Pray Then in This Way, Part 1
Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Prayer is a consistent challenge for many of us. How do we do it? What do we say? Does God actually listen – or answer? Must we be on our knees? I understand each of these questions because I have asked them many times myself. In his letter to the Romans (8:26), Paul writes, “…we do not know how to pray as we ought.” Jesus says, “Pray then in this way,” and gives the prayer that forms the basis for what we call The Lord’s Prayer. Did he mean for us to pray these words, or did he mean for us to pray in this spirit? I think the answer is both. Sometimes, we need to use words because that is the way we learned to communicate. As we age, at least in my case, prayer becomes deeper and richer in the silence before and beyond words.
What confuses many of us is our need to capture what we experience with words. We forget that words are metaphors. Words represent something, but they are not the thing, experience, or person. For example, I say the word tree and you picture a tall plant with leaves, branches, and a woody truck. But a description of a tree, even of a specific tree, is not the tree itself. The words tell us nothing about the life history of the tree, how it experiences dormancy in the winter, or how it experiences me as I sit beneath it. The word tree is a metaphor pointing to a living reality. In the same way, you cannot know my essential nature by knowing my name, age, height, weight, profession, gender or any other descriptive term about me. When we think we know or understand someone based on a verbal description, even a description based on our interactions with that person, we remove ourselves from the essence of that person. The description of our interaction with another is not the same as the actual interaction. Words, though helpful, are deceptive when we confuse them with what they represent.
Rumi, a 13th Century poet and mystic, wrote, “Silence is the language of God, all else is a poor translation.1” God does not communicate with words. God communicates heart-to-heart or spirit-to-spirit. I can imperfectly illustrate this by describing how I write. I receive an idea or inspiration that I attempt to capture in a song or on paper. The initial inspiration is like an image or an internal “voice,” but it is wordless until my mind latches onto it and begins describing or translating the inspiration, effectively reducing it to words. It happens so quickly that it is easy to believe the inspiration was given in words. Where the initial inspiration and the resulting song or essay part company is in my inability to find adequate words to capture the inspiration. In fact, it is impossible to perfectly capture an image or interaction in words. Everything I write suffers from my inability to translate the purity and beauty of the inspiration into words. The best I can do is to describe a place beyond words, with words that point you to a similar place. The words, alone, cannot carry you there.
We know the words to the Lord’s Prayer, but what would praying silently in the spirit of the Lord’s Prayer be like? I believe it begins with setting our mind and heart with the intention of being with God, as opposed to talking to God. Numerous passages in scripture tell us God knows what we are going to say before we say it. Our words are never necessary, except perhaps for our own comfort. In fact, I believe our words get in the way of entering into God’s presence because we focus on the words instead of the reality pointed to by the words. Reading a review of a nice restaurant will not give us the experience of fine dining.
Jesus’ words, “Pray then in this way,” are an invitation. The Lord’s Prayer provides a nice template for how to set our intention to be with God, wordlessly, which I will explore further next week.
This is the 36th in the series of Life Notes entitled “What Did Jesus Say?”
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1 https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/27617-silence-is-the-language-of-god-all-else-is-poor, accessed September 3, 2018.