June 11, 2017/ Summer NL Lord’s Prayer 1// First Congregational United Church of Christ, Ashland, Oregon // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Teach Us to Pray: A Child’s Prayer”: excerpts from “Controversy” by Prince; Luke 11:1-13 [“Lord’s Prayer” Parker Palmer version]

Intro

To this day, I believe, on a hilltop near the Northeastern edge of Richland County, Ohio, you can find a tall white pine tree. It has oozing sticky bark and long needles like the rest, but this is a very special pine tree. On this pine tree a ladder of yellow rope and saplings probably still hangs from the lowest branch. And fifteen or so feet above, you may still be able to see a couple mismatched wooden planks nailed to make a seat between two sturdy branches. From that perch, you can see across the neighbor’s roof and all the way down the hill to the road. But no one else can see you — not unless they walk directly beneath that pine tree and look up. I used to climb up there as a child to sing songs, make up stories, and talk to God. Up there, I never felt alone. And though I may not have called it praying then, I certainly understood I was communing with some presence greater than myself, maybe nature, maybe the holy, maybe God. (Pause)

I.

It was a delight in adulthood to discover I wasn’t such a strange child. I wasn’t the only one. Children are often aware that they are accompanied, that they are not alone, in spite of appearances. As a willful three-year-old, the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor, used to stand at the edge her family’s backyard in Kansas, and call some invisible friend’s name across the windswept corn field. Her parents tell her this friend never appeared to reply, but every day at dusk for several weeks, she called his name across the corn field.[1] “Nino… Nino…” A few years back, I read the story of another man who spent much of his time as a child playing in a creek bed. At 5 years old, he was always aware of a presence, a companion, and he would talk with this friend for hours. When he later heard stories about God, he recognized God as the friend who had been there with him in the creek bed all along.[2] Children are often aware that they are not alone, but accompanied, even if by someone who cannot quite be seen. (Pause)

Trans.

This was not everyone’s childhood experience of the ineffable. I don’t share my own pine tree story to suggest it is normative, but as a doorway, a possibility for how we might enter into a deeper understanding of a prayer Christians pray the world over, that prayer we call The Lord’s Prayer or the Prayer of Jesus or the Prayer of Our Savior.

II.

In the gospel story, Jesus is always praying. But in Luke’s story this morning, it’s the first time Jesus’ disciples approach him about this prayer he’s been doing. In the story this morning, Jesus’ disciples ask for a way into whatever is this mystery that sustains him: “Rabbi, teach us to pray.” We have grown a bit dulled to what he offers back to them due to how common and familiar it is, so we can miss it. But if we stop to listen to what Jesus gives them, we may realize it sounds so intimate, that it can sound to our ears as naïve or unreal as a 5-year-old’s invisible friend. Jesus prays to God as a child addresses a parent. He prays with utter trust, simplicity, and honesty: Abba, Father, Mama, Dad. The intimacy is breathtaking. And especially in this version of Luke’s, there is no hemming and hawing, no polite “God, you are so great and mighty, if you could see fit to get around to possibly reducing my hunger a little bit if you have the time and if you can spare the resources…” The version in Luke is like a child’s: Give us this day our daily bread. I’m hungry. Can I have a snack? Jesus’ prayer here includes none of the extra verbal padding that we religious folks sometimes add, especially for church. Instead he uses the direct language of a child who knows the parent can do what is asked: “Give us this day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins. Lead us not into the time of trial.” And it sounds as if Jesus really believes Abba hears… and answers. “When you pray, pray this way.” (Pause)

III.

