Years ago, I remember reading Eugene Peterson say, “my primary educational task as a pastor was to teach people to pray.” I think that’s true for chaplains, too.
It’s not our only task. But it’s our primary educational task, the thing that we can teach.
The challenge to that task is that many people want to learn how to pray. I say challenge because of why people want to learn how to pray.
- We want to learn so that we can get God to pay attention.
- We want to learn to pray right so that we can get God to fix our problems.
- We want to learn to pray exactly right so that we can get God to make our lives better.
Some people try to give people formulas for praying. Get this many people to pray, say this many prayers, use this exact outline or wording, and God will pay attention, God will fix our problems, God will make our lives better.
Some of those formulas quote Jesus, words we just read (on Sunday): Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened.
If we ask for healing and it’s not given, then we feel like we must have asked wrong, that we failed. I’ve heard that. Or if we’ve asked for healing and it’s not given, then we feel like God must have done wrong, that God’s not keeping the contract. I’ve heard that.
What I’m pretty sure is that God’s not testing our exact phrasing. I’m pretty sure that Jesus wasn’t creating a contractual obligation. Because we won’t get everything we ask for if we pound on the door long enough and look hard enough. In fact, at least once Jesus didn’t get what he asked for.
And even when people know how to pray, it still feels like we don’t have God’s attention. It still feels like he’s not fixing our problems. It still feels like our life isn’t better.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, in the same way that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray. Andrew and John, two of the disciples, would have known what John taught, though we don’t know.
But Jesus didn’t offer what we call “The Lord’s Prayer” as a mantra, as a formula to be repeated exactly right to get something from God. If that were true, we wouldn’t read all the other ways that he talks to his Father in the Gospels, times when he didn’t use these words.
Instead, I think, he wants to give us training wheels. He wants to have a framework, a theme to use for improvisation. It starts simply: Our Father in heaven.