prayer

How to pray (a guide for those trying prayer for the first time during this pandemic)

We live in anxious times. Rightly so. There’s a pandemic sweeping the globe. I heard this morning that over a billion people are currently in some sort of lockdown. And things are likely to get worse, at least here in Australia, before they get better.

Plenty of the countries on the global outbreak map are countries that are increasingly post-religious (please note, I’m not at all suggesting strong correlation or any causation here). But it struck me that in the secular western world, in anxious times, lots of people might feel this profoundly human urge — one that has given comfort to millions of people in human history — to pray. We might feel the urge to pray — prayer might even work — God might even be there and listening to our prayers. Prayer might calm our anxious hearts, it might help us to ‘be still’ and know that God is not distant, but present, in these times of crisis (that’s a whole other topic, but one way to put this idea to the test is to pray). We, in the secular west, might feel an urge to pray, a sort of haunting notion that it might do something for us, or that we might want to speak to a house that feels empty hoping that there’s something bigger than us present who we can ‘cast our cares’ onto; expressing our hopes, our dreams, our sorrows, our fears, and our anxieties. This is the condition that philosopher Charles Taylor says we modern westies live in — the Secular Age — an age haunted by the loss not just of God, but of the religious practices that help us make sense of our lives. If Taylor is right, we might feel the urge to pray, but have no idea how to do it. If that’s you, then this post is for you. A quick primer on how to pray — how to search, to probe, the haunted sense you might have to turn to something bigger than you, and not the government, in this moment we find ourselves in.

Christians have always believed that prayer is just speaking to God; an act of faith that God is there, God wants to hear us and have a relationship with us, and that God is directly accessible — you don’t need a priest, or a professional, or someone more holy than you to convey your prayers to God (though, when you struggle with how, or what, to pray, Christians believe that Jesus himself — and the Holy Spirit — give us strength to pray, and work in some sort of mysterious way to bring our prayers before God the father; but figuring out how the Trinity works as we pray is also beyond the scope of this post). Because we believe God is transcendent not just some weird bloke in the sky with a beard, but the being who gives us being — the foundation of the universe, the one, ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ (as the Bible says) — and because we believe prayer is enabled by God’s Spirit at work in our beings — Christians don’t even believe you have to speak out loud to pray. But it sometimes helps to feel like you’re actually talking to somebody, and if you’re in company and praying together, then praying out loud is a great idea. It also helps, I find, to pray out loud so that you remember that prayer is fundamentally relational. And let’s face it, if we’re talking about 6 months in lockdown, talking to an empty room is probably the least of our worries.

Christians believe that prayer can be an act of love, you can say the sort of things to God you might say to a friend or loved one, you can thank God for good things (the whole ‘gratitude’ movement is just the secular age version of prayer — where we express gratitude to an empty universe for the fortune we enjoy, prayers of thanks let you direct that gratitude somewhere and lets you enjoy the benefits that the gratitude movement has harnessed). Giving thanks in crap, pandemic, times for good things around us will help us keep some sort of perspective, and sanity, and keep us looking out for good things so that we don’t fall into despair.

Christians also believe that prayer can be an expression of dependence — that we can ‘petition’ God to act, in ways we might petition the government. We can ask God for things, confident that he is a good God who gives — whose expressions of generosity include the goodness and beauty of nature, the cleverness and ingenuity of people, and ultimately, his invitation to be in a relationship with him because of, and through, Jesus. You might know that famous verse, John 3:16, God shows his love for the world by sending Jesus — who dies — ‘that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ — that’s not just eternal life in lockdown, but with God, in relationship with this loving being who is the foundation of the universe — who wants to hear from us.

Christians also believe prayer can be an expression of sorrow or repentance — an acknowledgement that we fail at things, that we don’t always want a relationship with God, that we live in ways that are destructive to ourselves and our neighbours (the pattern Jesus came to reverse both with his example, and the new life he gives us that includes taking up his call to ‘love the Lord your God with all your heart,’ and to ‘love your neighbour as you love yourself’ — we stuff up all three of those loves (for God, neighbour, and self), all the time — and while that could lead to a breakdown of each type of loving relationship (relationship with God, with people, and the sort of self-care we neglect through guilt and shame), we can instead, turn to prayer to help us put those relationships right. You can pray that God would intervene in life — yours, the life of those you love, the life of the world. And the Christian God does, even if sometimes his interventions are beyond our comprehension (especially during suffering and crap stuff — there’s a whole book in the Bible, Job, that explores this question).

