I was raised in a church context where real prayer, true prayer, inspired prayer was always extemporaneous prayer; that is, it was to be prayer "off the cuff." God forbid that the pastor or anyone on Sunday morning would read a prayer during worship on Sunday. The Holy Spirit, it seemed, could only inspire the pray-er in the moment, not in preparation while the prayer was written. Even worse was reading a prayer from someone else, particularly one written centuries before.
And yet here in Luke 11 the disciples ask Jesus to teach them to pray just as John the Baptist had taught his followers. Jesus' response was nothing like how some Christians would respond today-- "Just let the Holy Spirit guide you." "If you are truly in touch with God, he will give you the words." Remember inspiration is always about the moment.
But Jesus thinks differently. When the disciples ask him to instruct them in prayer he does what they ask; and he has given us a prayer that millions of the faithful have uttered regularly in worship and in personal prayer time for two thousand years. His prayer is meant to be prayed as it is also a model for prayer. If the only legitimate prayer is extemporaneous then we cannot in good conscience pray the prayer our Lord taught us. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I cannot help but pray that prayer.
It is my hunch that prayer is much neglected in the modern Western church. Yes, there are plenty of folks in the church who pray regularly, but I fear that more often than not many followers of Jesus do not have a very active prayer life. It just may be that when Christians tell people they are praying for them, in reality they are just words that all of us have learned to say because what else is there to say in difficult times? But I think we are too quick to blame individuals for a poor prayer life. My sense of things is that the church has neglected the necessary teaching of prayer in which our Lord and Savior himself engaged. The church offers Bible studies and support groups and accountability groups, but what about prayer groups where we learn to pray together so that we might also pray as individuals? The prayer groups in the church are usually only attended by the seasoned and experienced pray-ers. Is that because we have neglected the necessary instruction in prayer as a practice of discipleship?
If Jesus believed it was important to teach his disciples to pray; why should it be any different for us today? And one important way we can learn to pray and teach other to pray is to pray the great prayers of the church, to utter the words the faithful before us have uttered to God; for their faith is also our faith. As Stanley Hauerwas has reminded us, the great joy of our Christian faith is that we do not get to make it up; we just get to received it.
What a joy it is to receive the prayers of the church, to speak those prayers today, and to write a few of our own so that others may learn to pray from us; and by the way, extemporaneous prayer is also legitimate prayer as well, but there is much more to prayer than what is only spoken in the moment.
Lord Jesus... indeed... teach us to pray.
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I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)