Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Prayer: The Essential Conversation, Part 1

[This is the first part of a series of blog articles I'm presenting on prayer. I hope that you find it helpful.]

An old story has it that two men were out fishing in the ocean when a fierce storm came along, turning their boat into splinters. They clung to to two of them. After the storm died down, they were washed onto the shore of a small island.

There were no people on the island. They had no food or supplies. And they didn’t have any means of communicating with the outside world.

They were desperate and so, they thought, it might be a good time to pray. Maybe, they reasoned, God could help them. The problem though, was that neither of them really knew how to pray.

They’d both thought long and hard about this when one of them finally had a “Eureka!” moment. “You know,” he said, “when I was a kid, I lived next door to a church and sometimes I heard them. Maybe if I just talked the way they did, that would be prayer and God would help.”

“Sounds good to me,” said the other guy. “Anyway, what have we got to lose?” So, he fell silent, letting his companion take the lead.

He did. He called out with a loud, clear voice, “B-7, O-45, N-22...” Apparently, the guy had never been awake on Sunday mornings to hear the prayers lifted up during Mass.

Actually, I don’t think there’s reason for any of us to feel embarrassed about not knowing how to pray or for not understanding just what prayer is.

Prayer has been an integral part of my life now for about twenty-eight years, ever since I moved from atheism to faith in Jesus Christ. I try to make it daily part of my living. Beyond more extended periods of prayer each day, I talk with God while I’m in the shower, taking walks, driving (eyes open at all times, of course), working in my office, participating in meetings, speaking to groups of people, working out, and so on. My life has been blessed through prayer many times. But I still can’t call myself an expert on prayer. I don’t always know how to pray and I can’t always describe what prayer is. I’m still learning about it.

But I can say that prayer is one of the most exciting things we can be learning to do, as well as among the most meaningful and rewarding.

There are lots of ways to pray. E. Stanley Jones was a missionary to India in the middle part of the twentieth century and a good friend of Mohandas Gandhi. Jones also came to be well known in this country for his inspiring writing and for the spiritual ashrams, weekend retreats, over which he presided and at which thousands of people got to know God intimately. Once, Jones wrote, that at the end of one gathering at which he spoke, an obviously well-to-do woman approached him:
and as we shook hands, [she] said, “If I had what you have, I wouldn’t be in the mess I’m in.” I asked her to wait, and as we talked, she laid bare her tragedy: Her home was going to be broken up after Christmas--they would hold together till Christmas so as not to break the children’s hearts. We prayed and I asked her to pray when she got home. But she said afterward: “I belonged to the country club cocktail-gambling set and didn’t know how to pray. So I wrote God a letter: ‘Dear God, life has dealt me a very bad hand and I don’t know which card to lead. Please show me which card I am to lead.’ And I signed it.”
Reports Jones, “God heard that prayer expressed in the only language she knew.” Somehow, that woman and her husband were able to stay together and become reconciled. Jones says that the woman was able to hold her home together “by her changed spirit.”

That changed spirit was the result of turning in desperation to God the best way she knew how.

You see, God isn’t interested as much in how we pray as He is in that we pray. This, frankly, can be a hard pill for some Christians, the kinds of Christians who think that form is everything, to take. These Christians seem to want to out-holy God Himself!

I once heard Texan Gerald Mann talk about the coffee shop in the small town where he served as a first-time pastor. There was a bunch of guys who gathered there every morning. Their language was coarse and their outlook on life could be crude. The “good” Christian folks wouldn’t have much to do with them.

To his credit, Mann decided to frequent the coffee shop, not to preach at these guys, but to be their friend. Maybe he also was tired of the high and mighty talk that passes for “Christian” communication in some churches; maybe he was looking for people who were real and not walking cliches.

In any case, most weekday mornings found Mann hanging out with these rough characters over cups of coffee. Eventually, they came to see him as a friend. One day, someone among their group had a question about God for him. Mann says that inside, he cringed a bit, fearful that his new friends would be so turned off by his preaching that he would not only lose their friendship, but also the chance to help them to know God.

But that went well. As time went on, Mann’s coffee shop friends brought more of their questions and finally, asked if some mornings they could all pray together. That began to happen.

Mann’s times at the coffee shop did not go unnoticed by the people of his church. One of the “elders,” as they’re called, asked Mann about the meetings and Mann invited the elder to come with him on a day when the group was to pray.

That morning, the group had apparently gotten word about a neighbor who was sick and in some other trouble. So, as they started to pray, one of the coffee shop denizens began, “Lord, you know what’s going on this S---of a B----’s life. This poor ol’ ba---rd sure needs your help...”

The guy’s prayer went on in this way, devoid of any consciousness that his words may have been a bit “colorful.” It was only after the prayer time had ended and the coffee shop group had dispersed that the elder from Mann’s church expressed rage at the language his sensitive ears had been forced to hear, language that he also apparently thought too vivid for God's dainty ears.

Mann tried in vain to point out to the elder that just a few months before, the fellow whose words had so offended wouldn’t have even considered praying. Instead of judging the man for failing to speak with something appropriate language, Mann hoped that the elder could be happy that the guy had grown desperate enough for God to want to pray.

Forunately, God doesn’t listen to our prayers with the celestial equivalent of Diana Hacker’s A Pocket Style Manual next to Him, knocking off points if our grammar is bad, our words unlike those used in the King James Version of the Bible, or our phrasing “colorful.”

In fact, some giants of the faith have used very colorful language in their prayers, the kind of language that we often use in our most intimate interpersonal conversations.

This past week, I watched the 2003-release, Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes. It tells the story of Martin Luther, the Roman Catholic monk, priest, and scholar who set out to reform the Church back in the sixteenth century. In one scene, it portrays Luther at prayer. Luther’s prayers, as any student of that period can tell you, were robust affairs in which he could sense the devil as well as the evil inside himself and in the world trying to pull him away from God. The movie accurately showed Luther, in God’s Name and power, turning his attention to the devil and calling him, “You sh-t!”

Some dainty church folks might consider that inappropriate and I think, in public settings, it would be. But is there a more appropriate nickname to give to the devil than that? Or a more accurate description of anyone who would try to prevent us from enjoying intimacy with God.

The point is that if concern about whether your prayers will be in the right form to please God is keeping you from praying, don’t let it stop you any longer. During the course of this blog series, I hope that you'll find encouragement either to begin a prayer life with God or, if you already enjoy one, the inspiration to deepen it.

Jesus, Who was God in the flesh, once said:
“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 their reward. 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.

“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...” (Matthew 6:5-7)
Jesus wasn’t condemning public prayers. Although the lion’s share of Jesus’ praying was private, He engaged in public praying Himself. But He didn’t do so to call attention to Himself; His aim was share His intimacy with God the Father with others.

The best way I know to begin to learn to pray is to simply start praying. Maybe between this installment and the next one in this series, you can do that. You could do it in a letter or in a few silent sentences uttered while you shower. Again, don’t worry about form. When it comes to prayer, my advice comes straight from Nike, “Just do it!”

And if you feel incompetent to pray, start out by telling God that. He loves it when we’re honest with Him.

[E. Stanley Jones tells the story of the wealthy woman who wrote a letter to God in his fantastic book, How to Be a Transformed Person.]

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