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Archive for October, 2009

One day Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” [Luke 11:1]

Prayer is one of the disciplines of the Christian life that is essential for all to practice. Merely sitting in Church staring at your shoelaces saying “Yeah, God, what the pastor just said” isn’t the peak of one’s prayer life. It is possible to do better, it is possible to pray just as well as your pastor, and it is possible to pray for more than thirty seconds without falling asleep.

As the quote above from Luke details, even the disciples recognized that they weren’t very good at prayer, and needed instruction from the master. But, notice the wording: it is not “teach us how to pray,” it is simply “teach us to pray.” The disciples saw that Jesus prayed often, and they recognized that they didn’t have that will or desire to do the same as Jesus. And so, they asked for that. If you’re in the same situation, it’s perfectly acceptable to say the same thing to Jesus: “teach me to pray.”

At the most basic level, prayer is talking to God. In doing so, you obviously need to know who you’re talking to– you’re not talking to empty space, or some half-realized form, you’re talking to the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. Like talking to another human, it really helps to know who you’re talking to, what their likes and dislikes are, and how they react. Thus, as you want to talk with God more and more, you should be reading his word (The Bible) in order to discover His character, and receive His words. Reading the Bible is not a requirement before your first prayers, as God still hears them, but as time goes on, getting to know God helps tremendously.

Going beyond that basic level, Jesus’ response back to the disciples had a model for prayer: “He said to them, “When you pray, say: “‘Father, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us. And lead us not into temptation.'” [Luke 11:2-4]

In addition to this model, prayer should be a habit, as Jesus demonstrated. Mark records this as a habit from very early on in Jesus’ ministry: “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” [Mark 1:35] The gospels record many other times where Jesus left the disciples to spend time with God– it was a regular habit for Him.

Jesus also had other specific comments on praying: “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth; they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” [Matthew 6:5-8]

Basically, as Jesus says here, public prayer is its own reward. But, private prayer to God is even better. Some forms of public prayer are quite good and necessary– such as a pastor at a service. Those prayers are instructional to others, and proclaim God’s words as well. But, there are very few pastors (if any) who neglect the private prayer as well. And also, Jesus says that we don’t need to worry about using lots of fancy words or long prayers like others, as God sees our hearts. But, we shouldn’t necessarily think that thirty seconds of listing off a few things is a good prayer either.

If you’ve got nothing else to say to God, you can always repeat the Lord’s prayer– it has a number of specific requests and actions that can be used as the basis to attach other prayers to. The first request to God is not ‘your kingdom come.’ It’s ‘hallowed be your name’ — i.e. “God, make your name Holy.” God is maligned by so many people these days, and His last name is not ‘dang.’ This is a specific breaking of the third commandment– “You shall not misuse the name of the LORD your God, for the LORD will not hold anyone guiltless who misuses his name.” [Exodus 20:7] So, in addition to this part of the Lord’s prayer, you can pray for everyone (possibly including yourself) who’s misused, profaned, or tarnished God’s name.

Next up in the Lord’s prayer is ‘your kingdom come.’ So many people regard Jesus’ return as an inconvenience, a problem, a bother. Some would rather prefer Jesus’ return not to happen until after they get back from a planned cruise, or moving into a new home, or any other event. Still others look at the events of the tribulation in Revelation and say “Lord, I don’t want to be around when most of the world is wiped out by many painful methods.” [Some believe the rapture will be before the tribulations, others after. Taking ‘the first shall be last, and the last shall be first’ with a bit of cynicism, a friend of mine commented that those who think they’ll suffer on Earth after the rapture will be raptured, and those expecting a free ride out won’t get raptured. But I digress…] There’s nothing here on Earth that can compare with God’s riches and majesty in Heaven once He arrives. There’s nothing worth sticking around here on Earth for– Heaven is just so much better that we should all be praying for its arrival as soon as possible.

