If 2020 showed me nothing else, it showed me of my desperate need to pray more. I like to think I know all there is to know about prayer, but try as I might, I can’t seem to nail prayer down to a singular definition? I am supposed to be a person of prayer, and I know when I see someone praying, and I know what I do when (or if) I pray. I know the preacher does it, if for no other reason than that is says so right in the bulletin—the Pastoral Prayer. So, prayer is something done at a particular time and usually in a particular way, or a particular place for a particular reason. Prayer is all that, but that seems like such an inadequate understanding as I desire to go deeper in prayer in 2021.
I take some comfort in knowing the Bible doesn’t define prayer anywhere. I know the Bible commands it. People like Jesus, Paul, Moses, David and Hannah exemplified it. I am invited through the pages of scripture to pray, and God commends it to us as a way to communion and wholeness. The Bible even describes prayer, but never once do I find a verse that says, “Prayer is…” If the Bible doesn’t define prayer, I wonder if I can?
The Lord’s Prayer
Though the Bible doesn’t specifically define prayer, its examples of prayer give me a clue in (at least) understanding what prayer is. For more than defining prayer, I want to learn how to do it. As a matter of fact, that’s exactly what Jesus was doing one day with his disciples. I’m not sure if we can definitively answer the question by looking at that encounter between Jesus and his disciples, but I believe we can get far down the road. Jesus taught his disciples to pray:
11 Once Jesus was in a certain place praying. As he finished, one of his disciples came to him and said, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
2 Jesus said, “This is how you should pray: “Father, may your name be kept holy.
May your Kingdom come soon.
3 Give us each day the food we need,
4 and forgive us our sins,
as we forgive those who sin against us.
And don’t let us yield to temptation.”
Jesus would, in the verses following these, continue to teach his disciples more about prayer, but first, it was Jesus’ own example that made his disciples want to know more about prayer. I remind us they were Jewish men who were steeped in the traditions of their elders. They likely spent every morning and evening repeating the prayers of their fathers, yet when they saw Jesus pray, there was something that moved heaven and earth and made them want to pray that way. I’m not sure what that was, but I see three things that begin to help me understand a meaningful definition of prayer.
Let’s start where Jesus started: First, prayer is upward focused. In verse 2, Jesus begins with the “Father.” As we learned the prayer from the King James Version, it begins, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” Richard Foster says, “Simple prayer is ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate father.” The upward focus of prayer is our acknowledgment that God is our Father, that God is the source of truth outside ourselves. After all, we don’t pray to ourselves–“Oh, help me, Me!” We look to God for understanding in this confusing world. This upward focus is our confession of dependence on the One who is abundantly more than we can even think or imagine.
This understanding is insufficient in and of itself, for how can we have an upward focus unless we have first been called to turn our eyes toward heaven? When we turn our thoughts upward, we acknowledge it is God who acts first in prayer. Our prayers are a reaction to God’s first seeking us. In Psalm 27:7 – 8, David sings these words:
7 Hear me as I pray, O Lord.
Be merciful and answer me!
8 My heart has heard you say, “Come and talk with me.”
And my heart responds, “Lord, I am coming.”
The key is that God said, “Come and talk with me.” Without God first calling to us we cannot seek Him, and we can never experience the kind of prayer that ends in answers. We Wesleyans call that God’s prevenient grace—the grace of God reaching out to us before we even realize it. Prayer that is upward focused will move the hand of God because we have first been moved by the hand of God, and it will draw us deeper into a growing, on-going love relationship with the Lord.
Yes, prayer is upward focused, but prayer is also inward focused. Verses 3 and 4 say, “Give us each day the food we need, and forgive us our sins…” In prayer, we do focus on our needs, but not in some selfish, prideful way. Actually, if we look up the words “pray” and “prayer” in Webster’s dictionary—although no one looks up words in a dictionary anymore—we find these definitions: “to implore, an entreaty, supplication.”
The words the Bible uses which are translated for us as pray and prayer in both the Old and New Testaments mean “to request,” and “to make a petition,” so prayer is asking God for something, and it is never selfish or sinful to concern God with the circumstances of our lives, and the needs we face. As a matter of fact, God desires that we should ask. Our asking is yet another way we confess our dependence on and our need for God.
The inward focus is not totally selfish when we understand that this prayer is consistent with the way Jesus lived. He was always occupied with the trivial things in people’s lives. He turned water into wine (and good wine, I might add) at a wedding. He fed hungry crowds, and he offered rest to weary souls. He ate with Pharisees and tax collectors. He stopped to talk to a woman drawing water from a well, and he healed a blind beggar named Bartimaeus. It is appropriate that he invites us to pray for our daily bread because all of our little daily concerns are important to him.
