A Lutheran Says What?

Sermons and random thoughts on God, the world and the intersection of the two

Why teach an ancient prayer to preschoolers? July 28, 2013

Filed under: sermon — bweier001 @ 8:19 pm
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As many of you know, I was the founder and director of St. Matthew Lutheran Preschool in Beaverton, OR before going to seminary. When the school started in 2003, the impetus was outreach to the community and neighborhood around St. Matthew and to preach the gospel to those who might not otherwise hear it. We also wanted to provide excellent early childhood education that was affordable as preschool in Portland could cost as much as college! But proclaiming the gospel was my main reason for pushing through much red tape, obstacles, money resources (or lack there of) and all of the other surprises that arise when starting a new ministry of any kind. Some times I wondered why I was doing this, other times it became crystal clear. Let me tell you about one of those times.
By the time St. Matthew preschool had been going a couple of years and we had established some traditions. One of those was teaching the children the Lord’s Prayer throughout the year (we said it daily with our snack time prayer) and then on Palm Sunday we invited the preschool children and families to worship, where the children would lead the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer. Afterward, we held a potluck brunch in the fellowship hall. Yes, these were only three and four year olds and yes we began teaching them in the prayer in September and yes we relied on parents to work on it at home too.
Now, I don’t know how much any of you know about the Pacific Northwest, but at the time Washington and Oregon volleyed back and forth each as being the least churched state in the US. A statistic that we as staff always had in front of us was that on any given Sunday if all the pews of every church in OR were full it would still be less than 9% of the population. This is also now the same statistic here in Denver Metro. We were in a mission field and we knew that we were missionaries. So that meant that most of my families in the school had little to no experience with church or God. And I wanted them to learn this ancient prayer? Yes. I began teaching it with the children, but in October every year I held a “Family Faith Night.” I planned active and fun activities that related to the Bible stories we were learning, had a station where the families engaged the Lord’s Prayer by making beaded bracelets (like the ones at the Reflection Station today) and gave them a copy of the Lord’s Prayer to go home. Believe it or not, I always had wonderful turn out-even among my families that were Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu and completely unchurched. Many families of all faith backgrounds embraced learning this prayer. And on Palm Sunday, I usually had 75-80% turn out for worship. Yes, again the Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim families came to a Lutheran worship service and loved it!
One year, I had this little girl named Ella. She was three and mom had signed her up for the preschool. Dad was not keen on a Christian school as he grew up nothing and thought his life was just fine without God, thank you very much. But mom had grown up Lutheran, had been away from the church and wanted her children to know something of God. So when the Lord’s Prayer went home, mom said it with Ella but Dad would leave the room. One night, Ella asked her Dad, why don’t you say it with me? Dad admitted that he didn’t know it. Ella said, “that’s ok dad, I will teach it to you.” Now this daddy could not say no to his little girl so he learned it with her. As they learned it together, they spent more time together in the evening after dinner, Ella told him more about her day at school and mom and dad had some conversations about God. Palm Sunday arrived and the family showed up to worship for the first time. When it was time for the preschool children to go up front to lead the Lord’s Prayer, Ella loudly called to her dad and said, “daddy come up with me you know it too!” At first, dad hesitated, but Ella persisted. Dad, all 6 foot something of him, came and sat next to his 3 year old daughter with her classmates, the Muslims, the Buddhist, the Hindus, the churched and unchurched and everyone gathered in the pews, and recited the Lord’s Prayer with her while holding her hand. My memory of this part is through teary eyes. It was beautiful and unforgettable. The whole people of God lifting their voices together in a prayer that is 2000 years old and was being made new that day in that place by those people.
And Jesus disciples said, “Lord, teach us to pray.” We often think that prayer is about the correct words, praying enough or hard enough, or getting the answer that we want. We tend to think of God and prayer, as Donald Miller writes in his book Blue Like Jazz, as a cosmic slot machine where we put our quarter in and hope for a jackpot. And we even take passages such as the one from this morning’s reading of “ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened for you” and immediately assume that prayer is something about what we do, how we do it and what we get from God.
Jesus is not saying at all that prayer is about us in that verse, actually the opposite. Prayer is about God; more specifically our relationship with God. God wants us to go to God with ALL things in our life-which the Lord’s Prayer highlights. The majestic, mystery of a hidden God and the reality of God as flesh and blood as the bread of life in Jesus. God wants to hear our sins, our words of comfort to a neighbor, our words of fear about an uncertain and broken world, our questions of why, our anger, our sorrow, our joys, our thank you’s, and whatever else is happening in our lives. God wants to be an integral, intertwined part of our lives. God wants to be the one that we call on in the middle of the night, the one that we can’t wait to share the exciting news with, the one who will walk with us in the valley and enjoy the view from the mountain top.
Prayer is not just about us. As Jesus also states in the Lord’s Prayer, prayer is about the community, your neighbor. The pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are plural-not singular. May all people have bread, be forgiven, and not suffer. When Jesus addresses the disciples about prayer he does not address them individually but says when you pray-as a group-pray this. Prayer also connects us to the community of God and the people of God. God is the center of our lives and the center of the community.
It’s not that Jesus cares what specific words we use to pray to God-eloquent prose and pious posture aren’t the point of prayer. But when we have common words that we can share, how powerful is it to know that we are connected to something outside of ourselves, to the people gathered around us and to people who know these words all over the world. It’s not that learning the correct words are what is important, but it’s the relationships that deepen and are enriched through the experience of these words.
But prayer isn’t even necessarily about words. Prayer is about who we are in the life of God. The very God that blew breath into the first human being also blows breath into us. Our very breathing is relationship-or prayer-with God. There are times when words won’t come and we are confident as Paul writes in Romans 8, that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us with sighs and groaning too deep for words. In this relationship with God, Jesus points out in the parables that follow the Lord’s Prayer that God’s answer to our prayers is always yes. Not always a yes we can recognize but a deeper yes to the unconditional promises of God for eternal life, no more sorrow and pain, the return of Shalom and reconciliation of the whole world and the promise to never leave us. It’s hard for us to sometimes understand that what we perceive as a no-as when someone we love is not healed, when we see violence, when we see suffering, when we suffer, when we are not healed, when we experience violence and we pray and think that God has left the building, could be a yes. God, who loves us unconditionally, does not the cause or allow these bad things for any reason, not to teach us something or not for some greater purpose. God’s response to us is always yes to life, yes to forgiveness, yes to mercy, yes to love but we live in a world where the Kingdom of God has not fully come.
There is evil, there is chaos and there is still brokenness. Jesus never denies this reality and experiences himself the violence of the world. This is why Jesus, himself prays at all times and in all places even on the cross-to connect fully into the life giving “yes’s” of God over the death dealing “no’s” of the world. Jesus’ death on the cross appeared to be the ultimate “no” of the world but to God it was the ultimate “yes” to and for the world.
Just like Ella’s dad, we learn these words and we pray into the “yes” of a loving and gracious God connected to one another, the people of God past, present and future, for the sake of the world longing for relationship, love and a deep yes in their life. Amen!