‘Give us this day our daily bread’ is what Jesus said, not ‘give us this day our daily caviar and pheasant under glass.’ We are to be glad with what God has given us, and trust in Him for the basic necessities of life– our needs, not our wants. Too much time spent thinking about the wants of our flesh can lead you into financial debt, idolatry, and worse. [Not to mention being simply overweight, as one of my cats has proved.] So, we are asking God to be content and joyful in what He’s given us.

‘Forgive us our sins, for we also forgive everyone who sins against us’ explicitly details out what we need to do in response to the prayer, as opposed to the implicit parts as above. As John noted, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” [1 John 1:9] So, we can be forgiven of our sins, as we confess them to God (and hopefully also to everyone involved in the sin). But, we are also to forgive all those sins against us– this is quite often, the harder thing to do, as our flesh cries out “Hey! They sinned against us. Judge them now, God, as I’m in the right.” [For an example of this, see “Rise up, O Judge of the earth; pay back to the proud what they deserve” from Psalm 94:2, and many other Psalms.] So, we are to continually search our minds for cases in which we were sinned against, forgive them, and move on– not dwelling in anger, resentment, or bitterness.

Finally, at the end of this quote from Jesus, we see ‘And lead us not into temptation.’ This stands along with “No temptation has seized you except what is common to man. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can stand up under it.” [1 Corinthians 10:13] Basically, God will not lead us into temptation, but He will let us stray off his path into the traps of temptation that lie just off of it. We are to pray that we continually are reminded that in any tempting situation, God’s promised a way out. It may not be pleasant [Genesis 39:7-18], it may not be what we think we want, but God has promised a way out, and it’s our responsibility to find that escape hatch and use it.

The above is an short analysis of just a few short sentences in the Bible of a prayer by Jesus. Whole books can be (and are) written on each short phrase, but the above was done as an example of how to take Jesus’s short words, and use them as a framework to hang your own prayers onto.

In talking with God, remember that God is omnipresent– i.e. everywhere. God’s there to listen when you pray in Church. And before a meal. And while driving. And while at work. And at all other times. Paul reminds us to “pray continually” [1 Thessalonians 5:17], something that is greatly helped by God’s omnipresence. There are lots of small breaks during the day– at a stoplight, waiting for the microwave, between tasks at the office, or anything else. Those are great opportunities to slip in a few words of prayer to God, and not just along the lines of “God, hurry up this stupid traffic light.” If you need subject material to pray for, just look around– there’s bound to be someone else needing prayer, some action that needs doing, or just about anything else. If necessary, ask the Holy Spirit to point out what to pray for. This is not to contradict the set times of prayer mentioned above, but prayer time in addition to the fixed times.

While praying, if we do so silently, many people (myself included) have the annoying tendency of our minds wandering all over the place. I can be praying for those at work, and a few seconds later, wondering how the next parts of the project at work will be implemented, to getting annoyed at the buggy software we have to use due to some monopolies, to whether deregulation would work for the taxi market in Outer Mongolia. Then get back on track for a few more seconds, and spend a minute not praying off on tangents again. Praying out loud is a good way to keep focused– you’re concentrating more on what comes out of your mouth and less on all the random things that pop into your head.

In forming a regular prayer habit, many find that some sort of prayer diary is helpful. Around church, work, home, and the like, you can very easily get deluged with prayer requests. You can bet that there’s at least one thing that every person you know needs prayer for, and most of us know a lot of people. Keeping track of all of the requests from those we know to things we should pray for (our government at all levels, fulfilling the great commission, etc) can easily pile up. Writing things down in a somewhat organized form helps you keep track of them– and also lets you see in a concrete way later on which prayer requests have been answered. It’s sometimes very rewarding to see how many requests were answered, as we see God’s work, as opposed to forgetting we ever prayed for certain things.

This may seem rather old-fashioned, but I do believe that posture helps us pray. Sitting back in a reclining chair is a great way to fall asleep, while kneeling in prayer shows respect and honor that’s due God. Yes, it’s harder to get down and kneel as you wait for a stoplight to change, but for your set times of prayer, I recommend such a setup.

