July 24

Ask. Seek. Knock.

By Marsh Chapel

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Luke 11:1-13

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On a Sunday in February of 2019 my hospital pager went off when I was sitting in my home. My wife and I rarely watch the Superbowl, but the Patriots were playing and we lived in Quincy. It was half-time and the ICU requested that I come in to see a dying patient and support the family. I made the trip in and said a prayer outside the ICU doors. You never know what exactly you are stepping into in a situation like this. I found my way to the room, opened the glass door and moved the curtain. The room was decorated with Patriots gear and filled with people wearing Patriot’s Jersey’s. An older patient lay in bed with a large Patriots blanket. I thought, “well this visit might be a bit different.” The family expressed their thanks that I had come but rarely took both eyes off the screen. At the same time, they were attentive to their loved one. Frequently speaking, squeezing hands, and sharing a memory during a commercial. By the time I arrived, it was the third quarter. We watched the game for a while. Talking during commercials and downtime—gasps, and squeals during plays. The patient going in and out of consciousness but was surprisingly alert for end of life.

At one point I said, “Big fans,” “How could you tell” was the response. They shared that watching the Patriots together was a family ritual. They lived near the stadium and frequently went to games in person or gathered in someone’s house on a rotating schedule. It seemed that this family ritual would not be interrupted even at the end of life. This family ritual helped us navigate the end of life situation. I chose not to fight it but embrace it as a part of our end of life ritual. Eventually, the fourth quarter came and while everyone mostly watched the TV screen, I kept an eye on the other screen in the room. The screen which recorded vitals. Aware that the patient might not make it to the end of the game, especially with the stress of a 3-3 tied Superbowl, I asked if we could do the prayers they requested during a commercial. The family came fully to the reality of the situation at that moment and said yes, but someone did request I put in a good word for Tom Brady while I was at it.

We prayed and read the commendation of the dying liturgy, which includes the Lord’s Prayer. The family participated and recited many of the familiar prayers, especially participating during the Lord’s prayer. Prayer was also a family ritual. One that was passed down from generation to generation. Another familiar path in an unfamiliar time. One that connected them to each other and to God. By the time we finished, what would be the Patriot’s touch-down drive was in full swing. The room anticipated that this could be big and celebrated with great enthusiasm when they scored. Lots of high fives, lots of “did you see and they are going to do it.” Because the drive started during our prayer, they told me I had to stay to watch the rest of the game with them. They didn’t want to risk it, they said. I stayed. We watched the game and the Patriots won. The family celebrated, smiles on the patient’s face whose eyes were more often closed than not toward the end of the game. The next day, I discovered that the patient passed not long after I left, still surrounded by loved ones, still basking in the ritual of gameday, and the practice of prayer.

On my drive back home from the visit, I reflected on how the ritual of prayer and the family’s gameday rituals intertwined. They worked together in this instance. I thought about the liminal space between the sacred and secular that ritual can mediate. End of life is a fragile liminal space. Patriots and prayer were reminders of the family bonds in that space. Like a child who brings a favorite stuffed animal or toy on a long trip, the familiar can guide us when we are in unfamiliar territory. Part of the depth of meaningful rituals is the way they imprint in our consciousness when engaged with intentionality.     They become a sort of grammar for our lives. Not the feared grammar of elementary school but like the way of first learning to speak.

When we first learn to speak as, we hear words recited by others, mostly unsure of their meaning. Infants, babies, and toddlers hear a variety of words every-day for months and years. They hear them for a long time, sometimes even trying to repeat words with coos, grunts, and garbling. Eventually it comes together, and the sound of words comes out, even if adults do not fully understand. Then, little by little, the words make more sense. Intention and meaning become clearer. Full sentences eventually come and the connection between speaking about what is in the world around us becomes even stronger. Just as we learn to speak through practice, through use, our faith rituals are also embraced through practice and reflection. We learn the Lord’s prayer by practice and reflection. We embrace it through the memorization of words and the enactment of their meaning in the world.

The Lord’s Prayer is a familiar prayer. Most of us can recite it by heart. We’ve heard it, read it, and hopefully lived it in one way or another. In many ways, it is a paradigmatic prayer of Christian prayer practices. It is frequently one of the first prayers memorized, either intentionally or learned through weekly use. While the memorization of the prayer is one way of internalizing the meaning of the prayer, the significance of the Lord’s Prayer should not words alone. Rituals are rarely about the words alone. Do not get me wrong, the words matter. Words matter and written rituals are frequent examples of words that do something. Like a couple who says I do at a wedding to enter into marriage, the Lord’s prayer changes how we relate to God, the world, and each other.

For many of us, we learned the Lord’s Prayer as it is recorded by Matthew rather than Luke. Luke’s account is different. When I come to Luke’s, I have to slow down. I have to remind myself to read the words on the page because my mind so quickly jumps to Matthew’s account. If I do not read slowly, I miss the differences, especially because most of the differences are subtle. They would likely go unnoticed if not for the ingrained memorization of Matthew’s account.

