Jesus said, "When you pray..." Matthew 6:5
I like the way Jesus introduces his teaching on prayer. He doesn't give a command: "Pray!" He doesn't make a suggestion: "I think you would find it helpful to pray." He doesn't ask a question: "Have you thought about praying?" He doesn't scold: "Why don't you pray more!"
No. He makes an assumption: "When you pray..."
Of course, prayer was a basic part of the life of every Jew, so it was an assumption he could safely make. (Which raises the uncomfortable question, incidentally:
Could he make the same assumption about you? About me? Are we serious
pray-ers?) But still, his approach is strikingly low-key and matter-of-fact. And I think that's something we modern Christians - most of us no doubt Gentiles - can learn from. We often tend to make heavy weather of prayer, and it's as if he is saying, "Just get on with it; and here's a brief outline of how to go about it."
A quick digression... I enjoy reading the slogans people have on their tee-shirts - well, the ones that aren't obscene, anyway. My all-time favourite is one I saw on a young man at the Oval watching the cricket: "Just give me treacle sponge and custard and nobody will get hurt." Ah, I thought, a man after my own heart! I've got a bit bored with the "Keep calm..." ones, though I suppose "Keep calm and make a brew" on my son's favourite mug isn't too bad.
But there is one which I must admit really irritates me. That man opposite me on the tube tapping away on his little gadget - what message is he actually wanting to convey with his slogan: "Just do it"? I'm quite a gentle person really, but I somehow get this compulsive urge to grab him by the throat and give him a good shaking: "Just do what? What a ridiculous, fatuous, empty, moronic, meaningless, clueless, asinine slogan to inflict on the rest of us! Pah!" Just do it, indeed! (I generally succeed in suppressing the urge, you will be pleased to know.)
And yet... perhaps, on reflection, I need to think again - for when it comes to the matter of prayer, it strikes me that "Just do it!" pretty much sums up what Jesus is implying here. He takes it for granted.
And when you come to the Lord's Prayer, a few verses later, again, how very low-key and matter of fact it is. It's short - you can say it slowly in about thirty seconds (I've just done it). In church, blink and you miss it. It's terse, down to earth and practical. You might even say it's quite flat and unemotional. Yet we tend to tie ourselves in knots when we try to pray: real prayer, we subconsciously imagine, should be lengthy and passionate, probably loud and repetitive, preferably accompanied by fasting. Otherwise, well, it won't weigh with God, will it?
Please don't get me wrong. Of course there is a place for fasting, for intensity, for long and emotional praying. Of course. The Lord's Prayer isn't there to tell us everything we need to know about prayer, or to be the only prayer we ever pray. Of course not. But recognising its sheer - what word should I use? - its sheer ordinariness could really help to liberate us from a few hang-ups. Why not relax and just get on with it? I suspect that the problem for many of us isn't so much that we don't pray in the right way, but that we don't pray much at all.
How seriously do you and I take the wonderful privilege and responsibility of prayer? Do we sometimes make it too hard for ourselves? Do we allow ourselves to be put off because we "don't feel we're doing it right"? Perhaps we can hear the voice of God even through that man's annoying tee-shirt: "My dear child, just do it!"
O God, please help me to pray day by day, not only when it's a joy, but also when it seems little more than a routine, not only when I'm in the mood, but also when I'm not, not only when my faith is bubbling, but also when my spirits are low. Amen.