Basically anyone can try talking to the God who is there, who made the universe, ‘in whom we live and breathe and have our being’ — when Paul says that bit, he’s talking to the people of Athens. They’re basically the opposite of our secular age; instead of pushing God out of the picture and feeling haunted by that loss, they’ve tried to pull every possible god into the picture. They’re haunted in a different direction (and maybe we’ve also replaced God with all sorts of little alternative gods without realising it?). Paul says even though the Athenian divine dance card is full, God still wants a relationship with them. He isn’t far away. All they have to do is seek him and they’ll find him. We seek God by prayer. So maybe you’re feeling alone; isolated; afraid… maybe you’re kind of wishing, or hoping, that there might be a God out there who cares in the midst of this chaos and darkness.

You can try prayer. Maybe you should. You can do it any time too — Paul says in one of his letters that we can ‘pray without ceasing’ — talking to God can be like the chat thread you’re keeping open on your computer screen, or the WhatsApp group you message with random thoughts and questions during the day.

Our best model for prayer is Jesus — there are other good prayers (as in people who pray, not just what to say) in the Bible. There are prayers written out in different books, by different people — the book of Psalms is basically a whole book of prayers that are songs. Daniel, in the book of Daniel, is a good picture of prayer during really rough times… but Jesus is our model for what the good human life looks like, and he prays. Lots. He often prays by withdrawing himself from the hustle and bustle of life — from distractions. To really zero in on his relationship with God. You might like to do that too — though that’s particularly hard if you live in a house with kids (and praying with them will probably help calm their anxieties in this moment too). Jesus famously provides a bit of a guide to prayer in Matthew’s Gospel (that’s Matthew’s story about Jesus’ life and teaching). Jesus teaches the most famous ‘model prayer’ of all — the Lord’s Prayer (a prayer that God’s kingdom would come — one that God answers as Jesus dies, and God’s Spirit gets given to people so that we can follow Jesus as king and have eternal life with him). It models talking to God in a relational way, thanking God for some stuff about God (“our father in heaven, hallowed be your name” just means ‘your name is great and holy — basically ‘you’re really great’). It asks God to act in the world (“your kindgom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven”). It asks God to provide (“give us each day our daily bread”) — there’s a good case to be made that this is a prayer for God’s Spirit, the literal translation is ‘the bread of tomorrow today’ and in Luke’s version Jesus says the Father (God) gives us something heaps greater than Bread, his Spirit). It asks God to forgive us for the wrong things we do and sets us towards better relationships with others too (“forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us”), and it asks that we might live and act in certain ways consistent with what we’ve prayed (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”). Our prayers can do all that stuff. Jesus also has some pretty good guidelines for praying in lockdown. Ones we can all follow. We don’t have to babble on using holy secret language, or say the right number of ‘Father Gods’ or ‘hail Marys’ or crack any code to make our prayers work. We don’t have to be super religious types. We can just talk. And God will listen. Why not try it. At the very least it’ll give you something to do during lockdown, at best it’ll help push you towards the God who is there, who made the universe, and who cares for you.

Here’s what Jesus says:

“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 others. Truly I tell you, 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

You can pray words you come up with yourself, but lots of Christians also find it helpful to pray prayers written by others (like the Psalms, or books of prayers from all sorts of people through history). You could try praying something like this to kick you off.

“God,

I don’t even know if you’re out there but I thought I’d give this prayer thing a go because I don’t know what else to do right now. I’m scared. I’m worried about this virus and what it means for people I love. For my family. For me. For my work. I don’t know if we’ll survive this. We need some sort of help. I ask that you would fix this. Whether that’s through scientists finding treatments and cures, or through some miracle we don’t understand. Fix this. Give us strength. Help us love each other. We don’t do a good job of that at the best of times, I don’t do a good job of that either. I get angry and selfish. I say things that hurt people. I see people as competition for resources. I’m sorry. God, if you’re out there, help me believe that. Help me see the good things you’ve made as good gifts. Thank you for trees, and birds that sing. For people and their brains — for stories that help me get through the day, and science that might help us survive. Thank you for colours, and food that smells good. If you’re there in those good things, help me find you, and so find comfort for my fears.”

Christians often say ‘amen’ at the end of prayers — you don’t have to, it just means ‘I agree’ — it’s a way to pray stuff together. Ultimately prayers work best if you’re actually in a relationship with God, not just casually dating, and the way that happens is through Jesus. Through trusting that Jesus is there, and that his prayer (for God’s kingdom to come) was actually answered. Then you can pray to God as someone who is his child (like Jesus did), and you can know that God is listening like a good father listens to their kids (partly cause that’s how the whole Trinity thing works). That changes the way we pray, but the one above might be a useful starting place if you’re in the more casual stage of a relationship — trying to figure out if God is there or not. Give it a go.

PrayerBook

My little sister reviewed The Social Network, and the way Christians use Facebook for her church. It’s a good review. Even if the audio makes her sound a little bit like a robot.

The review closes with some practical ways to use Facebook as Christians. You should listen to them. But this video seems as good as an intro I’m going to get to introduce this idea I’ve been using for a while to the whole world without seeming overly pious. I hear a lot of Christians bagging out Facebook because it “doesn’t promote real relationships” or it has replaced time with real people or because it promotes superficial relationships over deep ones.

I don’t get it. Sure. It can. It can be artificial. But any type of relationship can be artificial. Wrong use doesn’t negate right use. And let me suggest a cool right use. You know how Facebook randomly throws up faces on your profile in the left hand column? Wouldn’t Facebook be a more productive place, spiritually speaking, if every time you logged on to your profile you prayed for those six people. I don’t do it every time I log on – but I try to, and it has been a great way of remembering to pray for people you don’t see that often.

Playing while praying

Mikey raises the question1, on Christian Reflections, about whether its ever acceptable for a muso to start providing prayer muzak.

I say no.

I’d love to read your thoughts over there too.

1 Though he calls it something very different -“the post-sermon prayer tinkle” which to me sounds a little like a post sermon bathroom break, analogous to the obligatory pre-sermon bathroom break (if you don’t know about this, don’t ask. I think it’s called “Preacher’s Belly”… or it should be.

Atheists try to hack God

When the community of global atheists decided to meet in Melbourne next year they unleashed a horde of Christian hackers who attacked the convention’s website.

To retaliate a Facebook campaign was hatched to try to take God offline. DDoS attacks – Distributed Denial of Service – are a hacking favourite. They’re basically an internet flashmob. A bunch of people, and their computers, hit a server with an overwhelming load of requests and bang. It metaphorically explodes…

The atheists planned a day of prayer in a bid to shut down God.

“This is a call to all non-believers and advocates for freedom of speech to join us in a global co-ordinated minute of prayer with the aim of inundating God (in this context, the Christian god, God, as distinct from the Greek god, Zeus, the Egyptian god, Ra etc etc) with so many useless prayers that it causes his divineness to go offline as as result of our own DDOS (‘Divine’ Denial of Service).”

It would be incredibly funny if all their prayers (bar their intention) were answered in the affirmative.

On the Lord’s Prayer

I preached on the Lord’s Prayer today.

Here’s my sermon as a word cloud thanks to wordle

Here are my points in list form (mostly from Matthew 6)…

  1. Jesus says “this then is how you should pray”… not “this then is what you should pray”… The Lord’s Prayer is not a script for a prayer.
  2. One of the great ironies in Christian culture is that we have taken the Lord’s prayer and done with it exactly what Jesus was telling people not to do. Before teaching people how to pray he teaches them how not to – he warns against babbling like the pagans. The Lord’s Prayer is not a mantra to pray over and over again, but a guideline…
  3. The Lord’s Prayer is short.
  4. Prayer is for Christians – we’re to pray for God as “our father”…
  5. “Hallowed be your name” is primarily a request, not a statement. I got this idea from John Piper. I’d always read that line as a statement about how great God’s name is. ..

    Sanctify can mean make holy or treat as holy. When God sanctifies us, it means that he makes us holy. But when we sanctify God, it means that we treat him as holy.

  6. Prayer shouldn’t be contrary to our actions. We shouldn’t pray for God’s will to be done and not be trying to do it, we shouldn’t pray for forgiveness without forgiving others…
  7. God, as our loving father, wants to provide for our material needs as well as our spiritual needs (which he provides through Jesus). We’re so scared of the prosperity doctrine that we kind of dismiss the idea that God has promised to look after our physical needs. I found Soph’s post on the fountainside pretty helpful on this point.
  8. The idea that our forgiveness depends on us first forgiving others is pretty confronting. It’s in the verses just after the Lord’s Prayer and comes up again in Matthew 18. This is probably a point that is underdone in our evangelical “faith alone” circles… here’s the bit at the end of the Lord’s Prayer.

    14For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15But if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.

The unsingleness post

Right. So the post I wrote on singleness over the weekend has prompted a couple of follow up points (from the discussion in the comments).

Here are two extra ideas. And they’re for the guys (mostly).

