Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Praying in Lent

Lent is an excellent period in which to renew one’s prayer life... but so are other times of the year.

The epistle says, “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5:17) but of course that cannot be taken literally if it refers to an individual Christian’s prayer. I like this short page (http://www.allaboutprayer.org/pray-without-ceasing-faq.htm) that explains “without ceasing” as an attitude and an openness. One of the first Hebrew words I learned was hinneni, “Here am I!” the response that people like Abraham made when God called to him. Our professor, Bonnie Kittel of blessed memory, noted that the response implied a openness and readiness to hear God. That’s one good way to think about prayer: a communicative attitude toward God that in turn makes us open to God’s leading and guidance.

I’ve several prayer books but usually read from the “Shorter Morning and Evening Prayer” based on the Liturgy of the Hours, and I’ve four devotional quarterlies that I like to use. Recently I got out other resources that I like but haven’t used for a while. My wife’s deceased first husband received a little prayer book ("My Prayer Book") when he was confirmed, and it contains wonderful intercessory prayers. I’ve other books that I use less often, but I found a nice “Minister’s Prayer Book” published by Muhlenberg Press in the 1950s.

I wish I was more consistent day to day to use these resources. I do pretty well, but since my days are filled with teaching and writing on religious subjects, I’m often thinking about God and mentally praying to God but my “organized” religious devotion falls by the wayside unless I make an effort to keep that part of my life on track.

On the other hand … Years ago (1980s?) I read an article in Christian Century that made the point that Jesus seemed not to have a structured way of praying. He prayed a lot and sought time and places for solitary prayer, but the texts say nothing about specified times that he prayed, nor did he make people wait for him to conclude his prayer time. The article noted that being organized in our prayer lives could just mean that we’re … well organized!

We grow in quality and quantity of prayer among our daily comings and goings (Ps. 121:8). When I was in seminary, my prayers were self-doubtful, anxious, and uncertain about the future---not untypical of a “dark night” situation. Seminary is a time for many of us when God tests our calling and vocation. Now … I’m nearly thirty years out of seminary, happy with and amazed at the ways God has led me over the years. So my prayers aren’t self-doubtful in the manner of a young person, but my prayers are offered with a heightened, respectful sense of mortality and the unpredictability of life. During the last ten years my amazing daughter has grown from middle school- to college-age, and I’ve handled my widowed mother’s affairs in addition to all my other responsibilities. Circumstances like these (and others) can help a person turn more of “life” over to God’s care. You really do understand, psychologically, that surrendering to God's care is a happier way to live than clinging to the idea that you have a lot of control over your life.

But mental prayer can carry the risk of self-involvement and self-satisfaction. That’s why I have my little battery of prayer helps that I use to direct my prayers during those secret times of Matt. 6:6. Prayer resources are wonderful: among other things, they explain prayer, they provide accompanying scriptures, they contain great prayers with which we can read along and make our own, and they remind us what to pray for. Prayer resources can also stop us cold when we encounter prayer-words that we really don’t want to pray at that moment! Thus we can think about the present situation of our feelings toward God.

I’m a member of two prayer chains. The requests come by email so I print these out. Much of my daily attitude in prayer is intercessory, but I’m liable to forget to pray for folks whom I don’t know unless I have the prayer requests at hand. I have these words of Oswald Chambers almost memorized: "The real business of your life as a saved soul is intercessory prayer. Wherever God puts you in circumstances, pray immediately, pray that His Atonement may be realized in other lives as it has been in yours. Pray for your friends NOW; pray for those with who you come in contact NOW."

As I wrote this little piece, I grew very insecure. Specifically, I worried that I don’t do enough for God, both in my prayer life or generally. This is a good example of the importance of fortifying our mental prayers with scripture study and resources. We’re saved by Christ’s redeeming work, not anything we do. Although there are numerous ways to pray (some better than others), our prayers are never ways to earn God's favor or to "leverage" God. Prayer is a wonderful way to learn more about the God who has done more for us than we can imagine (Eph. 3:20-21).

* On a related note, a friend tweeted this Christianity Today article, an excellent reminder of God's love! http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/article_print.html?id=86920

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