Sunday, 24 November 2013

Essay on Perspectives on Prayer - November 2013

For many people, prayer is regarded as an unnatural activity. It is an assault on our autonomy, flying in the face of self-reliance and independence, an indictment on our post-modern self-sufficiency.[1] It makes demands that require us to admit that perhaps we need something outside of ourselves. Further, it is often considered an option of last resort, when we have no one and nothing else to turn to. Prayer is seen as a duty and discipline, rather than friendship and relationship with God.[2]
In this essay I will explore a number of possible reasons as to why many people do not pray, and alternative perspectives on making prayer a more positive experience.
There are a number of reasons people give for either not praying, or finding prayer unsatisfying. Social psychologists suggest there are four basic factors people weigh when they consider embracing or resisting any activity, including that of personal prayer.[3]
These are:
Will it work for me? Many people believe God doesn’t hear them, that prayer won’t change anything, or that what we are praying for isn’t important enough. They may also feel they are unworthy or ashamed. Many people may also get mentally bogged-down, unable to think of what or who they should be praying about. This causes them to give up, feeling dissatisfaction and failure.[4]
Do I have the self-efficacy to complete the tasks and reach the goals? Prayer can feel like hard work, and boring, particularly when it feels ineffectual. Some wonder if reading the Bible will help them to grow spiritually and learn how to pray successfully. A chasm stands between us and actually praying – we experience the agony of prayerlessness, and are quickly able to find deep and profound reasons not to pray.[5]
What’s it worth to me? Many ask what value will be found in personal devotions. Is getting to know God a valuable goal in its own right, and will it make my life any better or make me a better Christian? Will personal devotions nurture specific values such as a happier life, closeness to God, warm feelings and insight into God’s ways?
What will it cost me? This is often expressed by people not having enough time or being too busy. Sleep, recreation, family and work schedules compete with many other temptations. A lack of discipline due to our frantic lifestyle may make it harder to commit to spending time praying.[6]
By identifying our expectations of what we want to achieve from prayer, we can make the necessary changes to have a more fulfilling devotional life. Once we gain confidence in performing the disciplines, valuing the spirituality and welcoming intimacy with God, rather than expecting a given result, the costs in time and effort can seem less daunting.[7]
External help, such as meeting in a small group, being provided with small experiences of success to build skills and morale, and verbal encouragement will help. Expectations of prayer must be realistic, biblical and inclusive – petition, submission, intimacy and comfort. Lists of who and what you want to be praying for can be helpful. Rewards of expectations, skills and values can be increased, and reduce how much time we spend in personal devotions, perhaps to ten minutes per day, gradually building up to longer periods as we value time spent in prayer for itself. However, we need to recognise that it will require a persistent discipline and daily practice.[8] In time, a conversion of the heart and a transformation of the spirit take place, as ‘God moves from the periphery of our prayer experience to the center.’[9]
At its simplest definition, prayer is speaking to God.[10] Prayer is an impulse created in us by God, an overwhelming love relationship that is enduring, continuing and growing.[11] ‘The basis of true prayer is the Sonship of Jesus which we share in union with him. The acceptance he has with the Father is the acceptance we now have.’[12]
Nouwen describes prayer as a discipline that is ‘the intentional, concentrated, and regular effort to create space for God.’[13] It is the place where we unmask our illusions, discover our lack of control and learn that we are not defined by our productivity or worth. He further suggests that prayer can be considered as wasting time being alone and unbusy with God, letting go of any notions of its usefulness and what the results might be, of being in control, and to remind ourselves that if ‘anything important or fruitful happens through prayer, it is God who achieves the result.’[14] Barry defines prayer as a conscious relationship that we need to invest quality time and effort into, as we would any other sort of valued relationship.[15] God takes opportunities to meet us, and we must reciprocate in order to experience a personal encounter.
It can be difficult expressing our anger to God: ‘Repressed or suppressed anger and resentment at some of the unfairness life deals us’ can prevent us from having a closer relationship.[16] It is better to ask for help and be honest with and about ourselves, talking with God about all the subjects that are important, no matter how hard it may be initially. Barry recommends we tell God about our attractions, fears, successes, pettiness, anger and rage, sexuality and sins. Secrecy poisons relationships, including that with God.[17] We only need to look at such Bible texts as Ecclesiastes, Job and the Psalms to see that we can talk to God with utter transparency. The Psalmists were not afraid to ‘speak the unspeakable to God’.[18]
Our idea of a God who needs to be convinced to act in a particular way by our prayers is a popular misconception, and contrary to the biblical evidence[19] as shown in prayers by David,[20] Solomon,[21] and Jeremiah.[22] However the Bible also teaches that we are ‘God’s fellow workers’.[23] ‘Stoicism demands a closed universe not the Bible’.[24]
