Raise your hand if you pray.
Now raise your hand if you really… really… pray.
I assumed I would get a good showing on this here given that you are a good and faithful, churchgoing people. I expected a better response here than if I went over to Stop & Shop and stood in front of the deli counter and asked the exact same question.
There’s praying. And then there’s really… really… praying. Which, of course, is what today’s Gospel reading is all about. It’s the story of when one of Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray. It’s a question that good and faithful, churchgoing people are still asking to this day. Jesus’ response was, of course, what we now refer to as either “The Lord’s Prayer” or “The Our Father”. It is one of the best known set of verses in the world. Millions if not billions say those words every day.
We say those words all the time. But do we really… really… mean them?
I have had this same experience over and over again and I suspect that many of you, who are drivers, have as well. In fact, this happened to me this just morning going to Starbucks. You know the experience: you get into your car… you know precisely where you are headed… and then you somehow drive there without any real recollection of the way you got there, what you saw along the way, or any decisions you made in the process. Perhaps you were deep in thought, or were listening to music or a talk show, or were talking on your phone to somebody. In any event, you got to where you wanted to be. You were on autopilot the whole time.
Despite this autopilot mode, you drove safely, knew how to get where you were going, and had no problems. You drove just fine. Sometimes, we do this in life. Sometimes we do this in prayer. Sometimes we do this in faith. We repeat the words Jesus taught us, but don’t think about them as we say them. We come to church every week, but our minds are a hundred miles away while we’re here. We believe that Jesus is the Son of God… but we are on autopilot when we encounter him in the Eucharist. We are just going through the motions.
Has this ever happened to you?
If so, why do you think that is so? Is it because of the repetition? Because it’s boring? Or could there be something else at play? Something that keeps us in an autopilot mode when it comes to prayer and when it comes to following, truly following, our Savior? I have a theory about this. Two theories actually.
Jesus’ words about prayer are very encouraging: “… ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” That statement is direct and clear. It motivates me out of autopilot mode and makes me want to ask for what I want. My first theory about why we sometimes just go through the motions is that we sometimes ask and then don’t receive. Or it certainly seems that way. And that can be a de-motivator. Of course, we know what we want… but God knows what we need.
The second theory relates to the very nature of prayer itself. It is a communication, two way, and it is personal. It’s the kind of communication you have with someone who you are very close to and who you trust. In this kind of relationship, you are honest and you are vulnerable. The shields go down and the real you emerges. That’s what makes the communication work. If your shields are up, if you are guarded, if you are merely playing a part, and if you are only going through the motions, then it isn’t… real. God knows this. And deep down we know this too.
In the Lord’s Prayer, we ask to have our sins forgiven. But we also say that we will forgive the sins of others. When we pray… and I mean really… really… pray, we have to be honest about whether we actually do this. We ask him to “lead us not into temptation” and when we are on autopilot, we can say those words without thinking about whether or not we are actually succumbing to any temptations. The best definition of sin in my view is “anything that keeps us away from Jesus”. When we pray, when we confront Jesus… we have to confront those obstacles. Honestly. And that’s not always easy. But it is easy to say just the words without thinking about them, without really meaning them.
The next time you pray… and I mean really… really… pray: be honest, be humble, be vulnerable. Take all those things that get in between you and him and acknowledge them, name them, lay them out in front of you and ask him for help with them.
Autopilot is great for getting to Starbucks… but it’s a terrible way to get to heaven.