We must be careful, though, that this not become a shopping list we bring to God. It is a petition for survival. It is not, “Lord, let me win the lottery, then all my needs will be met.” Such a prayer would never strengthen our faith or draw us deeper into a relationship with him. Prayer is designed to strengthen the bond between us and the Father. Only as we call to God for daily provision, and only as God meets us at our point of need, will our trust grow. When trust grows, love grows. When love grows, the relationship grows, and that is what God desires.
There is more to this inward focus than daily provision to meet our needs. There is a spiritual aspect that must not escape our understanding. As we focus upward and God begins to reflect His love and holiness back into our lives, we begin to recognize our sinfulness, and our need for forgiveness. We pray for this deepest need of our lives. Deeper than the daily provision for our physical needs lies the need for God’s forgiveness.
Mark’s Gospel (Mark 2: 1 – 12) tells the story of a paralytic man who was lowered by his friends into a house where Jesus was teaching. The man obviously had a physical need, but Jesus saw a deeper spiritual need, the need for forgiveness. Jesus met both needs. As the crowd watched, Jesus looked at the man on the cot and said, “Your sins are forgiven.” The crowd, and especially the Pharisees, were stunned and asked, “Who can forgive sins but God?” Jesus, hearing their question, responded, “Well, just so you know I have power to do both, I say, ‘Take up your bed and walk’.” We, too, have both spiritual and physical needs, and prayer that is inward focused brings us an awareness of both. The greatest news in the world is that I am a sinner who can be saved from my sin.
The Good News that we can be forgiven carries us deeper into the heart of prayer. Prayer that is first, upward focused that produces an inward change inevitably moves us to become outward focused. Jesus prays in verse 4, “just as we forgive those who sin against us.” Any prayer that is real prayer will touch our relationship with others. Jesus says we ask the Father to forgive us as we forgive others. It sounds almost conditional, doesn’t it? Well, it is! We cannot be in a right relationship with God and not have it affect our outward relations with others. How can we not forgive others if we have experienced God’s great forgiveness? God’s forgiveness renews and transforms us, and we then seek to be renewed in our relationship with others.
Richard Foster indicates that to forgive is the very nature of the created order. We must give in order to receive. We cannot receive love unless we give love. People may try to give us love, but if we are filled with resentment and vindictiveness, their offers will have no impact on us. We cannot receive anything as long as our fists are clenched. St. Augustine says, “God gives where he finds empty hands.”
God, The Pizza Man
Let me tell you about our love for pizza at our house. When the children were growing up it was our default food of choice (it’s become Mexican now). One of the greatest days of our lives as a family was moving to Junction City, Kentucky. It was great because Junction City had the luxury of pizza delivery. I know that doesn’t seem like much to most of you, but being raised in rural Jackson Parish, and serving my first pastorate in the same community, pizza delivery was something reserved for places like New York City and Chicago. It didn’t take us long to avail ourselves of pizza delivery in Junction City. Piping hot pizza a phone call away.
How many of you have ever ordered pizza delivery? Call the pizza place, the guy or girl answers and place your order, “Give me two large pizzas—one with pepperoni, one with double cheese. Malone is the name, and the address is 104 School St.” (that’s where we lived in Junction City). Hang up the phone and wait for pizza at your front door. Oh, we were in heaven!
Too often, that’s how we think of prayer. We treat God like the pizza guy. We call on God, place our order as though it was some shopping list, and we wait for an answer. When God doesn’t answer in a reasonable amount of time we get mad because he didn’t answer on our schedule. God didn’t meet our expectations. Forget the tip, buddy, I want a free pizza because it wasn’t here in thirty minutes or less.
God is not the pizza guy, and prayer is not akin to throwing out orders for someone to meet our expectations. What is prayer? Prayer is any intentional upward focus designed to bring an inward change that becomes reflected in outward relationships which produces an on-going, growing love relationship with God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Not sure that any of that qualifies as an appropriate definition, but it’s the one I’m going to work with for 2021. I’ll check back in with you in 2022 and see how it went.
May I also invite you to pray more in 2021? Here is the “Daily Prayer” app that I’ve put on my phone and will be incorporating into my prayer time this year. It might be helpful to you, too. If you don’t like that one, try “The Daily Office” app. You can download it on your phone, or use it right from your desktop or laptop. If you don’t like either of those tools, simply do a Google search to find one that fits your need. As has been said, “Pray as you can, not as you can’t.”
Until next time, keep looking up…