 ‘The Bible is a record of how God has continually tried to awaken human beings to the full reality of who they are, namely his beloved children.’[25] Prayer enhances our fellowship and intimacy with God,[26] and allows us to follow the example of Christ and other great biblical figures like Moses and Elijah who believed prayer could change God’s mind. [27] He doesn’t press himself on us, but allows us to come upon him in everyday, ordinary events. Scripture commands us to pray, and prayer allows us to participate in God’s purposes and demonstrations of his power. “In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God's thoughts after Him: to desire the things He desires, to love the things He loves”.[28]
‘How do we pay attention to the invisible, mysterious Other we call God’[29] when it seems as if we cannot see, hear or touch him? We need to come to an understanding that God wants our spontaneous love and fellowship, not our submission.[30] ‘The enjoyment of God should be the supreme end of spiritual technique.’[31] Jesus taught that we should come like children to a father, asking for bread in the utter confidence that it will be provided.[32]
The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray”[33] and we too need to learn how.
One way to draw closer to God is through what are called the classical[34] Spiritual Disciplines that ‘call us to move beyond surface living into the depths’.[35] Unfortunately the word ‘discipline’, and the idea of obeying rules, and the systematic training involved, have very negative connotations in our post-modern world. But perhaps we should not reject such practices so quickly.
‘Superficiality is the curse of our age. The doctrine of instant satisfaction is a primary spiritual problem.’[36] Foster calls these Spiritual Disciplines the ‘Door to Liberation’,[37] that can open the closed door of our self-reliance, helping us to realise that the needed change within us is God’s work, not ours, and is a grace that is given.[38] People of our generation have lost the knowledge of earlier centuries, and no longer know how do “do” the most simple and practical aspects of these Disciplines.[39] We must ‘genuinely believe that inner transformation is God’s work and not ours’,[40] to step away from legalism and managing others.
There are a number of practical recommendations from different authors:
Henri Nouwen gives three practical guidelines for solitary prayer, allowing one to ‘move from life’s illusions to the heart of prayer in everyday life’.[41] These are: First, Be Silent; Focus on the Word of God; Pray Without Ceasing. The last fulfils the command from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, and is called the ‘prayer from the heart’.[42] He also recommends reflecting and journaling.[43]
Prayer should be practiced in the present moment, as it allows us to enter ‘into the presence of God whose name is Immanuel – God-with-us.’[44] Brother Lawrence believed ‘we are to pray by being aware of the presence of God at all times and places.’[45] Prayer should be a dialogue, rather than a monologue, giving God time to respond, and not make assumptions about what that response should be.[46]
It is equally important for us to set aside time to pray, and, if possible, have some special place to do so. In speaking to his followers, Jesus says: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen.”[47]
Richard Foster speaks of Simple Prayer, a basic, primary form of prayer where we bring ourselves before God just as we are, with all our messy motives; sharing our needs, wants, concerns, joys and sorrows.[48] Like little children having an ongoing conversation, we bring our everyday concerns to a loving and compassionate Father without pretense.[49] This form of prayer bypasses our need to have it all together, to have our lives perfect, and to ‘come from “underneath”, where we calmly and deliberately surrender control and become incompetent.’[50], This “Prayer of Beginning Again” is the most common form of prayer found throughout the Bible.
The precepts of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection[51] became the basis for a book entitled ‘The Practice of the Presence of God’. His gathered wisdom has become increasingly popular over the centuries, although it can be difficult to decipher.[52] There are now a number HoHow
of modern ‘translations’ of his writings which are easier to understand.[53]
Lawrence gives personal examples of ‘constant prayer in the midst of ordinary, daily activities’, explaining how to ‘pray without ceasing’ from the heart.[54] Huggett describes Lawrence encouraging us to seek ‘Kingdom moments’ in the busy-ness of everyday life, making a practice of ceasing what we are doing to worship, finding little pools of silence, withdrawing ‘to worship Him within your soul, to praise Him, to entreat His aid, to offer Him the service of your heart, and give Him thanks for all His loving-kindnesses and tender mercies.’[55]
William Barry, a Jesuit writer, suggests praying the rosary and the novenas.[56] One of the most popular of these is the 54 Day Rosary Novena. These contemplative activities can be self-absorbing and often not feel like prayer once they become automatic.[57] A Protestant equivalent could be praying in tongues – both can be seen as praying from the heart, rather than the head.
Barry is also a contributor to the website IgnatianSpirituality, a ministry of the Society of Jesus. The Daily Examen is ‘a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.’[58]
The final practical example is that of the metaphor of a tree as prayer, used by the Franciscan friar St Bonaventure as a ‘prayerful meditation on the life of Christ.’[59] The tree extends to the image of the cross of Christ, with the roots representing ‘conversation’, the trunk ‘relationship’, the branches ‘journey’, the leaves ‘transformation’, and the fruits the ‘presence of God’.[60]