For a pattern of prayer that I’ve heard, and is somewhat useful, try ‘ACTS’ – Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. Each of these 4 building blocks can be expanded out to fill a few sentences, or much more. Adoration is simply acknowledging that God is God. He’s the king of all, the creator of the universe, the Holy one, the omniscient omnipotent one, and many other adjectives. Basically, you’re putting God first in the prayer, and putting Him in the proper place in your life.

Next, as confession, confess your sins to God. This should be fairly self-explanatory, and yet not excessive either. Martin Luther, founder of Protestantism, before he broke off from the Catholic Church, spent hours per day in the confessional, confessing every last little misguided thought, every possible problem. On the opposite end of the spectrum, we shouldn’t be trying to pretend we don’t sin. John says “If we claim we have not sinned, we make him [God] out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” [1 John 1:10] So, some time spent confessing sins, and receiving forgiveness does a lot to help keep us humble and right before God.

Thanksgiving is also self-explanatory– you thank God for what he’s done. This can be answered prayer requests, blessings for things you didn’t pray for, thanks in advance for the good works he’s got planned out for us to do, and everything else. Basically, you spend time in your prayers acknowledging all that God’s done in your life, and thanking him for it.

Supplication is your requests for yourself and/or others. Notice that it’s not the majority of the prayer time, as many get in the habit of doing. [“God you’re great. Now, listen to the 5,000 things I’ve got written down in my prayer diary here” is how the all-supplication prayers tend to go.] And, in supplication, while you may have specific requests for yourself, there should also be a number of prayers for others. It helps is to pray for others, sometimes to the exclusion of self, as it gets our focus off of ourselves and our needs (and wants), and onto how others can be helped.

Some months ago, I felt like my prayers weren’t very effective, were monotonous, and short. God put it on my heart that I could do better, that I could learn more from those in the Bible and others around me. So, I started off doing what I detailed above: I read over prayers in the Bible. I’d already read the Bible cover to cover twice, so I kept that up. And, I set aside a regular time to pray every day, in addition to the prayers I normally have before going to sleep. It’s taken some time, and I still think a whole bunch of others can “out-pray” me, but I’ve learned enough to pass on specific tips and ideas related to prayer.

Finally, prayer is a habit and a discipline that we develop throughout our entire lives. We don’t just get good at it for a while, and then leave it to others, nor should we get discouraged by an initial inability to pray effectively. It may take days, weeks, or even months of constant prayer to develop good habits, and sometimes even years for specific requests to be answered. But, in all things do so with the attitude that you’re in this for the long run– a marathon of prayer, not a short sprint.

As a Lutheran I have heard the following many times – it is another way to think of a prayer model:

Martin Luther had a barber by the name of Peter Beskendorf. One can imagine that it was when Peter was giving Dr Luther a shave when he took the liberty to ask,

By the way, Dr. Luther, how do you pray?

It usually is a bad idea to start going into a lecture when someone has a razor near your throat so Luther decided that perhaps a letter would be more appropriate. And this 40 page letter is now known in posterity as the treatise, “A Simple Way to Pray” first published in 1535.

The excerpts from the letter (below) will give us an insight into Luther’s own spiritual practices and personal spiritual life:

A good, clever barber must have his thoughts, mind and eyes concentrated upon the razor and the beard and not forget where he is in his stroke and shave. If he keeps talking or looking around or thinking of something else, he is likely to cut a man’s mouth or nose – or even his throat.

So anything that is to be done well ought to occupy the whole man with all his faculties and members. As the saying goes:

He who thinks of many things thinks of nothing and accomplishes no good.

How much more must prayer possess the heart exclusively and completely if it is to be a good prayer!

