Sunday, November 06, 2005

3. Motivation to prayer

"Prayer will make a man cease from sin, or sin will entice a man to cease from prayer." --John Bunyan.

Writing this entry I realize how coldly academic this can become. I have already commented in numerous entries on prayer and would like to submit more as I study and grow; however, the danger is that I would have more to say about prayer than actually getting it done. Worse still, that I would echo what others have said and fail to carry through on what I learn. The more I study and think about prayer, the more I realize I should seeing prayer accomplished; nevertheless, as my prayer life grows, so will observations. God has been at work and my prayer life has been growing.

We have had many things to seek the LORD concerning, and He has wonderfully demonstrated Himself in changing us or in making changes around us regarding prayer: providing us a home (and letting us keep it thus far); providing us a vehicle (and letting us keep it thus far); providing us children (and . . . well, you get the picture). The list goes on. As I think prayer, I cannot help but entertain the question: “WHY PRAY?”

Dr. J Dwight Pentecost confirmed in a recent interview: "You would be hard put, I would judge, to find a church today that has a mid-week prayer meeting. How many churches have Sunday night services? I was brought up on Sunday morning worship and Sunday School, Sunday evening youth group and church service, Wednesday evening church and Bible study. You'd find that in any church. Now congregations gather together only once on Sunday morning. Our whole concept of the function of the church--what people are expecting the church to give them--has radically changed. They think that if they've had a drink of water Sunday morning, that's enough for the entire week."[i]

Do we need to work on streamlining prayer when prayer is hardly practiced anymore? I am a firm believer that one can spot the core of any church by attending a prayer meeting. There may be hundreds, maybe thousands that attend in today's mega-church settings--but just go to a prayer meeting. That room full of people is the ones who pray. Prayer is the mark of solidarity (I've been struggling to understand this). Example: our Wednesday prayer meeting takes place following a fellowship dinner at church. Our dining room can be viewed by any passerby. I've wondered not so much about what people think when they see us eating, fellowshipping and praying together--I've wondered more about what they think when they see so few of us.

What should a people who are ruled by God look like? The Jews understood that identity comes from adherence. This is why community conversation with God was valued over individual conversation—one prayed because everyone prayed. Prayer was for the community, for the people who were to obey God and be a priest to the nations. Looking at the prayers of the Old Testament saints, there are more conversations with God about others than about self. This is why Mr. Murphree challenged us so long ago to pray without saying, “I, me, my, etc” and say more “You, they, and an occasional ‘us’”

Speaking generally, prayer should be a distinctive of who we are a Christians. Instead, attempts are made to draw distinctive out of attendance, membership or worship style. Why meet together? The early Church seems to have observed three meetings, one of which was for prayer and edification! Tradition took over and people forget why and what they are doing.

Another answer to “Why Pray?” can be found in 1 Samuel 12:23: “far be it from me that I should sin against the Lord by ceasing to pray for you". It would be sin not to. Benedictines would say "laborare est orare." [To labor is to pray]. I wouldn’t take it as far the Benedictines did, but I think the idea is that prayer is one's life-work.

Why Pray? “In everything give thanks, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you. (1 Thess 5:18). God wills that we be thankful.

Why pray? Jesus said, "When you pray, you are not to be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on the street corners so that they may be seen by men.  Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you pray, go into your inner room, close your door and pray to your Father who is in secret, and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you. And when you are praying, do not use meaningless repetition as the Gentiles do, for they suppose that they will be heard for their many words. So do not be like them; for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him." (Mt. 6:5-8) Hitting the prayer closet face down and sliding is unlike the hypocrit.

Ambrose Bierce (1842-1914) wrote in "The Enlarged Devil's Dictionary" that prayer is, "to ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy." This reminds me of the delimma we don't think on too often: a farmer asked God to send rain for his crops, while a traveler passing through the area asked God to hold off the rain that he may travel safely. Is prayer the battle of petitioners? The Nihilist would say this is exactly what prayer is for: "Whatever a man prayes for, he prays for a miracle . . .'Great God, let not two times two make four'"[ii]

Is prayer to produce feelings of spirituality, a tool to used to pursue an experience? Old Screwtape instructed Wormwood: " . . . turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills. When they meant to ask Him for charity, let them, instead, start trying to manufacture charitable feelings for themselves and not notice that this is what they are doing. When they are meant to pray for courage, let them really be trying to feel brave. When they say they are praying for forgiveness, let them be trying to feel forgiven. Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling; and never let them suspect how much success or failure of that kind depends on whether they are well or ill, fresh or tired at the moment."[iii]

Perhaps Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1837) got it right: "He prayeth well, who loveth well Both man and bird and beast. He prayeth best who loveth best All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all." (The Ancient Mariner, Pt VII, St. 22)

Prayer based on a love-motive.

The Puritans would say something like: “Merciful Father, Do not let pride swell my heart. My body is made from the mire beneath my feet, the dust to which I shall return. In body I am no better than the vilest reptile. Whatever difference of form and intellect is mine, is a free grant of Your goodness. Base as I am as a creature, I am lower as a sinner. S in's deformity . . . is stamped upon me, darkens my brow, touches me with corruption. How can I flaunt myself proudly? Lowest abasement is my due place, for I am less than nothing before You. Help me to see myself in Your sight, then pride must wither, decay, die, perish! Humble my heart before You, and replenish it with Your choicest gifts. Keep me humble, meek, lowly.”

[i] Feit, Sandy. "A Conversation with Dr. J. Dwight Pentecost." In Touch. Vol. 28., No. 10, October, 2005
[ii] Ivan Turgenev "Fathers and Sons" (1818-1883)
[iii] Lewis, C.S. Screwtape Letters. New York: MacMillian, 1982.

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