Why Bother With Prayer?

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. — Matthew 6:7-8, RSV

I am becoming a more and more consistent member of an Episcopalian ministry called The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, which sounds a bit esoteric, but it’s actually an open men’s ministry that meets several times a month for food, Scripture, and prayer. This past week, we had a wonderful (and lengthy) conversation regarding confidence in prayer. While we began talking about being confident in prayer, we ended with a more general discussion of the purpose of praying at all.

This isn’t a new topic. If all is God’s will, why bother trying to change it? Or what about the ethics of praying for God’s favor to the exclusion of others? What does it mean when we seem to go unanswered or unacknowledged? Does God not love us? Does God not exist?

All of these questions were spoken or implied regarding prayer in our meeting this past Saturday, but we kept coming back to the purpose of prayer. Out of nowhere, I was struck with a response that stems from an experience I had in childhood.

It all begins with a hacky sack. I was a young boy, and hacky sacks were still a common form of entertainment. Texas is hot, however, and I much preferred to work out my new “skills” in the comfort of our air-conditioned living room. I hope you can see where this is going.

I was asked repeatedly not to keep playing in the house, but as a pre-teen, I obviously had it under control, and my parents were overreacting. Naturally, I got a little over-ambitious and broke the glass in a picture frame. After the panic subsided, I thought, “Glass is clear! I’ll just get rid of the glass and put the frame back up like nothing ever happened!” This obviously went off without a hitch, and my parents came home, noticed, walked into my room, and asked me about the frame.

Now, my parents knew the glass was broken and gone. So why did they ask? It was clearly a combination of entrapment and moral examination, but it was also an opportunity. If I had chosen to lie, this would have done damage to our relationship. It would be a sign that I didn’t trust them to handle the truth well, and it would also be a sign that they couldn’t trust me. So I opted for honesty, and our relationship took a step forward.

Too often, we view prayer as an exchange of goods rather than a moment of vulnerability and an enhancement of our relationship with God. Sure, we should pour out our petitions before God, but we also need to know that God knows what we need and will give it to us, regardless of whether or not it’s what we are requesting. But the reason we ought to pray and pour our hearts out to God is because that show of trust and reliance with regard to our Creator is something that will cause powerful transformation in life with God and life with others.

Opening up to God is about relationship maintenance, not receiving whatever we want. Too many people twist passages of Scripture out of context, and Matthew’s “Ask, Search, and Knock” passage is often viewed outside of the discussions of prayer and worrying in chapter 6. Remembering that the Bible was written without chapters and verses, we should note that Jesus lays out parameters within which we are to “Ask, Search, and Knock,” and the only way we can meet those is if we meet God with honesty, simplicity, and trust. We need relationship before “results,” and too often we switch those.

If you struggle with prayer and its purpose, you’re not alone. We live in a capitalist world where every relationship and act is a means of gaining something. God, however, doesn’t operate that way. God desires our honesty and trust in prayer because He wants a relationship with us because He loves us. Period. Likewise, we should also seek relationship with Him without expecting prayer to function like a vending machine.

I hope this post has let you know that struggle with prayer is not uncommon. Your doubts are not strange, nor do they have to be an impediment to your relationship with the living God. If we honestly lift our faults, fears, doubts, and concerns to God (with praise and thanksgiving for all the blessings of our lives), we are vulnerable in a way that opens our lives up to a transformative relationship with the One who loved us first and loves us still.

Peace be with you!

Joyful Discomfort?

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! — Psalm 95:2, NRSV

I know I just wrote a post on the importance of “fearing” God as something “other” and unattainable, but if Christianity is allowed to be so full of paradox, so am I! I was reading my morning Psalm a couple of days ago, and Psalm 95 came up. We see joy, reverence, reservation, and warning all in the same Psalm! So how does it all come together?

It is true that God is not something we can possess. He is, after all “a great God, and a King above all gods.” This is a God before Whom we are to “worship and bow down” (v. 6) and “listen to his voice” (v. 7),” lest we never enter His rest (v. 11). There is no mistaking the fact that this is the God that is the Source of all that is, from “the depths of the earth” and “the heights of the mountains” to “the sea… and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (vs. 4-5).

On the other hand, this is One whose presence should inspire a sense of thanksgiving and joy (v. 2)! Why? Because this Source, this Mystery beyond definition, earnestly desires a relationship with us! God wants us to choose Him as “our God,” that we may be “the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand” (v. 7). This is a relationship in which we each recover our value as a beloved part of creation, imbued with the image of the Creator, designed for life-giving relationship with Him and each other!

So why the warning? Why the admonition in verse 8 to “not harden your hearts?” Simply put, relationships have to be properly maintained.

When you have a spouse, there are certain “spouse-specific” ways you are expected to honor that relationship. Fidelity, communication, consideration, and self-sacrifice are all necessary components. When we deny them, I can personally attest that the relationship suffers severely.

The same is true for God, in that our relationship with Him isn’t just about soaking up the benefits of His love. We are expected to share that love with one another, and in that way we honor the One who made us all. When we harden our hearts and refuse to do this, the judgment of God is a necessary and imminent reality. After all, we see the results of our lack of compassion and love everywhere as our nation struggles to deal with racism, sexism, poverty, and violence.

God desires that we return to relationship with Him, and this desire is clearest at the cross of Christ, where God reveals His willingness to die that we might know the power of His love. That is some strong love! What we must do now is commit to imitating that love in all of our own relationships in the Name of the One who has given us those relationships. It’s not easy, but the results will speak for themselves!

I hope this “rounds out” my previous expressions of God’s mystery and majesty. It’s my prayer that you will recognize this day how loved you are and that you matter very much. The next step is accepting the responsibility that comes with that realization. Specifically, we should go forward into our daily lives determined to treat others (and the rest of creation) with the respect and dignity we would offer God, for it is He that made and loves us all.

Peace be with you!

You Can’t “Have” God

…and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.” — Leviticus 16:2, RSVCE

I was in seminary, seated in a class we called “Systematics.” This was the infamous course in which two professors with different theological stances (who wouldn’t kill each other) co-taught on the different aspects of Christian belief. At the end of this course, the students were to write a thirty page paper that detailed their constructed theology based on the conflicting perspectives they received from professors, along with their own independent studies.

ANYWAY, in one of these seminars, a class discussion was being had over the nature of God and His relationship with humans. Now, I am a fairly relaxed guy. If you refer to God as “Mother” or “the Divine,” I understand that. There are arguments for that. “Father” is just easier and more comfortable for me. On this particular day, though, somebody took it just a little too far.

I had just wrapped up about my view of God as the most mysterious, distant, yet intimate reality that could possibly be conceived. I see God as the One who offers no real name to Moses in Exodus 3, precisely because this is a God that cannot be boxed or neatly categorized. In response, an older woman in the class interjected, “I mean, I understand that, but to me He is just family, I mean that’s ‘Daddy,’ know what I mean?”

Rest assured, I kept my reaction in check. Sure, my skin felt like it was crawling off of my body while my soul wanted to launch itself into sweet oblivion, but I was fine. You might be wondering why this bothered me so much, so let’s look at this text from Leviticus.

The context of this passage is a situation in which Aaron has lost two sons (Leviticus 10:1-3) because they did not behave in a holy way toward their charge. Because holiness and unholiness cannot abide together, especially in Leviticus, God’s very presence lashes out and consumes Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. These are two members of the chosen line of Levi, the clan of Israel perpetually assigned to be priests before God on behalf of the nation… and they were consumed by God for being lax in their duties.

Just because people are chosen and loved by God doesn’t mean that they possess God. God loves us all as His children and desires a relationship with us, but that doesn’t mean that God is “in our pocket.” We still have responsibilities, and we are still dealing with something that cannot be contained, boxed, packaged, or defined. While God has made revelations of Himself to us in Jesus Christ, even the Incarnation is not what was expected (living a poor, nomadic life that culminates in being featured in a public execution, for example).

So my problem with the idea that “God is my Daddy, Buddy, Divine Pal,” and the like is that we somehow seem to forget that God isn’t always on our side the way we might think. This is a Presence that first and foremost is the I AM of Exodus 3. When we live lives of selfishness and lack compassion, it doesn’t matter if we pray to “Daddy God” every night. God will not be pleased, and we will eventually know it. God’s love is always there, the relationship is always possible, but in no way does that mean we are at a level of intimacy that puts us on God’s level. In no way are we not accountable for what we think, do, and say. This puts some fear in me, and I’m sure it does in you. Now you know what it is to have the “fear of God.” It’s not abject terror, but it is recognizing that you are still dealing with something that is totally “other,” something that is beyond us but chooses to be near to us. That is both an encouraging and humbling thought, yes?

So what am I getting at here? I don’t think this particular student was being idolatrous or silly, but I do think there is some reverence lost when we over-familiarize ourselves with God. Further, we become dangerous. When we feel God always has our back no matter what, we lose the ability to self-examine and recognize our need to change and grow into a more accurate depiction of Christ. On the large scale, religious terrorists feel that God is theirs and theirs alone, and they are fueled by the misconception that He will ultimately sanction whatever action they take in His name. They are wrong. Sometimes, God’s idea of “having our back” is giving us a swift kick in the butt to let us know we got off track… And that is okay.

For today, let’s take a moment to be in awe of the great Mystery that has revealed Itself to us. Let’s marvel at the all-inclusive Whole of reality, the Source of all Being, who chose to reveal Himself to us throughout history, and most especially in Jesus Christ. How about we take a moment to be utterly humbled that THAT is what went to the cross for us? I hope that, like me, you will find yourself challenged, encouraged, and feeling as loved as you really are.

Peace be with you!