This week's "thought" is about prayer - simple, awkward, unrehearsed, and often bumbling prayer. The stage of prayer we must all go through. The stage of prayer we can even feel guilty or embarrassed about (simple and self-centered as we realize our prayers sound after the words have come out of our mouths)! Yet, as Richard Foster will assure us in this selection, taken from his book, "Prayer, Finding the Heart's True Home," it is a stage that cannot be avoided. And to our surprise, one we may need to return to. So, whether you are one who has rarely rayed and would like to learn how to pray, or consider yourself to be a seasoned "prayer warrior," this book is helpful, instructive and practical. This thought comes to you from the very first chapter on, "Simple Prayer" or "Beginning Prayer." Enjoy.
"Pray as you can, not as you can't."
"We yearn for prayer and hide from prayer... We believe prayer is something we should do, even something we want to do, but it seems like a chasm stands between us and actually praying... We are not quite sure what holds us back. Of course, we are busy with work and family obligations, but that is only a smoke screen. Our busyness seldom keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love. No, there is something deeper and more profound keeping us in check... It is the notion -- almost universal among us modern high-level achievers -- that we have to do everything "just right" in order to pray. That is, before we can really pray, our lives need some fine tuning, or we need to know more about how to pray, or we need to study the philosophical questions surrounding pray, or we need to have a better grasp of the great traditions of prayer. And on and on it goes. It isn't that these are wrong concerns, or there is never a time to deal with them. But our problem is that we assume prayer is something to master the way we master algebra or auto mechanics. Something that puts us in the "on-top" position, where we are competent and in control...
I used to think that I needed to get all my motives straightened out before I could pray. I would examine what I had just prayed and think to myself, "How utterly foolish and self-centered; I can't pray this way!" And so I would determine never to pray again until my motives were pure... But the practical effect of all this internal soul-searching was to completely paralyze my ability to pray. The truth of the matter is we all come to prayer with a tangled mess of motives -- altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter. Frankly, this side of eternity we will never unravel the good from the bad, the pure from the impure. But what I have come to see is that God is big enough to receive us with all our mixture. We do not have to be bright, or pure, or filled with faith, or anything. That is what grace means, and not only are we saved by grace, we live in it as well. And we pray by it (Ephesians 2:1-10, Romans 5:2, Romans 8:26-27).
Jesus [in the Lord's Prayer] reminds us that prayer is a little like children coming to their parents. Our children come to us with the craziest requests at times! Often we are grieved by the meanness and selfishness in their requests, but we would be all the more grieved if they never came to us at all. We are simply glad they do come -- mixed motives and all. This is precisely how it is with prayer. We will never have pure enough motives, or be good enough, or know enough in order to pray rightly. We must simply set all these concerns aside and begin praying. In fact, it is in the very act of prayer itself -- the intimate, ongoing interaction with God -- that these matters are cared for in due time.
What I am trying to say is that God receives us just as we are and accepts our prayers just as they are. In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture, so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer. So we are brought to the most basic, the most primary form of prayer -- Simple Prayer -- where we bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all. Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests. We do not try to sort things out, the good from the bad. We simply and unpretentiously share our concerns and make our petitions. We tell God, for example, how frustrated we are with the co-worker at the office or the neighbor down the street. We ask for food, favorable weather, and good health. In a very real sense, WE are the focus of simple prayer. Our needs, our wants, and our concerns dominate our prayer experience. Our prayers are shot through with plenty of pride, conceit, vanity, pretentiousness, haughtiness, and general all-around egocentricity. No doubt there is also magnanimity, generosity, unselfishness, concern for others and universal goodwill.
We make mistakes -- lots of them. We sin; we fall down, often -- but each time we get up and begin again. We pray again. We seek to follow God again. And again our insolence and self-indulgence defeat us. Never mind. We confess and begin again... and again... and again... In "Simple Prayer" the good, the bad and the ugly are all mixed together... Abraham prayed this way, as did Joseph, Joshua, Hannah, David, Gideon, Ruth, Peter, James, John and a host of other biblical luminaries. Simple Prayer involves ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father. We do not pretend to be more holy than we are, more pure, or more saintly than we actually are. We do not try to conceal our conflicting and contradictory motives from God -- or ourselves. And in this posture, we pour out our heart to the God who is greater than our heart and knows all things (I John 3:20).
Jesus calls us to Simple Prayer when he urges us to ask for our daily bread. As John Dalrymple rightly observes, "We never outgrow this kind of prayer, because we never outgrow the needs that give rise to it." There is a temptation, especially by the "sophisticated," to despise this most elementary way of praying. They seek to skip over Simple Prayer in the hopes of advancing to more "mature" expressions of prayer. They smile at the egotistical asking, asking, asking, of so many. Grandly they speak of avoiding "self-centered prayer" in favor of "others-centered prayer." But what these people fail to see, however, is that Simple Prayer is necessary, even essential, in the spiritual life. The only way we move beyond "self-centered prayer" (if indeed we ever do) is by going through it, not by making a detour around it... When we pray, genuinely pray, the real condition of our heart is revealed. This is as it should be. This is when God truly begins to work with us. The adventure is just beginning."
I love to hear new believers pray. They often pause searching for the right word, don't use flowery language, and say exactly what comes to their mind (that is, if they are thankfully freed from feeling the need to try to impress others). To me, there are few things more beautiful than getting to listen in on a new-born Christian's first attempt to speak with their Savior. It's like listening to my grandchildren (when they were two and three) praying at the table before dinner! Who could not love it despite the odd nature of many of their requests!? So with the adult who has recently come to Christ, Simple Prayer is a phase one must go through, not seek to avoid. They can do no other because they know no other. And to encourage them to pretend to be what they're not, kills true prayer in its beginnings. We learn more about ourselves (and thus grow) by hearing what comes out of our mouths and hearts when we pray, than being told by others what should be coming out of them.
When I was first asked (as a new Christian) to pray with others, I refused. I didn't know what to pray, or how to pray, or what to pray for. I didn't know what was selfish or non-selfish, the right things to pray for or the wrong things to pray for -- so I didn't pray at all. Yet I thank God they were persistent, for I did finally consent, and have come to cherish praying with others. (Though I must confess they did have to first assure me they would not judge me if I said something "wrong," or said it the "wrong way," or stumbled over my words, or used no "thee's" or "Thous" or other fancy religious words or phrases -- and they didn't -- or if they did, it never came out of their mouths!)
In His Service, Pastor Jeff