“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
“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.” Matthew 6:5-13
I’ve told this story many times but it came to mind again as I was reading these verses. So I’ll tell the story again. It was an incredibly important moment in my life so I can’t tell it often enough.
I was a young pastor, in my first year, when I attended the Wednesday noon fellowship group at my church. It was a fun group of retired people and they always served a great lunch so it wasn’t the sort of thing I missed on purpose.
One day, as the group was breaking up and I was heading toward the door, a woman caught me just before I left. She told me about a health problem that she was having and then she asked me to pray for her. I asked her if I could pray for her right there. So I said a prayer.
When it was done, she said, “Oh thank you pastor, that was a beautiful prayer.” Without thinking, I blurted out, “I didn’t think I was going to be graded.” Immediately I felt stupid for saying what I was thinking instead of just saying “Thank you and God bless you.” (I still haven’t outgrown that problem.)
As the very kind and now suddenly confused woman began to apologize I jumped in to explain myself. I said, “I’m really sorry that I said that like that. But I realized, as I was praying, that I was paying more attention to what YOU were thinking about my prayer than I was to God. In some ways, I think I was praying more to you than I was to God. It wasn’t that you were evaluating my prayer, it was that I was the one doing the grading.”
In other words, I think I cleaned it up as best I could. From that moment on, every single time that I pray in the company of other people, I take just a moment to visualize the face of Jesus. To be completely honest, what I do is remember that “dot thing” that came along via email many years ago. You are supposed to stare at the center dot for a minute, then close your eyes and look toward a light. You’ll “see” the face of Jesus. I’ve done that often enough that I can just close my eyes now and I’ll see that face.
I see the face of Jesus and I just say what comes to my mind. I talk to God. And as I talk to God, I carry whatever needs the person I am praying for or with has. That’s my prayer. Or I just sit quietly, my eyes closed, and see the image. That’s my prayer.
Somewhere in that story, the meaning of Jesus’ teaching on prayer seems to find its place for me. I hope it offers some small help to you as well.
Let us pray: Lord, you gift us with language and through words we come to know the world. Through words we come to know ourselves and others. Please help us use words, not to compare or to compensate or to confuse, but simply to communicate. To come together. To be with one another. To remember together. To be in one another’s presence. Let that be enough. In Jesus’ name. Amen.