26 May Prayer Works
Last week we looked at the first of three spiritual practices that Jesus addresses in the Sermon on the Mount—giving. This week we focus on praying. Prayer is, for a lot of people, a mysterious, challenging undertaking. For starters, nobody can tell us for sure how prayer works. Certainly, God is not a celestial Santa Claus who doles out answers to prayer like gifts magically appearing under the Christmas tree. Nor is God like a vending machine: drop your prayer in the slot, make your selection and whoosh, out comes the exact result you want. People who approach prayer like this—and there are many of them—inevitably end up disappointed and sure that prayer “doesn’t work.”
I have two overriding questions about prayer. The first is about the purpose of prayer and the second is about the methodology of prayer—or, if you prefer, the “why” and the “how.” My journey with God in prayer has led me to a number of different ways to talk about its purpose: I see prayer as listening to and for God; as a conversation between two partners; as an invitation to know God more intimately; as an opportunity to unburden myself to Someone who knows and loves me; as a way to be reoriented to God’s kingdom and God’s truth; as a means to get beneath the limits of language and conscious thought to deeper places of “knowing.” And, that’s not an exhaustive list.
I guess the common thread is relationship. Prayer is a way I get to know God better (which also results in getting to know myself better, but that’s a topic for a different day.) Just like with a new friend, the more time I spend with her, the more I know, understand and appreciate her. It’s really impossible to develop a meaningful relationship apart from giving my time and myself so that our experiences, shared together and over time, form the basis of mutual trust, respect and love. Perhaps one reason so many people struggle to trust God is that they haven’t really done this most basic work of building a loving, trusting relationship.
But, admittedly, it is harder to build a relationship with someone you can’t see than with someone you can which brings me to the question of how to pray. There are a lot of fantastic resources for prayer. The Lord’s Prayer which Jesus teaches as part of the Sermon on the Mount comes immediately to mind. I also like to use the ACTS prayer. ACTS is an acronym that stands for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication. I find this particular structure helps keep my mind focused as it walks me through praise of God for who God is, confession of sin, gratitude for God’s many blessings and then requests for needs of self and others. Meditation, lectio divina, journaling and centering prayer are all helpful tools to develop better listening skills in prayer (as opposed to doing all the talking myself). Then there are the three basic prayers, Help, Thanks, Wow!, which author Anne Lamott calls to our attention in her book by the same name. I employ these three prayers often, multiple times throughout the day. In an instant I am connected to God and in God’s presence and boy, that can make a world of difference in whatever is going on with me in that moment.
As with giving, Jesus wants us to practice our faith from the heart. God is not holding up score cards like an Olympic judge to grade our prayers. The important thing is not how articulate they sound or how long they are or how theologically correct. Instead, what is your motive? If you pray, not to get all the answers or to try to manipulate God but simply to be in relationship with God, then you’ll have the reward you seek. It may not come in glittery paper or with a bow on top—but it will nurture, sustain and comfort you for a lifetime. Now that’s a real gift.
Yours for the Kingdom,