The Lord's Liturgical Prayer
This morning I came across this sentence at the beginning of Luke 11:
One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Now, if Jesus had been a good evangelical preacher with lots of seminary and pulpit experience, he would have said something like this:
There are three important things to remember when you pray. You should pray consistently. You should pray persistently. And you should pray expectantly.
Then he would have explained each point in greater detail with pithy quotes or personal stories to support each. This may have been exactly what the disciples expected. We don’t know how John was teaching his disciples to pray, but it very well may have been such an informative approach. John might have reviewed prayers from the Torah with his disciples. He might have asked them to share their insights about Moses’s bartering or David’s repenting. He might have had hand-outs, or YouTube videos to support his points. But whatever Jesus’ disciples were expecting, what they got was prayer itself.
Verse 2 says:
He said to them, “When you pray, say..."
And then he gave them words to say. Jesus said, “Repeat after me.” Then he spoke the lines we know as the Lord’s Prayer and we’ve been repeating them ever since.
This seems awfully shallow of Jesus.
Earlier this week I visited a small group where the discussion touched on Pope Francis and Catholicism. One of the members, who grew up Catholic, said he never really connected with the gospel in childhood because church just seemed to be empty ritual. That is the danger with giving people words to say or hoops to jump through. The Christian life should be about relationship, not ritual. Jesus is after our hearts, not our behavior.
And yet, here’s Jesus giving his disciples a very didactic form of discipleship. Jesus made no attempt to explain to his disciples why they should pray those words. He didn’t lead them toward understanding as much as obedience.
Jesus didn’t give them a lesson, he gave them a liturgy and a story.
Every Sunday, when you gather with other believers, you experience two kinds of teaching, whether you know it or not. The sermon or the homily teaches you in the way of every other classroom you’ve ever visited. A wise and learned leader imparts knowledge. Your mind opens to new ideas delivered in the form of words. You think about the sacred texts. You recognize patterns and pitfalls. Your mind engages with the truth.
But there are other lessons you are learning beneath words. The welcome you receive at the door communicates the gospel of reconciliation for all humankind. The attitude of church leaders teaches you about worship. The candles, the censer, the rosary, the cathedral, the bread and wine all whisper lessons that don’t come with hand-outs and points of application.
Empty ritual is a waste of time. And misunderstood liturgy is even worse: it can be dangerous. But Jesus is telling us that prayer and worship are not things we learn in the same way we learn the Pythagorean Theorem. To pray aright, we may need to define the word "hallow." But we also may need to repeat after Jesus, “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name…"