A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
Praying Jesus’ Way
August 22, 2019
When his disciples asked him to teach them to pray, Jesus responded with what we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” The versions reported by Matthew and Luke differ somewhat (Matthew 6:9-13, Luke 11:1-4), but they share the same basic thrust: Honor God; ask that our needs for food, forgiveness, and shelter be met; and ask that God’s reign will prevail. Moreover, they share a fundamental prayer posture – we are together, not in isolation from others. Our Father, give us, forgive us, lead us. Our Lord’s prayer instruction addresses not only whom we pray to and what we pray for, but also whom we pray with.
I’ve been thinking about this as recent weeks’ news stories have been filled with rhetoric and actions of distancing ourselves from those who are different from us. We hear chants, “Send them back!” to where they came from. Tammy and I traveled this summer on vacation to central Europe, where we discovered similar burgeoning resistance toward refugees and immigrants.
I was trained to associate activism for racial-ethnic purity with Nazism. Under Germany’s Third Reich, an ethos of ethnic separation tragically led to the extermination of millions who were “other” than those in power. Our Book of Confessions includes the “Barmen Declaration,” which arose in opposition to the prevailing ideology of Aryan supremacy that most “German Christians” had adopted.
I am not aligning those among us who seek tighter controls on foreigners entering our country with Adolph Hitler’s malice. Yet I worry when our energies are devoted more to defining and enforcing that which separates us than that which unites us.
In his commentary on the Lord’s Prayer, John Calvin asks the pertinent question, “With whom are we praying when we say Our Father? Give us this day…deliver us from evil?” The answer must be, “All who are part of God’s family.” Or to put it in more antiquarian language, all of the “elect.” And who might that include?
We don’t know; only the Lord knows who is truly part of God’s chosen family. (2 Timothy 2:19) So, Calvin says, we should assume that every person is included, and thus join in prayer with everyone. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.20.38) Not just members of our prayer group. Not just those whom we like. Not just those whose doctrines or politics are the same as ours. Not just those who belong to the same racial-ethnic or socio-economic group as us. Not just Presbyterians. Not even just those who claim to be Christian.
This is what prayer does to us – it expands us. It expands our sense of dependence on God, and it expands our sense of connection to one another.
The word “Presbyterian” can be rearranged to say, “Best in prayer.” (“Presbyterians” also can be rearranged to say “Britney Spears,” but let’s just not go there.) Would that we Presbyterians were indeed “best in prayer”!
Here is the important point – prayer in the way Jesus teaches us to pray is not in separation from others. It is inherently corporate, joining us with others in shared adoration and petition. We can’t pray the Lord’s Prayer apart from others, and we don’t get to choose which others we are joining with in prayer.
There is an important place for solitary prayer. Jesus prayed alone. Solitary prayer is done “in secret” (Matthew 6:6). We don’t know what or how Jesus prayed when he was alone, only that he did so. Likewise, we ought certainly to pray individually.
But our Lord’s Prayer discloses that corporate prayer is just as essential for his followers. Individual prayers are important, but praying with others is indispensable. And we don’t get to pick who those “others” may be.
Who are the people we pray with? That question is inescapable for Jesus’ followers. It leads us to ask not whom we are separate from, but whom we are joined with.
Your prayer partner,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister