“Lord, teach us to pray…”
The Quaker writer Parker Palmer once wrote that as believing Christians “we want to avoid a knowledge that calls for our own conversion. We want to know in ways that allow us to convert the world – but we do not want to be known in ways that require us to change as well.”
This morning, I conclude that the above definitely includes prayer. Prayer has become one of the strangest words in language – English being but one. Even Duke Ellington once said, “Each man prays in his own language.” Ellington was not excluding the concept of language from an actual linguistic point of view, but he was talking about mediums (not sure the plural ‘media’ is helpful on this occasion) as opposed to languages – and his medium was jazz!
The fact that ‘The Lord’s Prayer’ in the canon of Ellington’s Sacred Concert music is one of my least favourite examples of sacred jazz kind of makes the point that not only do we all understand prayer differently – prayer is intrinsically linked to our understanding of who God is and who we human beings are – as well as what God is and what we are. The starting point for any enterprise is determined by the presuppositions already in place. Prayer is no different!
Those who have lived long enough to have reflected on the serious changes to their character over a period of years (if indeed any) may well agree with me this morning that the more we know, the more we know how much we don’t know. In the last 48 hours I have been heard a number of tales of woe from within my local community – including the church. These are serious times. People are living on the very edge. And so many Christians are complacent!
In the city where I live, one of the leading universities has an increasingly-active Christian Union, and it has been a delight to see young people forging ahead in their own faith, learning from God, each other and any number of senior Christians how they can advance in their knowledge of and knowledge about God and how He would have us live. These kids are up for prayer – something that far too many Bible-believing Christians are totally enthusiastic about in principle – but not always in practice! Many of these young people have simply not lived long enough to become cynical and jaded, and so many those who want to get stuck into prayer are hopefully always going to have some peers around to pray with. They are learning the habit of prayer right now!
But one of the things that I have noted in the spiritual resurgence of the student Christian movement here in the UK is the awareness that if one is to pray, one needs to have some sense of what – or whom – one is praying for. So the question is almost always asked: “any prayer requests?” And then they’re off, getting stuck into the answers. I was once in a prayer meeting where the guys and girls split off to pray, and I had no idea that the way the intercession was supposed to work on this occasion was that the first person prayed for the second person, who in turn prayed for the third person, who then prayed for the fourth person, who closed the prayer by praying for the first person. So, as the first person, I basically prayed a long prayer for all three persons’s needs – because I didn’t get how it was supposed to work! But having experienced that way of doing it, I’d love to do it again. So many ways to pray with others, and this kind of variety is as important as it gets, because it provides a real spiritual re-fresh for a Christian community.
But let’s go back to the quotation I cited earlier:
“…we want to avoid a knowledge that calls for our own conversion. We want to know in ways that allow us to convert the world – but we do not want to be known in ways that require us to change as well.”
This is in fact a devastating statement on multiple levels. And if we apply it to the business of prayer as understood by Bible-believing Christians, then many of us are seriously indicted. Those of us in ministry want to reach out and help other Christians as well as non-Christians learn how to pray. And this desire is not restricted to those in professional ministry by any means!
But let’s take a look at the Message translation of a certain passage in Matthew 6:
“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply…”
Now, this translation is very appropriately regarded with caution by Bible students at every level. It is not a version for actual serious study of the Bible (which every single believer needs to be doing!). But it is a great Bible for just reading and thinking about, and I still pray when I read it, because it is still God’s Word. And what it does, I find, is just create some new angles for me to consider, even over passages that I have read and re-read who knows how many times over the years.
There are prayer warriors who are indeed prayer-ignorant. There are prayer warriors who are not in any way ‘prayer-ignorant’ but they are ‘God-ignorant.’ And those who are ‘Bible-ignorant’ – to say nothing of those who are ‘people-ignorant.’
This is what I am saying to you and to me this morning – prayer is about the posture of the soul towards God. It is a state of being before doing. And it is with that in mind that I have realised – yet again – that something which we Christians comfortably call ‘simple’ is anything but.
When I was younger and knew God less well than I do now, I never once considered that I didn’t know how to pray. I grew up learning many ways to order prayer and structure prayer and appropriate things to say and not say, in public corporate worship and private devotions – if you’d said to me that I didn’t know how to pray, however polite I may have been to your face, I’d have laughed you to scorn in my head.
But as time as passed I have seen that too many of those who think they know the most about prayer in fact know the least – because their theology is deficient, or their Biblical literacy has holes. Of these two, the first is arguably the greater, because a person who knows the Word but has their theology skewed can do astounding spiritual damage to themselves and to others.
But a person whose theology is on point is not necessarily in a better place if they have no real devotional experience before God in prayer. And true prayer is, in the end, not as dependent on technical knowledge as on a genuine desire to connect to the Reality that is God – even if God is physically intangible to us at present. And that means accepting our status as flawed, broken, self-absorbed, confused, distracted, inconsistent and emotionally needy human beings.
Even the writing of this post has been been punctuated by distractions – not unlike prayer sometimes, where one day I am lethally focussed and the next I cannot seem to maintain a straight line of thought. And while the ignorant and cynical might attempt to argue that only when we are truly up against it do we suddenly learn how to really focus in prayer (an example of the typical Christianised way of thinking that hurts too many people) – I know that there are times of spiritual desperation where one could not be aware of how much one needs God, and be trying to pray – and sometimes even fasting – and still not maintain totally perfect focus in prayer.
So what IS God looking for? Perfect, undistracted, theologically-on-point, profoundly expressed, impressive sounding discourses?
Or, in simple parlance, is He looking for people to keep it real before Him? Warts and all? And before anyone gets confused, we can go before God as we are without descending into disrespect for His holiness and the seriousness of the privilege of being able to approach Him without the blood of bulls and goats. So I’m not saying that I can rock into prayer any old how, say what I like how I feel like it, and expect God to take me seriously. But I am saying that whatever my state of being, if I go before God in sincerity and humility, I don’t need to try and be more spiritual than I really am.
Prayer – and even thinking about prayer – is something which never ceases to humble me. And amaze me. And worry me. On one hand, we are supposed to ‘be careful for nothing.’ But on the other hand, we are supposed to ‘ask and keep on asking; knock and keep on knocking; seek and keep on seeking.’ Theologically, we say that God knows what we need before we do. So why pray? But then, the Bible also says that ‘we have not, because we ask not.’
The Lord’s prayer is an example of what I am going to call ‘complex simplicity.’ Yes, we can see the structure of the prayer. And some wonderful books and teachings exist that have enabled us to understand the Lord’s Prayer better. But when the disciples were asking Jesus to teach them to pray, they were not asking for a structural formula in language. Neither were they asking for a theological framework. Now, here’s the deep thing – they might have thought that theywere asking for either or both of those things – but the cry came not because they admired the knowledge and profundity of Jesus the Son of Man. The cry for help came because they witnessed the kind of connection that Jesus had with His Father, and it did not take a double PhD in astrophysics to recognise that this was the source of Jesus’ spiritual strength and His ability to be who He was. They wanted that level of relationship with the Father too! And so they petitioned Jesus.
It is not that ‘prayer changes things.’ It does, when God allows. But the deeper truth is that prayer changes US. There is something about the dynamic of entering into the presence of a holy God as a flawed human being that we need. We need to be in God’s presence in the precise way that prayer allows as often as possible – not to score brownie points with God but because we are better off for spending time with the Shepherd and Bishop of our souls. And sometimes we have to accept that we have no way to know how to pray for what we need and for what others need. Earlier I referred to the woes I have been hearing about. There are so many permutations and convolutions I have no idea how to direct my prayers. God may be allowing some people to be thwarted in certain ways because they are NOT to go that way, even if it seems a very good thing. Other situations may seem like a complete disaster and to be prayed against, but God might have expressly allowed that circumstance to transpire in order to do a serious work in the heart and mind of the person whose trial it is.
It is a very personal crisis affecting someone very close to me that has led to this blog post this morning. They have asked for prayer on the matter. And I have prayed – and been led to write this post. Having prayed, thought, written, thought, written, prayed, gotten distracted, thought some more, and written some more, I will be undertaking my own personal devotional/theological reflection on the Lord’s Prayer in subsequent posts. I have come so far in my walk, and yet, this morning, I see that I have so much still to learn at the feet of Jesus. I am happy to say that I will be a learner in the school of prayer for the rest of my life, and for those of you who think you’ve got prayer sorted, you may be right – but you may also need to beware that your understanding is not based on what you understand, because if it is, then if God allows something into your life that you do not understand, and your prayer framework is based on ‘understanding’ – you may be susceptible to some very subtle attacks from the enemy. Way too many of us want to teach people how to pray without being changed ourselves by prayer – and that can only end in spiritual disaster.
If you would like to take a moment to actually pray and would like to be directed to a devotion that would help you with that, then please click here!