These are the chronicles of the esoteric . . .
but why pray?
Admittedly, I don't pray very much - not for lack of trying, albeit I think I used to try harder - but I've never really been able to sit or kneel and simply pray. Throughout high school and much of university, I attempted to maintain a regular prayer life. Whether it was at my desk, in my reading chair, or at the side of my bed I tried to set aside a dedicated time to pray uninterrupted.
For the most part, I did fairly well; but it was never consistent and only came in bouts too few and far between.
I've always found it easier to send a few words to Adonai throughout the day, in my mind as I did something else with my hands. To give thinks, for example, as the feeling arose; to ask for patience, courage, or wisdom as circumstances changed and required it; to shout out in spiritual confusion or anger as the situations in life became seemingly bleak or overwhelming.
A few years ago, as my pastor and I prepared the topics for a catechism, we decided that devoting a few chapters to spiritual disciplines was theologically important. After all, a faith without deeds is dead.1 After some thought, we settled on what we felt to be three major and overarching disciplines: Bible Study, Prayer, and Service. Two of these were fairly straightforward: read your Bible, and do good to others. The other one, however, was not so easy - even if ostensibly it should be.
Prayer is important. There's no doubt about that. It's everywhere in the Scriptures - everyone from Abraham to Jesus prayed to Adonai, and Jesus is depicted as doing so rather frequently, often alone. But for something so ubiquitous, why is prayer so difficult for some and incomprehensible for others? Why should anybody bother to pray especially when we don't get an answer? What is prayer for anyway?
On one occasion, after Jesus had finished praying, the apostles asked of Him to teach them how to pray, so He gives them the famous prayer we know today by the name the Lord's Prayer.2 This same prayer, in a slightly more elaborate form, is recorded in the middle of the Sermon on the Mount as part of a section where Jesus is teaching about doing good works as well as spiritual deeds in not only humility but also in secret.3 Prayer, He says, is not something to flaunt and wave around like a magic wand, but instead is something to do sincerely and privately. It is something between you and Adonai.
Early Jews viewed prayer as somewhat devotional in nature - a conversation or encounter with Adonai, as demonstrated in the extreme by Abraham pleading for Sodom and Moses pleading for Isreal.4 Later, rabbis spoke of prayer through the concept of kavvana, meaning 'direction,' intention,' or inwardness, stating that prayer was more than merely words - it was an outpouring of the soul.5 Still, kavvana involved not only an understanding of the words spoken, but also an awareness of being in Adonai's presence, addressing the Blessed One Himself.
Thus, it seems, prayer is in the first place a communion between us and our Creator.
To be sure, the Hebrew word used for prayer is tefillah and can be literally translated as 'attachment.' In this way, prayer is an attempt and a striving at attaching ourselves to Adonai - it is an expression of our bond with our God. In prayer there exists only two, but it is two trying to become one. When we pray we are opening ourselves to Adonai, and it is at this point of vulnerability that we can allow Him to enter into us and therefore it is where we begin to conform ourselves to His Word.6 We are shaped according to His will - and we are stirred, changed, empowered and guided. It is through prayer that we keep 'in contact' with and attach ourselves to our God.
But tefillah has a double entendre, for it comes from the root that means 'to judge.' In this way, the kavvana, or inwardness, of prayer takes on a slightly different direction. Instead of an outpouring of the soul towards Adonai, the soul stands in a receptive stance before the Creator and Judge - and in so doing puts an emphasis on the altering nature of prayer.
If we look closely at The Lord's Prayer we see that each line is given in such a way that brings about a change of the prayer's heart. When we pray that Adonai forgives us as we forgive others, for instance, we are judged for not actually forgiving as freely as He who forgave us, and thereby calling us to first forgive in order to be forgiven. To pray for Adonai's kingdom to come judges our idolatrous and worldly allegiances, and thereby calling us to abandon them in exchange for submission to His lordship. To pray for His will to be done judges us for our selfish ambitions and egotistical whims of fancy, and thereby calling us to surrender our own wills to Him.
Thus, prayer is not only a communion, but it is also deeply engaging. Scripture shows us that when we genuinely encounter Adonai, we are for ever changed - and prayer is no exception. But what about prayers of petition and intercession - prayers that attempt to change our external realities? Prayers such as healing, for example, which are quite common? Or prayers for safety?
