“Lord, teach us to pray!” the disciples asked of Jesus. Why? They were Jews, they were taught to pray three times a day. Why were they asking? Perhaps because they felt something new was happening. Jesus was not like the Pharisees or the priests. He was teaching a new way, so they wanted to pray in a new way! And perhaps they also had in mind the parable that they heard Jesus speak:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and despised others: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, ‘God, I thank thee that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week, I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for every one who exalts himself will be humbled, but he who humbles himself will be exalted.” (Luke 18:10-14)
They asked because they didn’t want to pray like the Pharisee, who boasted how many times he prayed, how much he fasted, how much he tithed, but who also looked down on other people – perhaps people like them! They heard Jesus extol the prayer of the tax collector – a simple prayer, God be merciful to me a sinner!
So they asked. We all ask. Every Orthodox Christian at one time or another, or often, has asked someone, a priest, a fellow church member – how do I pray?
Jesus’ immediate answer to the disciples (see Luke 11:1-4) was to teach them the Our Father – but in Luke’s shorter version:
hallowed be your name
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins.
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.
Notice what’s missing: No “who art in heaven”; no “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”; no “deliver us from evil.” And notice that Luke’s version says “forgive us our sins – αμαρτίας, not οφειλήματα as in the familiar version from Matthew which the church has adopted. And of course neither version has the conclusion that the church added: “For yours is the kingdom….”
But in addition to this prayer, the Bible has a profound group of prayers that are available to us to pray in every situation. I’m referring to the Psalms, of course. The great German theologian and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, wrote a beautiful short book, The Prayerbook of the Bible. He identifies many different types of psalms; I’ll focus on some of the types he identifies.
Ps 8 O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth….
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them, that you care for them?
Ps 104 and others
The Good life
Ps 63 O God, you are my God, I seek you,
my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
Because your steadfast love is better than life,
my lips will praise you.
So I will bless you as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands and call on your name.
My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast,
and my mouth praises you with joyful lips
when I think of you on my bed,
and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
for you have been my help,
and in the shadow of your wings I sing for joy.
My soul clings to you;
your right hand upholds me.
But then comes a change of tone:
But those who seek to destroy my life
shall go down into the depths of the earth… (this also is prayer. The Psalms are very honest, they expose the full range of our emotional and spiritual states – all our weaknesses, including our desire for revenge. But this is not like the Pharisee in the parable. Because here and elsewhere the psalms ask for God’s punishment of enemies, of those who have hurt us. Remember, David wrote many of these!)
Ps 103 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity,
who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit,
who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live
so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
Ps 13 How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I bear pain in my soul,
and have sorrow in my heart all day long?
Ps 22 My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
Ps 46 “Be still, and know that I am God”
Confession of sin/guilt
Ps 51 Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight…
Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
and blot out all my iniquity.
Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.
Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
so that sinners will turn back to you. (Notice how beautifully this Psalm captures the sequence: Guilt – Confession of sin – Forgiveness & Restoration – Witness to others. That last part is crucial. If we receive forgiveness we are to help others find the same peace and restoration.)
Life beyond death
Ps 16 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest secure,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
nor will you let your faithful one see decay.
You make known to me the path of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence,
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.
Ps 118 I will not die but live,
and will proclaim what the Lord has done.
The Lord has chastened me severely,
but he has not given me over to death.
Open for me the gates of the righteous;
I will enter and give thanks to the Lord.
This is the gate of the Lord
through which the righteous may enter.
I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
Right here dear friends is the gate of the Lord, where we enter into his presence. And his presence will be eternal joy beyond the suffering and troubles of this life. But let us be grateful for this life. Sometimes prayer is nothing more than listening to the God who tells us, “Be still and know that I am God.”