Monday, February 5, 2007

What is prayer?

I started thinking about prayer in church yesterday. I guess that's an appropriate place to start, but I don't think where I went with my thoughts was exactly where the pastor intended. The sermon wasn't about prayer, but it touched on it and off my mind went. I pulled out the little notebook I keep in my purse and started to write thoughts and images down. I'm sure the people around me thought I was really getting a lot out of that sermon! And in a way, I was.

I started thinking about how most evangelicals view prayer, including myself. I've assumed since I became a Christian in my early 20's that you are to pray and pray daily, and to pray about everything going on in your life. You pray about all decisions and you pray for help in times of trouble. You pray for healing and rescue from trials, or for the perserverence to go through them. Of course prayer involves worship and praise, and I suspect some of us are a lot better at that part than others, but I'd wager that prayer is mainly used to ask God for something, either for ourselves or others...including the salvation of souls through missions and outreach.

But prayer has been an enigma for me almost from the beginning. I have a hard time praying, a hard time concentrating and, frankly, a hard time believing my prayers are in any way effective. So while I've tried to "just pray harder" and "get more disciplined," I've pushed back my feelings of confusion about how prayer really figures into my beliefs in a sovereign God.

I think I've been drawn to the ancient traditions, both Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, in part because of their practice of prayer. It seems different to me. Yes, they certainly do make supplications of God. But it seems the focus is on meditative prayer...prayer that helps us focus on the magnificience of God and his power and, hopefully, his infinitely good plans. I think I finally realized why praying the Rosary appeals to is essentially a prayer to ask someone else to pray for you...someone perceived as having influence (something I don't see myself as having).

As I wrote my thoughts in my little notebook, I tried to think of passages in the Bible that deal with prayer. I am no scholar, and this isn't a scholarly piece, so bear with me. But what came to me was when Jesus taught us to pray using what is called the Lord's Prayer or the Our Father. The prayer has this format, which I think must be important:

Prayer as praise- this takes up a good portion of the first part of the prayer...right down to " it is in heaven."
Prayer as supplication- seven words total...hmmmm
Prayer for forgiveness- linked to how we forgive others
Prayer for protection from sin- "Lead us not.."
Prayer for deliverence - from "evil"which could be many things.

That, actually, is the end of the prayer Jesus taught. We tack on the rest of it. ;-) The majority of the prayer is simply praise and an admission of God's right to be God. The daily things of our lives are pretty much taken care of in a few short, cryptic sentences. So it makes me wonder what the reason for prayer really is.

If prayer is mainly to commune with God about his being God, to praise and worship him, then how we pray takes on a totally new meaning for me. I see how the formal prayers, the written prayers of Prayer Books and such are so appealing to me. Perhaps they have it right. The daily office goes through Psalms and canticles from the Bible, as well as Old and New Testament texts, while interspercing mainly generalized prayers for groups of people instead of specific people. Day in and day out you go through the prayers, many of them repeated daily or almost as often, and you feel a rthymn and beauty in the emphasis on Who God Is and What God Promises, instead of what is going on in my small area of space and time today. The written prayers help me focus on Someone Else and take my eyes off of me for a little while.

It also helps me with that big my prayers mean anything? Does God answer prayer? When I pray and something happens is it because I prayed? When I pray and nothing happen is it because I didn't pray right, or enough or get enough people praying for em to reach some critical mass? Prayer now becomes about God, and the world in general and less about me in particular.

So what about the verses in the Bible telling us to pray? I certainly haven't gone over them all, but yesterday I started seeing them in a new light. Pray without ceasing can be an attitude, not constant supplication. "In all things, with prayer and supplication" seems to even separate out the two words, prayer perhaps being meditation and praise, not mainly supplication.

I am seeing prayer as open communion with God, and the formality of written and structured prayers give me a framework and release me from having to come up with everything ex nihilo. As I pray the Office, I don't have to search my brain for the next thing to say, in fact, I don't even have to give the words my whole focus. I can think of God I can "be still" and relax, not wondering what to say next.

There is more tumbling around in my head on this subject, and I don't even think I've written exactly how I'm feeling. Words are so slippery! But here it is, for your consideration...the best I can come up with at the moment. ;-)



Carol said...

Thanks for your thoughts. I have always looked at prayer in the way that you have come to conclude. Most people YARP and don't PRAY (Praise, Repentance, Asking, Yourself). It is more "me" centered than centered on the majesty and glory of God and the relationship that I am in because of it.

I was raised up in the Lord in the meditative/listening prayer tradition, but I am seeing my evangelical experience is not like most people's that I have met on line. So, I guess I should be grateful about that! Prayer has always been about communion with Him in praise, seeing His majesty. Then, the supplication is very different because we have his perspective on our problems.

You might like Praying the Scriptures for Intimate Worship. It is a helpful tool in praying because he fashions it after the priorities in the Lord's prayer. It is so encouraging to pray Scripture too rather than our own thoughts!

MaryD said...

The other aspect of prayer and God's sovereignty that I've been wrestling with is: somehow prayer is to understand God's work for the situation, to re-commit myself to trusting Him and believing He is working for good in what seems like a very bad situation. Trying to grasp that the eternal perspective is different than the temporal... So it's still all about Him, and trusting Him with that sick friend or whatever. I don't think we can understand that things do or don't happen because we pray, but for some reason He wants us to pray and bring the things that concern us most to Him in supplication... it is confusing, and mysterious, in a good way. It's hard sometimes because I want it in black and white.