Prayer

pray your way to the good life

Where then does wisdom come from,
and where is understanding located?
It is hidden from the eyes of every living thing
and concealed from the birds of the sky.
Abaddon and Death say,
“We have heard news of it with our ears.”
But God understands the way to wisdom,
and He knows its location.
For He looks to the ends of the earth
and sees everything under the heavens.
— Job 28.20-24 (HCSB)

I find limestone caves absolutely captivating.

I love the way they display the power of gradual and cumulative forces to carve out something beautiful. Dissolving and depositing. Accidentally extruding baroque cathedrals. And secreting them away in the dark. For millennia.

What’s more, they stand as eloquent testimony to the formative power of the slow drip.

For their subterranean minarets and elaborate hanging monuments to erosion didn’t just appear overnight.

Mostly, they’re the product of thousands of years of constant repetition. Slowly eating away at and reconfiguring the rock. Day after day.

Occasionally staining it with a shock of ocre from some rich metallic seam above. Sometimes bleaching away the colours locked within by even older processes.

And the picture the Bible paints of human beings is no different.

I’ve come to be persuaded that the slow drip of habit and repetition is at least as significant for us as is the explosive power of a ‘decisive moment’.

This is one of the reasons why I so much appreciate my friend Andrew’s take on the Lord’s Prayer.

One of the best lessons (and gifts) of the Lord’s prayer is that prayer is not learnt by grasping abstract principles that you take away and apply.

Rather, it’s learnt by practice. By being tried on and ‘worn in’ like a pair of shoes you hope to walk in for years.

Yes — in one sense, it is a template for prayer. But the careful preservation of almost identical wording in both Matthew and Luke suggests that Jesus’ disciples saw it as a prayer to be learnt (not just learnt from).

And Matthew’s careful placement of this prayer to be learnt at the apex of the Sermon on the Mount — Jesus’ most famous announcement of his radical vision of the good life — hints at the fact that you pray your way to the good life.

You pray your way to the good life because we’re so much like limestone caves. We’re profoundly formed and shaped by the almost imperceptible forces of habit.

As our settled inclination to prioritise our reputation, kingdom and glory is dissolved and gradually realigned with God’s priorities.

Or as our seemingly rock-solid devotion to our own independence, superiority and invulnerability is worn away and slowly (painfully slowly!) replaced by an instinctual desire to walk God’s way.

By our looking to him to meet our material and spiritual needs.

By our extending the same forgiveness we enjoy.

And by our seeking his deliverance and protection from the evil within and without…

A Thorn In Our Collective Flesh?

A Disappointing Choice

Maybe it’s unnecessarily dark and dramatic. But I’m starting to think of tomorrow’s federal election a bit like this:

“So that I would not exalt myself, a thorn in the flesh was given to me, a messenger of Satan to torment me so I would not exalt myself.” (2 Corinthians 12:7 HCSB)

You may have seen the Cathy Wilcox political cartoon doing the rounds of social media — the one with voters marking their ballot papers from ‘least disappointing’ through to ‘most disappointing’.

It captures how many of my friends are feeling about tomorrow’s federal election.

Tomorrow Australia chooses.

But by almost any measure, it’s a pretty disappointing choice.

A Thorn In The Flesh?

Which brings me to Paul’s thorn — and how this election and its aftermath might be the thorn in our collective flesh.

Whether it was a physical illness or a ‘spiritual’ condition (a besetting sin Paul was struggling with perhaps), it’s clear that Paul regarded this thorn as an unpleasant imposition. He calls it “a messenger of Satan”. And pleads for God to remove it. Repeatedly.

In short, it doesn’t exactly make Paul’s list of Awesome Stuff I Hoped Would Happen To Me.

And yet Paul could also see that God was using his thorn.

He could see God’s hand in it. See how God was humbling him. And teaching him about the sufficiency of his grace, and about his all-surpassing strength in the midst of Paul’s weakness.

Learning From The Thorn

I hope it’s not too much of a stretch to say that tomorrow’s election — and whatever government it delivers us — doesn’t exactly make my list of Awesome Stuff I Hope Would Happen To Me.

I may not be quite ready to assign it a satanic origin. But it sure feels like a thorn in our collective flesh.

Which leads me to think that maybe we need to start asking the kind of ‘What could God be teaching us?’ questions that Paul asks.

So here’s my list (for what it’s worth). Maybe you could add to it?

