Grumpy old man alert! I never liked the “whatever” language fad. I don’t know if it is still in to say “whatever” in response to every comment. I hear it occasionally. But still, I grumble. It’s a disengaging word. A disconnecting word. An attempt to imply that nothing matters, nothing is of significance. I just don’t like it. But then, I’ve been known to utter it myself from time to time. When nothing makes sense, when there seems to be no solution, when frustrated beyond measure. Whatever. It’s a good word to use, at times. Better than swearing, I suppose. Better than getting angry and lashing out. Whatever. Useful, perhaps, in some settings, once in a while, a little bit. Sort of. Whatever.
But I want to propose a different word. Similar, but different. Whenever. I know, it doesn’t fit the context. It isn’t as dismissive, as cynical as a good “whatever” can be. But go with me here. Whenever. It has that attitude, don’t you think? It presents a similar sort of cavalier mindset, but on a whole different level. Whenever. And the best part? It’s biblical!
Matthew 6:5-15 5 "And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 "When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. 9 "Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one. 14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.
Matthew says that Jesus put this prayer in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount. His Summa Theologica, if you will. His final paper for Professor Schubert Ogden’s Christian Theology class. (Excuse me, I just had flash backs and chills running up and down my spine.) This prayer, implied in the placement, is the definition of what it means to be a follower of Christ. If we claim this prayer – and the warnings surrounding it – if we pray this prayer, no, if we live this prayer, then we will be followers.
Luke says a similar thing with the placement of the prayer. In chapter 11, the disciples approach Jesus and say, “teach us to pray.” Some commentators say that they weren’t looking for a lesson on prayer, but for a prayer that they could keep in their pockets, a prayer that would identify them as His followers. It was a secret handshake, a code phrase that would identify who was in and who was out.
Well, maybe. Maybe it was a sign of the followers. Or maybe it was a plea. They saw him in prayer. They knew that He didn’t do anything without praying about it first. Whenever. That He began every day in prayer, that He ended every night on His knees before the One He called Father. Maybe they were hoping it was in the technique. If we just knew how, if we had the formula then we could get as much out of spending time in prayer as He does. All we get is sleepy. So, they asked him and He gave him this prayer. Whenever you pray.
Whether it was in response to a question, or a part of His thesis, here it is. A simple prayer that we remember and recite and say so often we’ve stopped listening to it. Stopped realizing that we are tearing down the world as we know it and building up one more like the one God intended. Stopped noticing that we are making a commitment in this prayer, that we are aligning our priorities with the Kingdom. Stopped understanding that we were putting ourselves in a place farther down the line than we are used to wanting. Stopped admitting that this prayer that we pray in our sleep sometimes is admission of failure, of brokenness, of the great need for a savior. This prayer shakes the foundations of the world whenever we pray it. And we often yawn our way through it. Ho hum, here we go again ... Our Father ...
Our - a sense of community, we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves, bigger than we can see with our eyes, something we can only grasp through faith. Our - it’s not just me and my needs and my hurts and my wanting to be fed, to be filled, to be blessed. Our - it’s about us together, with friends and family, but also the stranger and the enemy, the ones who don’t look like us and think like us, the ones we enjoy and the ones we hide from. Our - we are joining a community, a movement when we pray this prayer, we can’t escape with thinking it is an editorial we that really means just me. No, that won’t work any more. Our - we’re in this together. With the one who called us children. Our Father.
Our Father - no matter how well our earthly fathers measured up to this ideal, no matter how well we who are called father fill those shoes, we are told to call on the Father, the father of the fatherless, the One who wants to gather us like a mother hen gathers her chicks. Our Father – this isn’t some distant, unapproachable, incomprehensible, nameless power of the universe, “use the force Luke!” No this is personal, this is intimate, this is the One who knows you. Jesus’ instructions say don’t try to dazzle with words, don’t try to pull the wool over the divine eyes by flattery, the Father knows us already, knows our needs, knows our hurts, even the ones we hide from the world, hide from ourselves, we are known. Already known, and yet loved. Still loved. The Father, who loves like a Mother, knows and still claims, still calls, still wants to hear from us.
But wait, it all sounds so conditional, a trade off, do this then that happens. At least that comes out at the end. If you forgive then you will be forgiven, if you don’t then you won’t. So there! Take that!! Conditional? So, in the end we are bargaining with God? Better shape up, better measure up, or else. Or is Jesus giving us a truth here, not a law? Is He trying to help us understand that we are indeed a community even as He and the Father are a community that we call Trinity? That just like He and the Father are one, we are one in the spirit with God and with each other. And if we refuse to live in community, then we won’t have access to the fullness of grace. That if we hold ourselves apart, wish vengeance on those who have wronged us, look down at those not worthy of us, turn away from the one who needs us, then we can’t – not because God withholds it some how, but because we can’t – experience grace for ourselves. Because we are not in a grace receptive position. The same walls we build to keep the riff raff out, the same shells we create to keep us from crossing paths with undesirables, keep us from receiving what God longs to give us; forgiveness, grace and wholeness.
Our prayers tear down those walls. Real prayers, prayers of humility that are directed toward God and not the people around us. Jesus isn’t saying that we can’t pray in public anymore. How could we be the community of “our Father” if there was no such thing as corporate prayer? But He is saying stay focused on God. Pour out your heart to God, not on saying a prayer to impress.
Teach us to pray. So He does. And perhaps the most important point of all is hidden in the way Jesus talks about prayer. You notice? He doesn’t say if you’re going to pray. He doesn’t say if this seems like a good idea. He doesn’t say if you’ve tried everything else. No, the only if is the condition of our hearts. But he says over and over, whenever. Whenever you pray. There is an expectation here. When, not if, when you are praying, He says. Whenever. Kind of like, whenever you breathe. Whenever your heart beats. Whenever you pray. Whenever.