Does Adonai answer prayer?
I tend to believe, along with most, that Adonai does in fact intervene in history - and such a view is biblically based. However, to expect Him to answer every prayer immediately or obviously is presumptuous, and expecting Him to answer the way we think He should is even worse. I do believe prayer has power - the accounts of Abraham and Moses show us that Adonai listens to prayer. However, prayer is not always answered the way we would want it to for Adonai's purposes are much bigger than we can see or know. And sometimes life happens, not because our God can't stop it but because that's the way He structured the universe.
We're not meant to understand anyhow. We're meant to be outraged at sin and its effects and motivated to work towards its defeat alongside The Almighty, and in the power of the Messiah. We're meant to trust in The Almighty and abide in His promises. And prayer is a way of expressing that very trust - trust that Adonai is sovereign, that He does listen and empower us to be His people, that He does provide our daily bread, even if not literal food in our stomachs.
Prayer is 'our acceptance of the invitation to call upon Adonai in confidence'7 and trust that He will in fact make all things to good for those who love Him.
Prayer sustains our righteousness, declares our allegiance, and allows Adonai to change us, mold us, use us and thereby make us His. And so it is crucial to the life of the Jesus-follower - prayer is the lungs we use for each spiritual breath, breathing in our Creator and breathing out His grace. Prayer is a constant conversation we should not be without.
1. '[J]ust as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is also dead.' James 2:26 NRSV.
2. Luke 11:1-4.
3. Matthew 6:5-14.
4. Genesis 18:16-33 and Exodus 32:7-14, respectively.
5. Norman Solomon, Judaism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, NY: Oxford University Press, 2000), 71.
6. Hans Urs van Balthasar, Prayer, transl. Graham Harrison (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 1986), 23-28.
7. Daniel L. Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: William B eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004), 242.
praying for victory
In my family, game time is an intense experience - a span of three hours that can affect the psychological states of at least two people, sending them on a ride of highs and lows. It's a fascinating anthropological exercise to observe how a group of men running around on a field can so determine the mood of the room by their success in trying to get a ball from one end to the other.
What is equally fascinating is the superstition that revolves around athletics. The rituals created from (mis)perceived connections of cause and effect range from the innocently odd to the ridiculous. For example, many athletes put their equipment on in the exact same order for fear that changing it up will affect the outcome of the game.1 At one point, my brother never wore a team shirt on game day because the few times when he did the team played poorly2 - which is not unlike Sidney Crosby, who refused to speak to his mother before a game because on the one occasion he did, he suffered several injuries.
What I find even more interesting is the spirituality that is invested into sports - most distinctly, it seems, in football.3 It is not at all uncommon to see players pointing their finger towards the sky after some sort of accomplishment, be it a touchdown or an impressive interception, or for an athlete to outright thank Jesus for the acheivement.
Our local Christian radio station has a practise of occasionally inviting one of the city's players onto the Thursday morning show. During the last season, I found myself listening to a few interviews. What I discovered was that there seems to be a common mentality frequently espoused by these Christian football players and it struck me while I listened to one particular conversation.
The interview, at least in part (I don't remember it entirely), was with the football club's 'team mother' - a lady who hosted a few out-of-town players in her home, as well as provided snacks, etc. during team practise. She was constantly stating that she would 'pray for the team to win.' This only slightly bothered me at the start, but it stayed in the back of my mind. However, it increasingly began to chafe my thoughts the more I heard it.
As I wrestled with the concept, I came to the conclusion that praying for victory is either a misuse of prayer, or a misunderstanding of it. Or perhaps both.
If prayer is supposed to change our state of mind and align us to a more godly way of thinking, praying for victory is a wrong turn. Instead, it creates borderlines, dividing 'us' from 'them,' and perhaps in extreme cases even demonizes the other. To pray for our team's victory not only presupposes that we are somehow superior and theoretically more deserving of a win than the opposing group, but it also assumes that our need to win is somehow cosmically significant.
Do we actually think Adonai, the Holy One, blessed be He, cares who's gonna win a football match?4
Many people have a 'praying for victory' mentality. I realise it may be unfair to brush wide strokes based on a few interviews with religious athletes, but I feel it's a common notion. We all pray for our success, for our health, for our gain - for our own personal victories. But what happens when the game turns out to be a disaster? Or when there's injury or sickness? Did we simply not pray as hard as the other team (because undoubtedly they're praying too)? Did we not pray often enough?
