Prayer

In this manner, therefore, pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
As we forgive our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation,
But deliver us from the evil one.
For Yours is the kingdom
 and the power
 and the glory forever.
      Amen.

—Matthew 6:9-13

I will admit that I am not one who formally prays a lot. I believe God hears my thoughts, just as he would prayers said in silence. There are definitely things I think about that maybe I wish God didn’t hear, but I think we all have “impure” thoughts. I regularly communicate with God, and I should follow the example of the Lord’s Prayer better. When I was growing up, the men who prayed in my church used pretty standard language for their prayers. I knew when my preacher, who was known for his lengthy prayers, started thanking God for the flowers and the trees in nature, he was nearly finished. We had another man who rambled on and on with no direction. When I had to give a prayer, it was basically the same prayer from memory, just as my father always did when he gave the closing prayer at church.

Jesus gave us clear guidance for praying which did not include the “vain repetitions” I was all too familiar with when growing up in Alabama. In Matthew 9:5-8, Jesus said: 

And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you pray, go into your room, and when you have shut your door, pray to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. And when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore, do not be like them. For your Father knows the things you have need of before you ask Him.

Jesus told us that prayer is a private matter. My sister’s in-laws and many others I know who like displays of piety insist praying before a meal in public. They insist that everyone join hands and bow their heads as someone says the prayer. For most of these people, they are mostly showing a display of their piety like the hypocrites in the synagogues the Jesus tells us about. I have no problem with saying a silent prayer before a meal or praying aloud at a private family gathering, but I have a problem with people who merely want to show how Christian they can be. In the case of my sister’s in-laws, they are very negative people, who consistently denigrate others for not doing as they believe they should. However, they are often doing those same things or overlook things in family members that they condemn in others. In my opinion, if you are going to be pious, follow Christ at all times, not just when people are watching.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus gave us the prayer that became known as the “Lord’s Prayer.” The model prayer, as it is also called, takes only 15-20 seconds to say, yet is filled with deep meaning. This prayer perfectly summarizes our faith and what is expressed in the Gospels. On his reflection on this prayer, St. Cyprian of Carthage, a third-century bishop wrote, “My dear friends, the Lord’s Prayer contains many great mysteries of our faith. In these few words, there is great spiritual meaning, for this summary of divine teaching contains all of our prayers and petitions.” Jesus ends the prayer by adding “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 9:14-15) This last part is often incorporated into the Lord’s Prayer by some Christians.

Philip Yancey, a Christian author who writes about questions and topics of faith that matter to both believers and doubters alike said, “Prayer is not a means of removing the unknown and predictable elements in life, but rather a way of including the unknown and unpredictable in the outworking of the grace of God in our lives.” Yancey was born in Atlanta and grew up in a strict, fundamentalist southern church. When Yancey was one year old, his polio-stricken father died after church members suggested he go off life support asserting that faith in God would heal him. This and other negative experiences with a rigid church contributed to Yancey’s losing his faith at one point.

For Yancey, reading offered a window to a different world. He devoured books that opened his mind, challenged his upbringing, and went against what he had been taught. A sense of betrayal engulfed him. “I felt I had been lied to. For instance, what I learned from a book like To Kill a Mockingbird or Black Like Me contradicted the racism I encountered in church. I went through a period of reacting against everything I was taught and even discarding my faith. I began my journey back mainly by encountering a world very different than I had been taught, an expansive world of beauty and goodness. Along the way, I realized that God had been misrepresented to me. Cautiously, warily, I returned, circling around the faith to see if it might be true.”

How does a man who’s been through all Yancey has, draw close to the God he once feared? He spends about an hour each morning reading spiritually nourishing books, meditating, and praying. This morning time, he says, helps him “align” himself with God for the day. “I tend to go back to the Bible as a model because I don’t know a more honest book,” Yancey explains. “I can’t think of any argument against God that isn’t already included in the Bible. To those who struggle with my books, I reply, ‘Then maybe you shouldn’t be reading them.’ Yet some people do need the kinds of books I write. They’ve been burned by the church or they’re upset about certain aspects of Christianity. I understand that feeling of disappointment, even betrayal. I feel called to speak to those living in the borderlands of faith.”

Faith is the essential element in our relationship with God. Jesus says that if you have faith, you can command a mountain to jump into the sea. He also taught us that we must ask in his name, which is why many end prayers with “In Jesus’ name, Amen.”  He says that for our prayers to be answered they must be in accordance with God’s will. John 15:7 says, “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.” Prayer is a great privilege allowed by God. We can be heard by God through Christ, and God commands us to ask him to intercede on our behalf. God has a plan that involves us that is accomplished through Him answering our prayers. Sometimes that answer is yes, and sometimes it is no. However, we always receive an answer. As the saying from the 1773 hymn by William Cowper goes, “God works in mysterious ways.”

All the teaching of Jesus on prayer taken together points to a life of faith. We must have faith that we are in line with the will of God, and He will answer us if we have faith and accept His answer. Mark 11:24 says, “Therefore I say to you, whatever things you ask when you pray, believe that you receive them, and you will have them.” This verse seems to be saying that God will grant any request we make of Him as long as we believe, but there are limitations on what God is willing to provide and we are bound by the laws of nature and the universe. Prayer is not a means by which God serves us. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures.” Therefore, prayer is a means by which we serve God. Prayer is not a means by which we get our will done in heaven, but a means by which God gets His will done on earth. 

We are all in need of prayer and the comfort praying provides. James 5:16 states, “Confess your trespasses to one another, and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” James is encouraging us to express our dependence on God, which is done through prayer. In previous verses, James asked his readers to respond to trouble by praying to God, to respond to cheerfulness by singing songs of praise, and to respond to illness or spiritual weakness by asking fellow Christians to pray for them. James believed that Christians should surround themselves with other Christians. We need fellow believers with whom we can trust and be vulnerable. That does not mean we should only surround ourselves with believers. We need diversity in our relationships in order to grow. 

In today’s world, few Christians are practicing unconditional love in any specific way. Some Christians have a bad habit of judging others, which is not their place. Many Christians ignore Matthew 7:1-3, which says “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye?” Because we fear the judgment of others, we’re too afraid to be vulnerable to others. We need a world in which we can offer support and without judgment to others in need. The world would be a far better place if more of us prayed for each other. After all, James writes, prayer works. God listens and responds. Prayer is powerful and effective because God hears and takes action. 

About Joe

I began my life in the South and for five years lived as a closeted teacher, but am now making a new life for myself as an oral historian in New England. I think my life will work out the way it was always meant to be. That doesn't mean there won't be ups and downs; that's all part of life. It means I just have to be patient. I feel like October 7, 2015 is my new birthday. It's a beginning filled with great hope. It's a second chance to live my life…not anyone else's. My profile picture is "David and Me," 2001 painting by artist Steve Walker. It happens to be one of my favorite modern gay art pieces. View all posts by Joe

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