1. It could remind us of the ‘imperfectability’ of human leadership

We need to smash the idol of human leadership that grips the hearts of Australians.

Don’t believe me that we idolise our leaders? Think we’re too cynical for that?

Actually, our cynicism just proves it. We’re cynical because we’ve set our hopes unrealistically high.

Our crushing disappointment reveals that most of us want our leaders to do far more for us than simply administer justice. Instead, we want them to fill our lives. Give us peace. Security. Hope. Salvation even.

Maybe this election will be a good thing because it will sear the lesson into us that human leadership is not only imperfect but imperfectable!

2. It could help us rediscover the breadth of public life

Maybe the results of this election will force us not just to nod our heads to but to actively embrace the fact that, as
Michael Allison and Richard Glover
put it, “politics is about more than voting, governments and governors. Politics is primarily about citizenship – how you conduct yourself in the community.”

Wouldn’t it be awesome if we went back to advocating for stuff we cared about the old fashioned way?

Not by ‘outsourcing our values’ — e.g., by voting in a candidate or party we want to perfectly represent our concerns. But by pitching in together. Using our different gifts. And making our legislators listen to us.

Are you any good at research? Good! Use your abilities to do some research about the things that matter to you — say … the economic value of resettling asylum seekers.

Any good at communications? Great! Turn the research your sisters and brothers produce into something compelling that wins hearts — and a hearing in Canberra.

At the very least, start talking to your local member not just whinging about whichever party they represent!

3. It could drive us to prayerful witness — maybe even martyrdom

Ultimately, Paul’s thorn to teach him that God’s grace was sufficient, God’s strength made perfect in our weakness.

It forced him to look away from himself and to the Lord — drawing others’ eyes there in the process.

And maybe the outcome of Saturday’s election could do something like that for us.

What if having some of our key concerns marginalised drove Christians in our nation to prayer?

To call upon the Lord instead of looking to ourselves — our influence, insight and strategy — to make things right.

To cry “Come, Lord Jesus” instead of plotting the second coming of Christendom in Australia.

Even to risk social (if not literal) death in order to testify to the perfect, just and compassionate rule of our Risen Lord instead of desperately trying to bend the instrumentality of our society’s organisation towards our ideas of justice and compassion.

Marginalisation won’t be fun. Neither was Paul’s thorn.

But a thorn in our collective flesh might be exactly what we need to rediscover that God’s grace is sufficient for us, and his strength is made perfect in weakness…

parental guidance recommended?

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I assume you’re familiar with this sort of prayer: ‘Lord – please guide us and make your will really clear to us’.

I hear it all the time. Often from my own mouth!

I guess that’s no surprise. I go to enough ministry planning meetings. And I sit with enough people wrestling with big decisions — about career or relationships or church.

And there’s something undeniably good about the desire this sort of prayer wraps with words. The commitment in the face of uncertainty to walk a path pleasing to God. The longing to honour him.

But, particularly as I take stock of what’s going on in my own heart, I’m struck by the oddness of some of the expectations such words bundle up together with this longing and commitment.

You see, the picture this sort of prayer seems to paint is one in which we’re asking our Heavenly Father to give us the kind of ‘guidance’ we resent our earthly parents for offering.

I mean, do we really mean to ask God to lay out a detailed plan for our every step? To micromanage every decision? To make every aspect of timing and process abundantly clear?

Much as I love them, I wouldn’t ask my parents for that. And I’m not sure they’d want me to either.

It’s almost the overriding goal of healthy parenting to prepare one’s children to make their own good decisions — springing freely from their informed maturity and well-formed characters.

Numerous passages in the New Testament convince me that God doesn’t want anything less for his dearly-loved sons and daughters.

Few more so than the Lord’s Prayer — where we align our vision with God’s (‘Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as in heaven’) without sacrificing our confidence that he’ll reliably and abundantly meet all our physical and spiritual needs.

So why do I persist in asking for something less?

And what would it sound like to seek from God truly parental guidance instead? Guidance in keeping with his holy and loving character and commitment to our growing maturity?

Lord – teach us to pray … again!

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Picture this:

You’re walking along — in transit between Point A and Point B (your home and your tram stop, your office and wherever you parked your car).

You’ve set aside the time to pray. Perhaps to start your morning with something important. Or review your day.

So you begin: “Loving God…”

You pray briefly for a couple of big picture things. This morning’s headlines. Uncle Ernest’s big operation. Stuff like that.