These kinds of questions might imply a sort of reward-based faith, making our prayers function like magical spells. We often pray to get what we want from Adonai - such as a victory - disregarding what might actually be more important in the long run or life in general. We feel as though our faith to pray should be rewarded by an answer. We cling to verses like Matthew 21:22NRSV.
Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive. and Luke 11:9NRSV.
So I say to you, Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you., justifying ourselves and stamping our foot to the ground.
It's easy to argue we deserve what we ask for because the Bible says that's the way it goes. But this is a very self-centred approach, especially when passages such as those noted above are speaking about having a sincere faith - one dependent upon not only Adonai's power but also upon His will. The apostles learned this in a very real way when they failed at casting out demons because their prayers had become to them like magic. Their faith, Jesus tells them, was too litte5 and their prayers had transformed into talent shows.
Praying for victory neglects the rest of the biblical narrative and pushes aside trust. Instead of trusting that Adonai will sustain us, we pray that He gives us what we think we need - for Him to remove the pain of loss, to heal the injury, to fix the failure. But this disallows Him from working in our lives, and working through the negative. Scriptures show us that even when life goes wrong, Adonai weaves good from the bad. We grow in darkness, fed by the light. And each valley between the mountains is a lesson. Even football players know this: Despite the pain of losing a game - or perhaps because of it - they keep working at improvement. They work harder in fact. They learn from what went wrong so that next time they can acheive the win.
Thus, a more appropriate prayer, would not be for the victory, but for the performance. To pray for strength not only to endure but to also be of good sportsmanlike conduct would be a better use of prayer - to pray that we enjoy the game no matter what the outcome, that we are enriched by our teammates and pushed to better ourselves. We should instead pray that each person on the field represents their beliefs in a genuine, respectable way, whether they're on the winning team or losing team - and that the fans do the same.
1. Many also refuse to wash a particular article of clothing, such as pitcher Steve Kline who reportedly has never washed his hat. Now that would be one stinky, dirty ball cap.
2. My brother has sinced moved past this superstition, however he insists on wearing a team shirt on the day after game day - but this is mostly to proudly show his support no matter what happened.
3. There also appears to be a high number of ordained ministers who play football - especially in the NFL.
4. I'd venture to guess that no, El Shaddai is not terribly concerned with the outcome of a sports game. Like in Joshua 5:13-15, Adonai doesn't take sides - He's his own side. But He is a God of the mundane, so this is not to say He can't be found at a sports game.
5. Matthew 17:14-20.
The first was some time ago - I'm not sure when. But I remember it was at the end of Alan Paton's Cry, the Beloved Country. Without spilling any serious spoilers, suffice it to say the ending was touching. And I cried a little.
The second was very recent - only a few months ago. I have been attempting to read through the Bible again, and as I began the book of Exodus sometime last November I came across the following passage.
Just imagine for a second that you're in the crowd witnessing these signs and hearing these words. You and your ancestors have experienced years upon years of persecution and oppression, injustice and slavery. Then comes along two men who say, 'God has heard you; he's seen what you have to endure. And He's going to save you.'
Adonai said to Aaron, 'Go into the wilderness to meet Moshe.' So he went; and he met him at the mountain of God and kissed him. Moshe told Aaron all the words of Adonai with which he had sent him, and all the signs with which he had charged him. Then Moshe and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites. Aaron spoke all the words that Adonai had spoken to Moshe, and performed the signs in the sight of the people. The people believed; and when they heard that Adonai had given heed to the Israelites and that he had seen their misery, they bowed down and worshiped.2
I could feel the excitement, the burst of joy. The tears. And the relief.
It was nearly as real to me as it was to them; I was overwhelmed. And it was a powerful moment.
1. I don't want to mislead any of you and cause you to believe my wife cries at every book. But she does possess an uncanny gift of having her body and spirit intimately interconnected so that her body is very much in-tune with her mind. She laughs outloud at books, tears up at books, and gets frightened at books. It's wonderful.
2. Emphasis added. These are the words that ultimately jumped out at me and spoke to my heart during the reading that day.