Like other sections of scripture, ancient manuscripts themselves do not always agree on the words of the prayer, in both Matthew and Luke. Lines are different, some lines that are considered stock to us seem to be later additions. The changes are illustrative of one of the first Latin phrases many in theological studies learn, lex orandi, les credendi which means, the rule of prayer is the rule of faith.    The rule of prayer is the rule of faith. What we pray shapes what we believe. Pray can be a form of primary theological speech, not just secondary reflection. Prayer is a crucial element of the grammar of Christian faith because it is a central practice. It is a practice which connects us to each other, Creation, and God. Prayer tells us what we think about God and the world. It has a way of reflecting our core beliefs and values. And, as the ancient Church taught, , lex orandi, les credendi. Prayer shapes our beliefs. Prayer shapes our attitudes. Prayer not only informs it also forms. It forms our beliefs, values, and actions.

Luke’s account of the Lord’s prayer places the Lord’s prayer in the context of Jesus’ own prayer life. Jesus was praying in an unnamed place and the disciples requested Jesus teach them to prayer as John taught his disciples to pray. Luke situates the Lord’s prayer in Jesus’ prayer life but also underscored the catechetical nature of the prayer. It is an example of how to pray and what to pray.

Following many Psalms, the prayer begins with honor to God’s holy name. “Father, hallowed be your name.” Jesus prays to God, the father. The prayer then moves to welcome God’s kingdom coming. “Your kingdom come.” Missing, although present in some ancient manuscript’s the line “on Earth as it is in Heaven.” Nonetheless, this line is truly, one of the most radical prayers in all of scripture and one that is incarnated, to small degrees, every time we allow the Lord’s prayer to shape our lives and situations. To pray for God’s kingdom to come is to recognize our common need for the divine. It recognizes our dependence on God’s love and activity. It is also a call for Christian unity. We desire God’s Kingdom not our kingdoms.

A petition for daily bread. “Give us each day our daily bread.” The grammar of Greek here is interesting. Give us daily bread—each day. The bread is daily bread, the request is to have it each day. Daily bread each day. Perhaps, a reminder of when the people wandered in the desert and relied on God for mana. Mana came each day but it was daily mana you could only collect what was needed because it spoiled. Storing mana led to spoiled mana. Praying for daily bread is a reminder that God is Creator and Sustainer.        The prayer shapes us attitudes around sustenance and possessions. Another radical value formed through this prayer is contentment with what we have rather than the insatiable desire for more. To rely on God for daily bread is to trust.

A few months ago, my two year old and I were in a rhythm every morning. He would wake up and almost always ask for Blackberries for breakfast. It was a new food item to him and quickly became a lasting favorite. We only give him a couple at a time, and it was fun to watch the enjoyment on his face while he ate them. On one particular morning, I woke up well before he did, so I put the blackberries at the table where he sits on his placemat. But without thinking, I left out the plastic container from the story on the counter. When my son woke up, he ran out and he saw the Blackberry container on the counter. He immediately started asking for blackberries. I tried to get through to him that I had already gotten him some, that they had been washed, and that they were ready for him to eat at the table. He was so focused on the containers on the counter though. No matter how many times I told him that I had already given him some and that he could just go to the table to get them, he just kept reaching for the containers. He couldn’t see his portion which was ready for him because he was so focused on what he didn’t have. The Lord’s prayer is a Christian practice that helps shape contentment. It enables us to see what God has given us and what God has worked around us. It is easy to miss what we have longed for stuff that we do not really need but nonetheless holds power over us. Daily bread is a form of contentment.

The Lord’s prayer moves from physical sustenance, daily bread, to forgiveness. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us.” First, the forgiveness of sins from God, then the language changes from that of sin ­amartia to debt opheiló. The Lord’s prayer reminds us that we need to be right with God and we need to be right with our neighbors. The term, Opheiló, debt initially carried more legal and economic weight than moral implications. While not exclusive to Luke, we see Luke’s emphasis on human social relating here, especially connecting social relating with economic relating. Luke consistently reminds us that how we interact with other people, and how we interact with money are directly connected, further emphasizing the need for contentment. The communal language is also present throughout the prayer. Give us, forgive us, as we. Community

The final line in Luke’s account is “And do not bring us to the time of trial.” We are so used to saying, and deliver us from evil that it is hard to stop there. Some scholars see this line in cosmic terms while others see it as more mundane. Is it some present hardship, or a final ultimate battle? Many scholars argue it is not a request to avoid hardships altogether but a request for God to see us through hardships and trials. A request that even when the valley of the shadow of death is near, God is present with us with rod and staff to comfort us. Like the Gettysburg address, the Lord’s prayer is short but every line conveys depth.

A popular understanding of prayer is as a means to influence or shape God. This is one view that is supported by Scripture but another view of prayer reminds us that God shapes our through prayer. Prayer is a guide which invites being shaped, like clay in the hands of the potter. Prayer places us into the hands of the potter.

The Lord’s prayer is Catechetical, which means it was used to teach the early followers of Jesus what to pray and how to pray. This use of the Lord’s prayer continues today. It is taught in catechism and Sunday school rooms. The prayer informs us.

The Lord’s prayer also became liturgical. It was recited in worship services. It was used in baptism and the eucharist. We recite the Lord’s prayer when we gather for worship. The prayer forms us.

The prayer is also enacted through faithful living. These are not only words on a page but an invitation to live into the reality of God’s kingdom on earth. The prayer is performed by living. Inform, form, and perform. Each captures different uses and facets of the familiar prayer.

The passage in Luke continues with a lesson on the importance of perseverance in prayer. which Jesus summarizes by saying, “So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 10 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” Ask, search, and knock. Inform, form, and perform.


-The Rev. Scott Donahues-Martens, PhD Candidate, BU STH

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