But this prayer Jesus models for us can really trip a person up. (And this week, we’re only getting as far as the first line.) This prayer Jesus models for us can really trip a person up. “Pray? To who-knows-what-is-out-there? Maybe it’s natural for you, but for me, talking to some invisible presence as if it might make a difference?” You might be thinking something like this as you hear this prayer. “While we are at it why don’t we set out the pink plastic tea service and pour some invisible tea.” Pray? Even that idea of addressing ourselves to some invisible presence is enough to trip us up. But there is even more to trip us up here in the first line. I remember huddling up with a group in college to pray, eyes closed. We were praying one of those “popcorn” prayers where each one says aloud whatever is on their heart, letting silences settle in between, until another one is moved and would offer there prayer. After a pause, one of my roommates began, “Daddy …” and I nearly fell off the porch. It’s a good thing our eyes were all, her address so startled me. I admit I radiated a good bit of contempt and horror toward her for the remainder of the prayer, God forgive me. I struggled so much with her using the word “Daddy,” probably in no small part because I couldn’t use that word to address God. I did not have whatever relationship made it possible for her to use that word as an expression of intimate love and connection. At that time in college, I was also going through the feminist deconstruction of my own childhood mythology, so for her to start her prayer that way created such dissonance for me. Certainly “Daddy” was more problematic for me than it was for her. It’s not the first place we can get tripped up in the Lord’s Prayer. I was bemused to learn this week that the artist Prince recited the Lord’s Prayer in entirety in his 1981 title track “Controversy.” Do I believe in God? Do I believe in me? Controversy. He is singing, critics believed at the time, about the public scrutiny or his sexuality and faith, all the things people will entertain themselves talking about public artists. He recites in the middle of this song the Lord’s Prayer. In the middle of this song – Am I black or white? Am I gay or straight? – he plops down the Lord’s Prayer. He recites the whole thing. I love how he ends the song, Love him, Love him baby. Controversy. Controversy. Controversy. (Pause) This prayer Jesus models for us can really trip a person up, even if we can get past that idea of praying to something unseen. That’s much easier for children than for adults, and much easier for some adults (and especially before the Enlightenment) than other adults. But Jesus insists on speaking with this presence as you would speak to the closest members of your family. He uses family words, words like Father and Mother, which can evoke for some of us those relationships of greatest pain. Not only is Jesus suggesting to us that God is real presence, but also that God is as close to us as the most loving parent. It’s like… well, it’s like Jesus is asking us to be like children again. This Lord’s Prayer is really a Child’s prayer. And how can a person be like a child again? (Pause)

Trans.

If you recognize that question, it’s because you may have heard it before. In another part of the gospels, Nicodemus asks, “How can we be like a child again? How can we be born again, born anew?” How can we enter into that place of innocence and trust again after we’ve become hardened, cynical adults? Jesus answers: What is impossible with human beings is possible with God.

IV.

Maybe knowing how difficult it is to become like children again, maybe knowing that is precisely why Jesus gave his disciples this prayer. I find some encouragement in what Jesus says after giving the prayer. In Luke, Jesus’ examples of the neighbor who comes at night and the parent who won’t give a scorpion for an egg, to suggest to us that it is not so much our ability to “get it right” that makes prayer work, but that it is simply God’s nature to be loving and generous… and when we open ourselves to that loving generosity at work in the world, we are in prayer. Maybe the first invitation of Jesus prayer is to find a way to open ourselves to that generous, loving reality that ever and always accompanies us, whether we’ve had a name for it or not, whether we’ve been conscious of it or have a name for it, or not. Maybe the first invitation of Jesus’ prayer is to open ourselves to that power that is as close to us as the one friend we know would get out of bed in the middle of the night if we needed them. Maybe the first invitation of Jesus’ prayer is the invitation to be like that child up in the pine tree that trusts completely that this world is good and that love is here, that is it steadfast and does not end. One author I read this week writes, “Our need for prayer is our need for spiritual and mental breath,” Lochman writes.[3] It’s the need we have to inhale, to rest for a moment in Life Force. He writes, in prayer, “we reach beyond ourselves to the promise of the Spirit that liberates us personally, socially, and theologically.” We’ll get to the social parts in coming weeks, but the first invitation of Jesus’ prayer is to reach beyond ourselves to the promise of the Spirit that sets us free and practice resting there. (Pause) 

[Concl.]

As with so many other valuable skills, the way to learn is to practice. I’m afraid I can’t preach you into comfort with prayer. But I can invite you to practice. As we do together here every Sunday morning, I invite you this morning to enter into silence. Silence does a really good job of stripping away the “grown-up” to reveal the child underneath. Silence does a really good job of helping me rest and to stop, for a moment, striving. Today, as our transition into prayer, I invite you, if you feel comfortable, to close your eyes. [pause] And breathe. [pause] Imagine yourself up in that pine tree or at the edge of the corn field or wrapped in your grandmother’s arms – wherever Divine Presence has been as close and as real as Jesus insists in these stories, [pause] wherever you have known yourself to be Beloved, be there this morning. Rest there this morning. And receive Love. [pause] If even we know how to give good gifts to children, how much more will the one Jesus called “Abba” give the Holy Spirit to those who ask.

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, The Preaching Life, (Cowley Publications: Cambridge/Boston, 1993), 13.

[2] Seasons of the Spirit.

[3] Jan Milic Lochman, “The Lord’s Prayer in Our Time: Praying and Drumming,” The Princeton Theological Seminary Bulletin, Supplementary Issue #2, The 1991 Frederick Neumann Symposium on the Theological Interpretation of Scripture, p. 11.