There was a comment that attempted to point out that while the point of my post was that you shouldn’t necessarily be stressed or impatient, I personally had made significant life changes in order to pursue a girl.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that guys should not pursue girls. I’m not suggesting you sit on your backside and wait for a girl to fall into your lap (though that quite literally worked for someone I know). It’s like prayer – no reformed Christian that I know prays about something and does nothing – you pray and act accordingly. It’s the same concept.

So, two points.

1. If you’re a guy and you want a specific girl – pursue her (until she either says yes when you ask her out) or makes it clear she’s not interested (though my theory is you get three strikes – because you want to be sure).

2. If you just want a girl in general, then don’t be desperate. Desperation is a turn off. For either gender. In my opinion. You’re better off being patient and content.

This time I can’t claim to have received that advice from my wise old grandfather.

Prayer fail

One of the proofs that one of my atheist friends suggests would swing him towards faith is some sort of observable scientific testing of prayer.

The problem with this is that too often they then demand the test meet some “observable” criteria, that they set, like growing an amputee’s limb back…

I think prayer works, my personal experience of prayer suggest that it works, but then I tend to pray within the constraints of rational possibilities (eg not that an amputee will grow a limb back) consistent with instructions on prayer from the Bible.

There is however, another side of the coin. Where people can pray in stupid ways that just lend themselves to atheists pointing and laughing.

Like this 63 year old Indian man who has refused to bathe for 35 years as part of his regular prayer ritual.

I would suggest, that if you’re hanging on to some sort of superstition in order to achieve a particular, and stated aim, that 35 years is too long. Particularly if the aim is to have a male child.

An Indian man who fathered seven daughters has not washed for 35 years in an apparent attempt to ensure his next child is a boy, newspapers report.

Kailash “Kalau” Singh replaces bathing and brushing his teeth with a “fire bath” every evening when he stands on one leg beside a bonfire, smokes marijuana and says prayers to Lord Shiva, according to the Hindustan Times.

On a thing and a prayer

A few weeks back I made the suggestion that I was looking for something meaty to post about. But it had to be something that wouldn’t in any way disqualify me from future Presbyterian ministry. Simone suggested I write about prayer in church. I’m sure this was mostly prompted by a comment I made on her blog about a frustration I have about the “quality control” some churches employ when it comes to prayer time.

So here goes.

I think prayer is important in church. That’s obvious. I am in no way diminishing the fact that talking to our heavenly father is an integral part of church life – and must be part of the church service.

Public prayer is an interesting creature. Done well it can be encouraging and uplifting. Done very well it can spur people on to Godly thinking and concern for others – not to mention that faithful prayer is important to the spiritual life of a church community.

Done badly prayer can appear to be nothing more than a press release about the upcoming activities of a church. “We pray for the upcoming dinner socials, we pray for the car wash, etc…”. When prayer points are pulled straight out of the church notices they’re neither informative or insightful – it’s fair enough to pray for the fruit of an evangelistic event, or for an important training event, or in fact to pray for any ministry or event being run by the church in question. But to do it from the notice sheet verbatim is an easy trap for the nervous prayer – and serves nobody.

The other trap I think churches can fall into is forcing (or teaching or instructing) prayers to write down their prayers. Unless you’re a trained reader reading will always sound like reading not like natural speech. It’s unavoidable. Inevitable even. If you’ve got someone reading their prayer it doesn’t matter how well prepared they are – it will sound read. And things that sound read don’t sound like they’re from the heart – and prayer should be (and public prayer should sound) from the heart, not from a script. Especially not from a script that sounds overly honed for the benefit of keeping tight and presentable.

But… I hear you say. “But if people don’t write their prayers down they ramble and umm and ahh and that sounds so ungainly”… well I say “so what”. And if that’s really a problem train people in public speaking rather than get them to write down their prayers. Nobody wants to hear ramble – so train people to pray from points.

When Jesus was teaching his disciples how to pray (ie when he taught them the Lord’s Prayer), and later when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane prior to the crucifixion, there was no mention of putting your thoughts to paper first. He prayed from the heart and with purpose, and subject to God’s will. Those should be the criteria by which we judge church prayers.

I struggle to come to terms with the idea that prayer is like music – and that those serving the body of Christ through prayer should be as prepared as the musician or the preacher. I know where the intention comes from. I too am a pragmatist. But I don’t think there’s anything worse for outsiders than praying to our living God in a stilted, unfeeling manner – a manner I think is encouraged by insisting on scripted prayer.

That is all. Next time I feel the need to write something that will make people angry I’m going to pick on church music. Sacred cows are fun topics.

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