Then you turn your attention to the day, intending to offer up whatever crosses your mind.

There’s that looming deadline.

And some simmering conflict with a work colleague.

Yep — definitely pray about that.

And you need to call your parents. Better pray for that conversation! Oh yeah — and for them too…

And there’s the dry cleaning to pick up…

Whoa. Back on track.

“Maybe I should pull out my phone and check my appointments. Then I can commit my day to God — hour by hour.”

And before you know it prayer gets buried under the jumble of day planning — adding items to your To Do list, checking email, and scanning your Facebook news feed…

Sound familiar?

It happens to me all the time. All. The. Time.

Mind you, it’s not a new problem. Theologian John Calvin wrote about it back in the Seventeenth Century (minus the email and Facebook bit).

Here’s what Calvin says about the tendency of undisciplined prayer to collapse under the weight of random thoughts and recollections in his famous Institutes of the Christian Religion (III.xx.5):

No one is so intent on praying that he does not feel many irrelevant thought stealing upon him, which either break the course of prayer or delay it by some winding bypath.

What can be done about this?

This is where the Lord’s Prayer comes in.

Explicitly so in Luke’s Gospel. When Jesus’ disciples approach him and ask, “Lord, teach us to pray”, Jesus responds by outlining the What, How, and Why of prayer. And it all starts with the Lord’s Prayer.

For Jesus in Luke, this prayer is a solid and spacious trellis upon which his disciples can grow a healthy and fruitful prayer life.

Which certainly sounds to me like a pretty good place to start — or start again!

how prayer can liberate you from judgement and anxiety

As I continue to pray “Lord – teach us to pray” this year, all sorts of experiences and things I’m reading are ricocheting off one another, and occasionally showering me with glimmering sparks of insight.

Oliver O’Donovan’s paper on ‘Prayer and Morality in the Sermon on the Mount’ (Studies in Christian Ethics 22.1 [2000]: 21-33) did this to me yesterday. And, with my mind’s eye, I can still see the dazzling sparks settling around me.

I doubt I can reproduce this effect for you — it’s a bit like trying to advertise a 3D TV on normal 2D television. But this brief comment on the structure of Matthew 6.25-7.12 is one moment that could stand for many (pages 28-29):

We might have expected the command to ask be set directly beside the command not to be anxious. But by placing these two teachings one on either side of the command not to judge, Matthew has allowed us to see what judging has in common with anxiety. Judging, like worrying, is a false way of disposing of our power to care; it focuses care on the wrong of the past, just as worrying focuses it on the peril of the immediate future. Judging, like worrying, is unable to see through the bewildering complexity of meaning with which the world confronts us; it is tangled up in the twists and turns of its own narrative. It cannot revert to the simple and consistent goal towards which all things tend, the Kingdom of God and it’s righteousness.

To my mind, this is a brilliant diagnosis of the shared pathology behind what can appear as opposing sets of symptoms — proudly sitting in judgement on others, and anxiously judging yourself. Pride, someone has said, is just anxiety in drag. (Or maybe it was the other way around. Either way, there’s truth there…)

Better still, it points the way to the liberating power of prayer — the asking, seeking, and knocking Jesus goads us to.

Only prayer can set us free from both judgement and anxiety. Because only a prayerful focus on the holy reputation, kingdom, and will of our Father in heaven has the power to draw our eyes and hearts away from ourselves — and our own little kingdoms.

Ultimately, only a living knowledge of God as our Father can give us the confidence to draw near to him with our needs. Rather than leaving us feeling like we have to steal what we need — as though either our needs are met or God’s kingdom agenda is advanced. An either/or that’s a sure recipe for judgement or anxiety…

gratitude and gratification

I’ve often tripped over this verse from 1 Timothy 6:

17 As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment.

It’s not the warning to the rich that I catch my foot on. I get the idea that having stuff can lead us to haughtiness or an inclination to try to rest the weight of our hope for the future on the illusory solidity of stuff.

What gets me is the exhortation — or rather the reason for the exhortation to set our hope on God: because he “richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment”.

I wouldn’t have chosen to dispense this as the remedy for proud, self-sufficient wealth-creation.

Maybe that’s because the leftist bent of my idealistic youth is enjoying something of a revival in my thinking of late.

Or maybe it’s because I need to inwardly digest the message Tim Keller recently got to broadcast on the NY Times website.

But ultimately I suspect it’s because my sense of enjoyment — as in “God richly provides … everything for our enjoyment” — is way too cramped and narrow.