Nonetheless, we see that Luther was also very human, having the same distractions that many of us would have:

It is a good thing to let prayer be the first business in the morning and the last in the evening. Guard yourself against such false and deceitful thoughts that keep whispering:

Wait a while. In an hour or so I will pray. I must first finish this or that.

Thinking such thoughts we get away from prayer into other things that will hold us and involve us till the prayer of the day comes to nothing. We have to watch out so that we may not get weaned from prayer by fooling ourselves that a certain job is more urgent, which it really isn’t – and finally we get sluggish, lazy, cold and weary. But the devil is neither sluggish nor lazy around us.

And now Luther moves on:

Kneel down or stand up with folded hands and eyes towards heaven… speak or think as briefly as you can

And now he starts his prayer… By praying the 10 Commandments! Not that he just sounds them off mindlessly one by one – a practice that he would have dismissed as empty phrases or babbling (in his own words,zerklappern, or rattling something into pieces).

Instead he proposes that only one Commandment at a time be reflected and prayed upon:

…in order that my mind becomes as uncluttered as possible for prayer…

His shares with his barber his personal method of reflection:

Out of each commandment I make a garland of four twisted strands. That is, I take each commandment …

First as a teaching,

Secondly, a reason for thanksgiving

Thirdly, a confession

Fourthly, a prayer petition

Luther was of course nice enough to provide examples for every Commandment! Here’s one from the 7th Commandment, “You shall not steal”:

First I learn here that I shall not take my neighbor’s property nor possess it against his will, neither secretly nor openly; that I shall not be unfaithful or false in my bargaining, my service and work lest what I gain should belong to me only as a thief; but I shall earn my food with the sweat of my brow and shall eat my own bread with all those who are faithful.

At the same time I shall help my neighbor so that his property is not taken away from him through such actions as mentioned above

Secondly, I thank God for his faithfulness and goodness in that He has given me and all the world such a good teaching and through it protection and shelter. For unless He protects us, not one penny nor one bite of bread would remain in the house.

Thirdly, I confess my sin and ungratefulness, there where I have wronged someone and cheated him or where during my life, I was unfaithful in keeping my word.

Fourthly, I ask that God may give grace so that I and the entire world might learn His commandment and think about it and improve. I pray that there may be less stealing, robbing, exploiting, embezzling and injustice. I also pray that such evils may soon end when the Day of Judgment comes.

Luther suggests the same method for reflecting on The Lord’s Prayer after one’s reflection on the Commandments and even the Apostle’s Creed when one has “the time and leisure“. He, however, does get realistic and shares:

It often happens that my thoughts go for a walk in one petition of the Lord’s Prayer and then I let all other six petitions go. When such rich good thoughts come, one should let the other prayers go and give room to these thoughts, listen to them in silence and by no means suppress them.

For here the Holy Spirit himself is preaching and one word of His sermon is better than thousands of our own prayers. Therefore I have often learned more in one prayer than I could have obtained from much reading and thinking.

Luther finally warns his barber:

Don’t take too much upon yourself lest the spirit should get tired… It is sufficient to grasp one part of a Bible verse or even half a part from which you can strike a spark in your heart… for the soul, if it is directed towards one single thing, may it be bad or good, and if it is really serious about it, can think more in one moment than the tongue can speak in ten hours and the pen can write in ten days. Such a dexterous, exquisite and mighty instrument is the soul or spirit.

So to put it all in a nutshell:

The Warm Up the intentional focusing of one’s thoughts and intention to encountering God in prayer

Reflection start by reflecting on a passage of Scripture, or one of the Commandments, or one of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer, etc

Thanksgiving what do I have to be thankful about?

Confession what do I regret, whether it is something I have said, thought, or done, or perhaps left unsaid, unthought and undone?

Petition what should I ask God for, both for myself and for others?

Action how can I put what I have learnt or experienced from my prayer into action to make a difference in my own life and in the life of others?

When prayer transforms from speaking to being silent, and from being silent to listening, the voice of God will come through.

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