How We Pray
How many times have we all said, “There but by the Grace of God am I”? It’s as American as apple pie. We hear it and we say it and we convince ourselves that this “prayer” is what religion, or worse, Christianity, is all about. Nothing could be further from the kind of faith Jesus proclaims.
Then there is the kind of prayer that says, “Please God, make sure there is no traffic between here and there so I will be on time!” Or, “Please God, find me a parking space!” And of course the related, “Thank you, Lord, for clearing out all the traffic AND finding me a parking space!”
I know about these kinds of prayer, I said them last night trying to get to Bethesda from Havre de Grace in time to set up and play!
Jesus appears to have anticipated all of this and stops along the way on his journey to Jerusalem and the Cross to do some teaching on prayer. First, the lesson on persistence with the widow seeking justice from a judge who has no regard for God or for others. This judge does not get the essence of the Great Commandment: to Love God and to Love your Neighbor as yourself. He is completely stuck on loving himself and himself only. Others be damned!
Then comes an episode featuring a Pharisee and a Tax Collector. It is a lesson on how to and how not to pray for oneself so that you may have regard for both God and others – all others, even the seemingly most unlikely others imaginable.
The Pharisee essentially prays the “There but by the grace of God am I!” He prays this in the extreme: I am so good. I follow all the commandments. I go even further than commanded. I am exemplary in my living in God’s way. Not like this wretched Tax Collector who collaborates with our oppressors and defrauds our own people day in and day out! Thank God I am not like him!” One notes that Jesus does not commend this sort of prayer.
We may as well admit it. In this highly politicized and polarized campaign season this is about all we hear from all sides. It’s as if we try to convince ourselves that our way is the only way, all others need not apply. Yet, the story recognizes that the Pharisee is not a bad man. His chosen way of life is in fact admirable. He suffers from just one blind spot: he sees the world as being about him without having any regard for all others, especially those who, like the Tax Collector, seem to be the worst of the worst. The problem, the sin, is in the assumption that we know better and are better than anyone else. We begin to be unjust judges like the one in the previous episode.
The Tax Collector, on the other hand, cannot even lift his head in prayer. He beats his breast. He is anguished as he says, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” He knows he could be better. He knows what others think of him as he props up the very regime that oppresses his people. But he needs to put food on the table. He has a family to care for like the others. He did not ask for this life, he was recruited by the minions of Caesar, and in Rome, Caesar is God. His plea is one of a humble request for mercy. All he wants is mercy even though he cannot bring himself to believe he deserves it.
“I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted,” concludes Jesus. [Luke 18:9-14] Once again, as with the widow, it is about justice in this world, not the next. We used to talk about Jesus turning the world upside down. His people, the Jewish people, however, have a saying about this: tikkun olam – repairing the world, or turning the world right side up!
We are to notice that this is how the Good News of Jesus according to Luke begins with the Song of Mary, Theotokos, the Mother of God: “He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty…” [Luke 1:39-56]
One day while standing at Paul’s Place, our diocesan soup kitchen, with the Reverend Bill Rich, as we looked out upon that large room with street people, poor people, lonely people, hobos and all sorts and conditions of men and women, Bill said, “There by the Grace of God am I.” It was a moment of clarity for me. This is what Jesus is talking about. Loving our neighbor begins with breaking down the walls, assumptions and misunderstandings that separate us and acknowledging our common human conditions. We are all in this together and need to acknowledge this. I am the homeless person. I am the hobo. I am hungry.
Prayer, then, is about approaching God in complete humility acknowledging our short comings and calling upon God’s mercy rather than needing to put down others to feel justified. For it is God who justifies, not we ourselves by what we do or say – God can deal with all of us or none of us. We are called to reorient ourselves to the way of God’s inbreaking kingdom, not to assert the ways of this world, our world, my world, as the only way.
Perhaps one of the earliest prayers in Christendom, coming from the desert fathers around the fifth century is The Jesus Prayer. It is the prayer of the Tax Collector.
“Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
There are those who spend a lifetime praying this prayer with the persistence of the widow in our other story. Standing in line at the bank or the supermarket checkout, one can say this to oneself over and over again. Instead of praying for a parking space or less traffic, just say this simple prayer that seems to exemplify just what Jesus commends about the Tax Collector and his prayer. Notice that Jesus does not commend his actions or his lifestyle, but rather his attitude in prayer that is totally self-deprecating. Oddly this is a way of loving ourselves, our true selves, and makes it possible to love our neighbor – any and all neighbors.
There by the Grace of God am I. It’s that simple. Seeing ourselves in the other is the beginning of wisdom, and wisdom is the root of Love. With Love Tikkun Olam becomes a reality – we participate in the repair of the world. A world in desperate need of repair. It begins with us, and How we pray makes all the difference.