Language of Prayer
1 And it came to pass, that, as he was praying in a certain place, when he ceased, one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray, as John also taught his disciples.
2 And he said unto them, When ye pray, say, Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth.
3 Give us day by day our daily bread.
4 And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.
Manx is the language of the Isle of Man, and on December 27, 1974, Manx was officially pronounced dead when its last native speaker died in the village of Cregneash at the age of 97. Words like “coghal,” meaning “a large chunk of dead flesh in an open wound,” or “jouyl,” meaning “devil,” are now lost and out of use.
In the world today, about 6,800 spoken languages exist, but experts believe that at least half of these languages will be dead by the end of the century. Nicholas Ostler is president of a foundation for endangered languages, and he is concerned about the large number of rare languages that are in danger of becoming extinct. He points out that languages die for a number of reasons: war, genocide, disease, low birth rates, government policy. But globalization probably poses the biggest threat of all. As the global village spreads and various economies become more intertwined, many people who speak minority languages will stop using them. For practical reasons, they will switch to majority languages such as English, Mandarin, or Hindi—Urdu. [see Ostler, Nicholas. “A loss for words.” Foreign Policy. November—December 2003, 30—31.]
Australia is a good example. English came to Australia the same way it came to North America, through British colonization, and English became the language of government and commerce. As a result, 138 of Australia’s 261 native languages are now nearly extinct.
But let’s talk about another language that may be in danger of extinction--the language of prayer. You might say, Surely prayer is not facing extinction. Doesn’t everybody pray?
In fact, according to a George Barna survey, in 2001, 82 percent of adults said they pray at least once a week. And 89 percent said that they believe God watches over us and answers our prayers. [Barna Research Group, Inc., www.Barna.org.]
Yet, praying once a week is not a strong endorsement of the power of prayer. If we really believe that prayer unleashes the power of God, will we only pray once a week? Come on!
Also, people exaggerate their good behavior on surveys. They know they are supposed to pray, and they tend to overestimate their prayer time. So, a large margin of error needs to be factored in to the Barna survey.
Not only that. But when we pray, sometimes it is just a mechanical thing. We mumble some mumbo-jumbo and call that a prayer, but it is all a dead language, without power or meaning. We need to ask ourselves: Is prayer a real, living language for us? Have we allowed the dominant languages of government, commerce, and popular culture to take over our lives, edging out the lesser-known speech patterns that connect us in a life-giving way to God? Have we pushed the language of prayer to the verge of extinction, making it a tongue that has just a handful of speakers, most of them elderly? In short, when it comes to prayer, are we at a loss for words?
In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples of Jesus fear that they are losing the language of prayer, so they ask Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (11:1). Jesus responds with Luke’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, which is somewhat shorter than Matthew’s version. Jesus teaches them to speak to God as they would speak to a member of their own family, calling God “Father,” an expression of intimacy and familiarity. Then he suggests that they make three requests. They should ask for bread, for forgiveness and for deliverance, and they should trust God to give them whatever they need.
Jesus says that we should cultivate three attitudes in prayer: Intimacy, trust, and expectation. These three attitudes are the basis for a language of prayer. Jesus encourages us to approach God in the same way that we would approach a loving parent, and to trust God to hear our prayers and answer them in ways that meet our needs.
Jesus also reminds the disciples of an important dimension of prayer language: all appeals to God need to be consistent with the words “Thy kingdom come” (v. 2). God is not going to grant any request that does not conform to the priorities of his kingdom of love, peace, and justice. God answers every prayer, but if we pray against the purpose and will of God, God’s answer is “No.”
Every one of the world’s 6,800 spoken languages has its own grammar, its rules and regulations for expressing meaning. For example, in English, the subject of a sentence must agree with the verb. It is incorrect to say, “My neighbor are a jerk.” The singular noun “neighbor” always requires the singular verb “is.” So you cannot say, “My neighbor are a jerk,” even if he is.
In a similar way, the language of prayer has its own grammar, and one of the most important grammatical rules of prayer is that the requests of a disciple have to agree with the intentions of the Lord.
Fortunately, requests for bread and forgiveness and deliverance all fit with God’s desires for our physical health and spiritual well-being. “Give us each day our daily bread” (v. 3) is a petition for the nourishment we need each day. This petition reminds us that we are dependent on God for our most elemental requirements. During the Exodus, the Israelites depended on manna from heaven to sustain them in the wilderness. In like manner, our daily bread comes to us from a God who loves us and wants to support us every day.
