Hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about prayer. I’ve written a few on Country Parson yet the same questions keep being asked. There seems to be a deep sense of vulnerable insecurity over doing it right and not getting it wrong, even among lifelong church goers. Who should I pray to; how should I pray; what should I pray for; what are the right words to use? After all, what right do ordinary mortals have praying to God Almighty.
What might happen if it isn’t done the right way? Some remember the fear felt when told, “Go to your room and wait until your father gets home.” What happens when God the Father comes home? There are other parallels: being called to the vice principal’s office, to the boss’s office, or to the municipal court. In those instances, there’s a right way, language, and protocol creating a barrier of self protection. To be ushered in to the presence of governors, presidents or monarchs creates trickier problems with rules to be obeyed and aides present to see that they are. Imagine being ushered into God’s presence.
But God is love, a love so powerful that there is none greater. George Herbert’s poem put it this way:
LOVE bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
If I lack’d anything.
‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
‘Who made the eyes but I?’
‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
So I did sit and eat.
To pray is to answer Love’s invitation to sit and converse with God over a meal of holy nourishment. From God no secrets are hidden so there’s no point in trying to pretend otherwise. Awed humility is the only way to be in conversation with the source of pure love. Prayer is to converse with God in a state of trusting humility.
When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray, he gave them a helpful outline we call “The Lord’s Prayer.” Outlines always need to be filled in. No doubt there are many ways, but consider this as a possibility: Pray to God your father/mother who loves you; remember ‘his’ name is holy, so don’t dishonor it; converse about how to be an agent of God’s kingdom in daily life; ask for the holy nourishment needed to do what must be done; admit your mess ups, and ask for God’s blessing on anyone against whom you have a grudge; ask for holy guidance to avoid sin and temptation. In other words, I think Jesus was saying,’Don’t make it so hard.’
Too many preachers have threatened their people with God’s wrath and damnation if they don’t get it right. Everyone who doesn’t get it right is going to hell because that’s what God does with them is the distorted message. Some practices define getting it wrong mostly in terms of what they call sins of the flesh, and pay little heed to the greater commandments to walk in the way of love. Such formulas and practices burden people with fearful guilt that makes it very difficult to have an honest conversation with God, whose Love has bade them to sit and eat without concern for getting it right or their condition in life.
Other practices claim saying certain prayers in just the right way will result in God doing what one wants God to do. It is a form of magical thinking that has no place in Christianity. Magical spells and flattering bribery are abominations.
To paraphrase Jesus again, don’t make it so hard. Follow his counsel and say yes to Love’s invitation to sit and be nourished with holy food.
© Steven E. Woolley