debt to pay for our next meal? Will our creditors take us to trial to seize our land because we can’t pay our debts? If we lose our land, how will we eat? Life in Roman Palestine during the time of Jesus and Luke is a time of perpetual crisis as peasants are squeezed by war, taxes, and greedy landowners who want to trap peasants into debt for the purpose of acquiring their land. As friends and neighbors fall further into debt, more pressures rise for the small farmer as his friends and neighbors appeal to him for help.

Every instance of helping his neighbor pushes him closer to the edge of debt and poverty. But the small farmer also relies on his neighbor when his crops fail or when something goes wrong. He cannot survive by himself. If he doesn’t give when help is requested, he not only shames himself and violates the laws of Moses, but he also cannot expect help from his neighbors when, inevitably, he falls on difficult times. The farmer is stuck. Give and he risks debt and losing his land now. Don’t give, and he is alone making debt inevitable in the future.

To whom can the farmer turn for help? Jesus tells them to bless the name of the Lord, the god who saved their ancestors from slavery, provided their daily food when wandering in the desert, and gave them the land on which they live and the law which governs it. This God has a name. Jesus teaches them to appeal to this God’s rule instead of the rule of others who would seize the land given to them by God in perpetuity. Jesus tells them to ask for daily bread, for the forgiveness of debts, and to avoid the trials which take their land from them.

By lending and by forgiving the debt of their neighbors, farmers have a chance to remain solvent and free.

The Lord’s Prayer, commonly known as The Macarena of prayers, is an invitation to those who don’t have the time for lonely, long spiritual speeches to participate with God. And, it is Jesus’s instruction that the most pressing needs of the most vulnerable people are the greatest concerns of spiritual life.

Consider the parable following Jesus’s instruction to pray. The parable is about actual bread and a man’s actual obligation to give without counting what is owed.

The story asks you to imagine that you go to a friend at midnight telling him to give you food because a friend of yours has arrived and you have nothing to give to him. Honor insists that you feed your guest, and honor insists that your guest eat. Your friend, to whom you tell to give you bread, responds with rejection because he is already asleep.

This would never happen in an ancient village, and any of the original hearers of this story know it. The idea of a man refusing to help his neighbor fulfill the demands of hospitality to a stranger would be unthinkable. But even with a friend who will not, on account of his friendship or his obligations before the law, get up to provide food for the guest in the village, the man will eventually do so because his friend will shamelessly persist in his demands for bread to feed his guest. Shameless persistence inspires adherence to Jewish hospitality laws.

The petitioner may be shameless, but as William Herzog asks in Parables as Subversive Speech, “How can the behavior of the villager in the parable be described as shameless and boundary-breaking? By whose standards? According to whose boundaries?”

Repeatedly asking for bread to provide for a guest to a village would never be seen as “shameless” by the people of the village. However, we, who don’t live by the values that Jesus is promoting in Luke 11, would certainly see such midnight persistence as “shameless”. So would the wealthy class of Roman Palestine. From the perspective of the wealthy to whom the villagers were either hopelessly in debt or on the edge of becoming indebted, Herzog writes, “the hospitality of the villagers was shameless. It was expended on a virtual stranger and gained them nothing in return… The villagers would have done better to save their food for hard times rather than expect their social superiors to take care of them when their subsistence failed. They were fools for expending their necessities to feed a stranger off the streets.”

The peasant was shameless precisely because he lent without expectation of repayment when he should have been paying back the loans of the rich.

He was shameless because he fed and housed the stranger who came to them at night when he should have been lending his wealth at interest.

He was shameless because he asked his neighbor for help when he should have been investing his money properly from the beginning.

By whose standards? According to whose boundaries?”

The peasant was shameless because he followed Scripture.

Jesus’s instructions for prayer are instructions to be shamelessly persistent in a world that demands you live by someone else’s standards and someone else’s boundaries. In such a world, faithfulness is to be proud of perpetual shame.

I stared at that oscillating fan counting down how long it would be before my sermon was to start. “Lord, what am I doing?” I waited in silence as the choir sang above. God didn’t answer. It was just another lonely one sided conversation.

As the week pressed on I relived that moment over and over. The distance between me and myself seemed wider than ever, so much so that it was growing difficult to recognize where I was. Feeling like a fraud has a strange effect. Even when you do something right, the right just makes the phoniness feel more real. Success, encouragement, and praise all made the problem worse and I grew to hate praise more than criticism. At least criticism felt honest.

I made a strange little deal with myself. Struggle was a sign of belief. Persistence through doubt was faith. With this little move, I could tell myself that not praying was somehow faithful. I was, for a lack of a better word, shameless, and not in the way Jesus praises in our parable.

I kept up the fiction until the next Sunday when I had to pray again. It wasn’t as jarring, but my rouse fell apart as soon as I started going. I worked through it and we ended, as we usually did with the Lord’s Prayer. I didn’t lead that section. Congregations usually don’t need the help there. I just stood back, heard the words, and joined.

In Jesus’s instructions, he taught his Disciples to pray for the regular things that common people needed most. Food, debt forgiveness, and God’s Kingdom free from empire. It was a prayer for regular people, over regular concerns, without anything extra in either content or form.

I stepped back from the pulpit and looked down at the oscillating fan by my feet hoping to find something – anything – which wouldn’t let down my church or God. As I meekly mumbled the words, that empty space between me and myself was filled by the chorus from the pews shared across generations of the hypocritical faithful, and old familiar feeling crept forth one more time. In this moment, at least, I wasn’t a fraud.

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