The preparation and research required for this essay has caused me to re-evaluate the precepts of Brother Lawrence. Like Joyce Huggett, my first encounter had been with the archaic language version of his book, resulting in bewilderment at exactly what he was trying to say, and ending up walking away. I now intend to access one of the more contemporary ‘translations’, as I feel it is important to find a way to make prayer a practice of the present moment, and to pray continually.
Like many other people, I experience a ‘chasm’ when it comes to prayer – I am lost for words and thoughts, and totally dislike praying out loud. This is aggravated by my introverted personality and anxiety attacks when under stress. While I feel no anger or resentment towards God, I feel silly talking to him about the mundane issues of life. This will require some discipline on my part, involving reading some of the books I have referenced, and actually ‘practicing what I have learnt’.
In conclusion, I must agree with Henri Nouwen’s statement that ‘the movement from illusion to prayer requires a persistent discipline and daily practice.’ This discipline is necessary for me, and anyone else who wishes to pray effectively and grow closer to go. Once this essay is completed, I will be re-opening my Art Journal to include journaling reflections on prayer.

[1] Bill Hybels. Too Busy Not to Pray: Slowing Down to be With God. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity, 2008.  p13
[2] Philip Yancey. Prayer: Does it Make Any Difference? London: Hodder & Stoughton. 2006. Kindle Edition. Location 332.
[3] Richard P Hansen with David Wall. Accessed 24 November 2013.
[4] Ken Raggio, Praying On Purpose - Praying For Results: How Men Prevail with God. Self published – Nederland, Texas. 2012. 33.
[5] Richard J Foster. Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1992. 7.
[6] Raggio. 34.
[7] Hansen and Wall
[8] Henri Nouwen with M J Christensen & R J Laird. Spiritual Formation: Following the Movements of the Spirit – From Illusion to prayer. London: SPCK, 2010. 28.
[9] Foster. 1992. 15.
[10] Graeme Goldsworthy, A Biblical-Theological Perspective on Prayer.  Kentucky: Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, Volume: SBJT 10:4 (Winter 2006). 15.
[11] Foster. 1992. 3.
[12] Goldsworthy. 17.
[13] Nouwen. 2010. 18.
[14] Nouwen. 2010. 19-20.
[15] William Barry. God and You: Prayer as Personal Relationship. New Jersey: Paulist, 1987. 16.
[16] Barry. 1987. 48.
[17] William Barry. Praying the Truth: Deepening your friendship with God through Honest Prayer. Illinois: Layola, 2012. Contents Page.
[18] Barry. 2012. 4.
[19] Goldworthy. 19.
[20] 2 Samuel 7:18-29 – asking God to do the things he has just promised to do.
[21] 1 Kings 8:2-26 – prayer of dedication of the temple.
[22] Jeremiah 29:1-17 – explaining the logic of prayer.
[23] 1 Corinthians 3:9
[24] Richard J. Foster. Celebration of Discipline. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998. 35.
[25] Barry. 1987. 12.
[26] Psalm 116:1-2; Jeremiah 33:2-3.
[27] Foster. 1998. 35.
[28] Ibid., 33.
[29] Barry. 1987. 18.
[30] Ibid., 48.
[31] Ibid., 48.
[32] Foster. 1998. 40.
[33] Luke 11:1.
[34] Classical as in those that are central to experiential Christianity.
[35] Foster. 1998. 1.
[36] Foster. 1998. 1
[37] Ibid., Foster Disciplines p1
[38] Ibid., Foster Disciplines p6
[39] Ibid., Foster 1998 p3
[40] Ibid., Foster disciplines p10
[41] Henri J. M. Nouwen. Reaching Out: The three movements of the Spiritual Life. New York: Doubleday, 1975.
[42] Nouwen. 2010. 31.
[43] Ibid., Nouwen 29
[44] Ibid., Nouwen 24
[45] Ibid.,Nouwen 24

[46] Barry. 2012. 3.

[47] Matthew 6:6.
[48] Foster. 1992. 9.
[49] Ibid., Foster 1992 p15
[50] Ibid., Foster 1992 7-8
[51] c. 1614 – 12 February 1691
[52] Joyce Huggett. Finding God in the Fast Lane as Well as Life’s Lay-bys. Surrey: Eagle, 1993. 10.

[53] Ibid., Huggett. Translated by E. M. Blaiklock, Henry Nouwen, and Contemporary English Editions

[54] Nouwen. 2010. 24.
[55] Huggett. 70. Quoting Lawrence.
[56] The Roman Catholic practice of praying a set of fixed prayers, and a set of nine prayers.
[57] Barry. 1987. 18-19.
[59] Steven Chase. The Tree of Life: Models of Christian Prayer. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005. 13.
[60] Chase contents page.

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