Palms are sweaty and your pulse throbs. The stomach is in a knot. What, oh what, should I say? I’ve done it this time. How should I word it? No, let’s change it and put it this way. Perhaps that will get me off the hook. Maybe if I said it this way, hmm, I need to work on this. You’ve been in this type of predicament with these thoughts and so have I. Usually it’s because I’ve been busted and done what I shouldn’t have done and now I need to pay the piper.
In situations like these words don’t come easily or naturally. We think if we are creative we can get out of it but before our parents well, they usually have this ability to smoke us out easily. So, you think it’s hard addressing one in authority such as a parent, teacher, or police officer? Try talking to the ultimate authority; God. Now, that makes people blush and stumble. I’ll let you in on a Confirmation technique or secret I use to quiet the class in less than a second. Volunteer one of them to pray out loud and there is silence.
That doesn’t mean people don’t talk to God. The language of talking to God is called prayer. And people all over the world pray. On our recent family vacation in Colorado we visited the United States Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, CO. The standing chapel has worship space for: Protestants, Catholics, Jewish, Hindu, and Muslim faith religions. The Muslim prayer room was under lock and key so we were not able to view their worship space. Outside the Chapel was an adjacent hill used by adherents of “Earth Centered” religions. Mary and I sought to view their worship space. But as we ascended the hill we were met by warning signs instructing visitors to remain off the hill (I imagine since it is considered sacred space by their devotees) and that we were being watched by surveillance camera and so we abandoned our ascent.
Whether people are Buddhist or Muslim, Native American or Wiccan, they pray. Not too long ago the American Military issued or recognized two new chaplaincies: Chaplains for Wiccans, those who worship witches, I kid you not, Google if you want, and, a chaplaincy for atheists. Does that surprise you? Well don’t let it. There is no such thing as an atheist. To quote Luther from his introduction to the First Commandment:
A god is that to which we look for all good and in which we find refuge in every time of need … That to which your heart clings and entrusts itself is, I say, really your God.
My friends, atheist or not, everyone has a god. And as such people pray that is they talk to their god pouring out their heart’s complaints and joys. Now, the one true and Triune God being all-powerful and all-knowing hears the prayers of all people. He hears the prayers of all non-Christians. But does that mean he pays attention to them much less does he answer their prayers? He certainly does not.
Jesus pays attention to, and answers the prayers of his children, the baptized, those who call out to him in his name and not a name of their own conjuring or spell making. Imagine you came to the birthday party to pick up your four year old. You walk up and eight kids cry out, “hi mom,” or, “hi dad.” Certainly you will hear all those prayers, you will hear all those greetings, but whose greeting call will you answer and pay attention to?—that of your flesh and blood, your child.
Jesus pays attention and answers the prayers of his flesh and blood, the baptized, for he dwells within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. In Holy Baptism the blood that flowed from Mt. Calvary on Good Friday forgiving our sins is delivered to us and washes over us in Baptism by the power of the words spoken in Baptism. And because Jesus dwells in you, you are his flesh and blood, his bride, the holy Christian church, beautifully adorned for the bridegroom, Christ our Lord. And so yes, Jesus always answers our prayers. There is a possibility of three answers: Yes, wait-a-while, and, no.
God doesn’t respond because someone opens up some new insight for Him. No. In persistent, fervent prayer, God prepares the soil of one’s heart to make room for the seed of His answer, from which will flower an alignment with His will.
In its simplest definition prayer is talking to God just like we might talk to a friend. But where does God talk to us? Here is where we need to be careful for things can get a little squirrely at this point. Where does God talk to us? He talks to us where he has promised; in his Word.
Down through the millennium the church has swerved from one side of the road to another, much like a tipsy person trying to maintain balance. There have been times when the church has belittled and mocked extemporaneous prayers—prayers from the heart, prayed at the moment. Such examples would include prayer before a little league game, or a trip in the car, or before that dreaded math exam, or, before you asked that cute thing out on a date.
Never are we to belittle such prayers. They come from the person and fill a need for we all are fearful and need courage.
Other times in the church’s history the church has mocked or belittled set formal prayers, prayers written out, liturgical prayers that come from a book, found in the liturgy. Never are we to belittle these prayers either. After all, it is the prayers of the church, the liturgical prayers from Scripture written down, repeated in print that teach us how to pray. Left on our own we do not know how to pray, and nor do we know to whom we are to pray. This knowledge needs to come from outside ourselves.
Both formats are good and necessary. But one is primary and instructs the other. Dietrich Bonheoffer was a German Lutheran Pastor in Berlin who resisted Hitler. And before he died in a concentration camp for his resistance to Hitler Bonheoffer wrote:
If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray. The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.
The richness of set liturgical prayer from Scripture teach the heart to pray … at a ball game, or before surgery, or prior to running the 100 yard hurdles.
Prayer from our heart is so hard and so we need written down liturgical prayers to begin the process of teaching us. It is akin to a parent teaching their child how to speak. The child will learn to speak not by accessing the poverty which lies within them. No, the child learns to speak, shall we call this pray, by repeating back what she has heard from outside herself, from mom and dad. Allow me to share with you this actual phone conversation that took place in the office several years ago.
Ring …, ring.
“Hello, St. John’s, Pastor Weber speaking.”
“Hi, I want to speak to the person in charge, who would that be?”
“Well, I guess it would be me.”
“And who are you?”
“I’m the pastor here, Pastor Weber.”
“No. I don’t want you. I want the person really in charge. Who would that be?”
“Hmm …, probably Jesus.”
“Well, how do I get a hold of him?”
CLICK went the phone on the other line.
Let this little illustration demonstrate what we all know from experience, that prayer truly is hard, it is difficult since our hearts are such a jumble of sin and righteousness, peace and strife, godliness and wickedness—we are simultaneously sinners and saints. And that is why in our Gospel lesson one of the disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us how to pray, as John taught his disciples.” They knew their hearts were not the source for their prayer life. And so Jesus gave them and the church of all ages a written down, liturgical prayer, which through time shapes, molds, and directs the prayers of our heart. He gave us what is commonly called the Lord’s Prayer, or, The Our Father.
The liturgical prayer Jesus gave us begins with, “Our Father.” We may think there is really nothing special in these words since we have said them countless times. Nothing special we think since we are safely embraced in the Christian worldview.
But ask yourself, do other world religions refer to their deity as “Father?” which, when you think about it is altogether different from addressing the deity as “God.” All other religions in the world are based on fear being religions of the law, of performance, works righteousness. There is no love there, no kindness, only performance and judgment which results in punishment. That induces fear.
“Father,” is a loving tender term based on mercy, kindness, protection, love, and pity. Through the shed blood of Jesus on the cross our sins are forgiven. And because of that our Father in heaven sees and treats us as his dear children. Our Father in heaven is a most loving, tender, and merciful Father, who delights in you, boasts about you to the angelic court, smiles upon you, …
Command[s] his angels concerning you
to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up,
lest you strike your foot against a stone (Ps 91:11-12).
So, my friends, no need for sweaty palms, knots in your tummy, or memorized speeches. Our Father, our daddy in heaven loves us more than we can comprehend. In your prayer life in home devotions, on the ball field, or in the written liturgical prayers of the church, approach your heavenly Father with the same confidence of a four-year old who worms her way into daddy’s lap to have a talk.
 Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha (Colorado Springs, CO: Multnomah Books, 2001), 47.