Lingering beneath however I might like to define the word, for me ‘enjoyment’ always connotes something furtive. Stolen. Something I’ve gotten away with. Or jumped through the hoops of respectably delayed gratification to attain.

I guess I could stand to learn a thing or two from my sixteen month-old son, who clasps his hands repeatedly in a prayer of gratitude every meal time — especially when he’s served up his favourite foods (currently grapes, crackers, sultanas, and banana muffins).

For my son, the more he anticipates enjoying something, the more he is moved to express his thankfulness. So much so that it seems like thankfulness enhances his enjoyment of something.

Gratitude isn’t a necessary and more or less unpleasant prelude to gratification. It’s essential to it!

Oh, how I wish I could recapture that…

is prayer more than just asking God for stuff?

Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.

Towards the end of Stanley Hauerwas’s fascinating and deeply moving memoir, Hannah’s Child, he recounts how the Lord has been teaching him to pray. As he tells it, part of this process has been learning how not to pray — and here he singles out the verbal tic, endemic to the circles I move in, of ‘just asking’ God: “Lord, we just ask you to do X or Y”.

Hauerwas once provocatively suggested that bad prayer habits de-form us in serious ways: “You begin by singing some sappy, sentimental hymn, then you pray some pointless prayer, and the next thing you know you have murdered your best friend” (The Truth About God).

But his objection to the ‘just asking’ phenomenon zooms in on the hypocritical pride he sees lurking in the pat phrase. According to Hauerwas, it’s the prayer equivalent of a humble brag.

The fig leaf of (apparent) humility goes something like this: “When I pray ‘Lord, I just ask you…’, I’m not asking much, am I? Just this one little thing. That’s all.” But concealed beneath it is an arrogant assertion of entitlement: “Lord, I’m just asking you for this! And surely you won’t be miserly enough to withhold such a small thing. In fact, you probably kind of owe it to me…”

Ouch. I think that’s a fair few of my prayers right there.

And yet… isn’t ‘just asking’ the very thing Paul encourages his Christian readers to do in Philippians 4.6 (quoted above)? To let their requests be made known to God?

In fact, I’ve read some fairly compelling arguments for saying that ‘just asking’ God is close to the essence of Christian prayer. Not ‘listening to God’. Or silently communing in some inarticulate ecstasy. Or wrestling with myself as much as — if not more than — with God.

Sure, God might speak to me as I’m praying. Audibly or inaudibly.

However, I remain more or less committed to the idea that God does in fact speak to us chiefly in the way he’s promised to: through his Spirit-inspired word in the Bible, where our risen Lord Jesus meets us “clothed in his promises” (as Calvin puts it). And expecting him to relate to us in ways that he hasn’t told us to expect — well … that’s kind of arrogant, isn’t it?

Equally, I may be transported in the midst of prayer to a state of ecstatic and awestruck joy. This happened to me earlier this year in response to a sermon I heard that powerfully brought home the goodness and reality of God’s loving fatherhood for his adopted children.

But it would be unrealistic — and I think unbiblical — to expect this to characterise our every experience of prayer. I would even say it’s proud to think we’re entitled to this!

And I may have to wrestle with myself in prayer to bring my will into line with God’s. Or to embed my prayer and supplication in thanksgiving (as Paul teaches) so I don’t turn inward in my anxiety but outward to my. Or even just to stop my attention wandering.

If Jesus’ example in the Garden of Gethsemane is anything to go by, we can probably expect this sort of struggle to colour our prayer lives fairly consistently.

But I’m not sure if that makes it essential to prayer. Certainly, if all we manage to do in a time of prayer is wrestle with our own will, out inclinations to thanklessness and self-involved worry, or our straying attention, then the job is less than half done!

We’re ready to pray maybe. But we haven’t yet prayed. Have we?

And in fact we may now be tempted to proudly brandish our hard won posture of readiness as some sort of talisman that secures God’s favour towards us. Rather than actually asking him to show us favour. In full knowledge of our rebellious, doubting, straying unworthiness. Resting nonetheless in the father-child relationship Jesus has wrestled decisively to secure for us.

What if the just asking prayer is the best we have?

Not as an arrogantly brief shopping list. But as our participation in the prayer of God the Son to his Father and ours. As his Spirit testifies with our spirits that we belong to him. And as we join our voices to Christ’s Gethsemane prayer — that cry of unprecedented access, “Abba, Father”…