Of course, we do not live by bread alone. We also need forgiveness. Forgiveness is a gift that is as necessary to our well-being as food and water. Without this gift from God, we would gradually be crushed by the burden of our guilt, a load that grows higher and heavier with every sin we commit. Without forgiveness, we would lose all hope for the future, and sink into the darkest depths of despair. But with this gift come release and renewal, an assurance of pardon and a deep sense of peace.
This forgiveness from God also gives us the ability to “forgive everyone indebted to us” (v. 4). In fact, we should not separate our forgiveness from our forgivingness. They are part of the same heavenly package. If we want God’s kingdom to come, we want to show the same mercy to others that the Lord shows to us. In the grammar of prayer, forgiveness received is always linked to forgiveness given. These two are like a subject and a verb--both are needed to make a proper sentence.
Then Jesus teaches his disciples to pray that our Father will “not bring us to the time of trial” (v. 4). In the long history of God’s people, there have been many times of testing. For example, we think of the testing of Job in the Old Testament and of Jesus in the New, the testing of the Israelites in the wilderness and of the church in today’s highly secular society.
Fortunately, we do not have to be at a loss for words when we face a time of testing. Jesus instructs us to pray for deliverance, asking God to protect us from anyone or anything that can endanger our bodies, our minds, or our relationship with God. When we pray to be delivered from the time of trial, we are asking to be spared the kind of testing that can lead to our extinction.
In Luke chapter 11, after Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, he told them a parable. He said, Suppose you had a pile of company that showed up one night. This is first century Palestine. There are no all-night grocery stores, and you cannot order pizza. Moreover, you do not have much in the way of food on hand. So, you go next door to your neighbor’s house to borrow some provisions, some leftovers, to get you and your unexpected company through the night.
Well, it is late. Your neighbor is snug in bed. He does not want to get up and help you. Perhaps he is the jerk we talked about earlier. But if you keep bugging him, if you will not go away, if you will not accept “no” for an answer, finally, he will get up and give you what you ask for, just to get rid of you.
Now Jesus is not suggesting in this parable that God is a jerk who does not want to help us. He is simply making the point that we should persist in prayer. Thus he says, in vs9-10, “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you. For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened.” Pray with persistence. Use the language of prayer to plead for what you need.
Jesus assures us that God will hear our prayer and answer us. In vs 11-12, he says, “If a son shall ask bread of any of you that is a father, will he give him a stone? or if he ask a fish, will he for a fish give him a serpent? Or if he shall ask an egg, will he offer him a scorpion?” In other words, if a child asked a human parent for food, would a human parent deliberately give the child something that would do harm to that child? Obviously not.
In v13, Jesus reaches his conclusion: if we human parents give good gifts to our children, then “how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” If we care for our children, think how much more the God of the universe, the God of love, cares for us, and, therefore, think how confident we can be in prayer, and, therefore, think how persistent we should be in prayer.
Jesus did not tell us what posture to assume when praying. Jurgen Moltmann, in his book, The Source of Life: The Holy Spirit and the Theology of Life, observes that praying in the prone position denotes subservience, whereas the kneeling position — head bowed, eyes closed — speaks of an attitude of contrition and helplessness. Prayer while standing, with arms uplifted and outstretched, is a prayer of expectation in which we invite God to come into our lives. Prayer with uplifted arms also indicates that we are ready to receive what God has to give.
But however we pray we should remember that prayer is the language in which we speak to God. It is a language that uses more than words. Our best prayers are probably not spoken aloud at all. We simply lift up our hearts directly to the Holy Spirit
In any case, it is up to us to preserve this life-giving language, and keep it from extinction. Within the community of faith, we are challenged to create a healthy habitat for prayer, one in which we are not afraid to ask for the gifts we need for physical and spiritual health. In this prayer habitat, we learn to ignore the many competing agendas of our secular society and to search diligently for the will of God. In this prayer habitat, we knock again and again on the door to God’s kingdom, we knock persistently through disciplined daily prayer, we knock faithfully and forcefully with the full conviction that our Lord loves us and wants to meet our needs.
This is the language of prayer. This is a language that we all need to learn to speak fluently and eloquently. Amen.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
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