A Brief Thought on Prayer

I was skimming around and came across an article about prayer and sports.  While the main purpose of the article to point out that it is acceptable to pray actually for the victory of one team or the other, this passage really upset me.

Sometimes we merely fill out a requisition form and call it a prayer. That is, we tell God in a clear sentence what we want and then go back to work, trusting that he gets it and appreciates that he and we are all too busy to stand on ceremony. That’s a kind of prayer but sketchy, a pale version of the full-dress form that entails hours of high-octane concentration, which is God’s way of letting us participate in his constant engagement with and intervention in human affairs.

Passing snide remarks against people who pray short prayers is upsetting, and initially the reason I found it upsetting was not clear to me. To restate the highlighted lines without the snark, and from a different perspective: ‘Sometimes we ask briefly for what distresses us most, and then return to the work of our vocation, trusting God to care for our need and to answer our cry for help.’ Then the author proceeds to call this a sketchy and pale of a form of prayer, the real version of which requires hours of concentration.

Now what bothered me most became clear during church yesterday. Being a liturgical Lutheran, orthodox teaching comes from all parts of the service.  In this case it came when the Pastor finished the special prayers and said (and I abbreviate because I am miles away from my hymnal) ‘And we join in that prayer You taught us to pray:’ after which we prayed the Lord’s prayer.

The Lord’s prayer, if you will permit me to summarize is:

  • One phrase identifying who we are praying to
  • Four phrases of praise to finish out the sentence (in English at least)
  • One short sentence asking for God’s care of our bodily needs
  • One sentence asking for forgiveness of our sins
  • And one sentence pleading for deliverance from temptation and evil

In all, I suspect it takes less than two minute to pray, even at the snail’s pace we pray out loud together in church. And it looks an awful lot like the aforementioned ‘requisition form’.

It seems to me that the author of this piece on prayer has made a grave mistake, he has snarked (though surely unintentionally) at the prayer that God Himself taught us to pray. And while I would never claim that hours of prayer are wrong, it is vital to remember the whole instruction. Here from Matthew chapter 6 (From NIV, from Bible Gateway)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“This, then, is how you should pray:

“‘Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
10 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us today our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from the evil one.’

So, the model prayer taught to us by God Incarnate is a short prayer, briefly pleading from God the needs of both the body and the soul.  To say that such prayers are pale and less worthy is at the very least a travesty of pompous misunderstanding.

For more: see the Lords Prayer section of the Small Catechism

9 responses to “A Brief Thought on Prayer

  1. I understand the tradition that this blogger is speaking of, and there are plenty of examples in the old and new testament describing long, emotionally engaged periods of prayer to God, but I very much look to Christ’s teaching of prayer; as you pointed out, and take comfort that just as no child is too small of insignificant for Christ’s love, so it is that no prayer is to small or insignificant to raise up to God.

  2. Actually, I can’t think of any particularly long prayers except Solomon’s at the dedication of the Temple, and even that one isn’t “hours” long by any stretch. There are probably a few more, but I wouldn’t call it “plenty”. And what is “emotionally engaged”? There are times when I pray the Prayer of the Church where I certainly “mean” every word, but I’m not particularly “emotional” about the prayer. It’s still a perfectly good prayer. Other times, one petition or another “hits home” and it’s hard to get the words out, simply reading them. My emotions sure don’t make the prayer “more powerful” or more valid or anything like that. If anything, I fear that my emotions can distract people–they are thinking, “Boy, Pastor sure is emotionally engage in the prayers today!” rather than, “Lord, in Your mercy, hear our prayer.”
    Good article. However, I wouldn’t even call the first four phrases “praise”, per se. (Though of course, the highest praise is simply to say back to God what He has Spoken to us.) The first 3 petitions of the Our Father really are the beginning of the “laundry list.” quite a beginning, too!

    • It is a bit spooky to have a pastor comment, but I certainly appreciate it. I definitely left a number of thoughts in that article uncriticized.

      As for the correction about the Lord’s Prayer, all I can say is, Thank you, pastor for the instruction; upon rechecking my catechism (which is something I should do more more often) you are right… 🙂

      • Not at all! Your comments were quite good. And, as for the first 3 Petitions, you opened up my own thinking on them–they *are* petitions, but they are “praise”, too–of the sort I mentioned before. I didn’t word that part of my comments as well as I ought.

      • Oh, and thank you for pulling out your catechism. It does a pastor’s heart good. 🙂 I need to more than I do, too.

      • Psalms are songs of praise and types of prayer, I believe.
        Jesus prayers in the Garden and his followers fall asleep on him. It seems to me they are not going to fall asleep if Jesus simply makes a 60 second petition to the Father, rather he is deeply engaged in his prayers to the Father, Luke 22:44 Jesus sweats blood from his anguish and earnest prayer.

      • No argument from this place re: Psalms being both praise and prayer (though to be sure, some emphasize one aspect, some the other. I don’t know if anyone would count “O daughter of Babylon,…Happy the one who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock” as “praise”–an extreme example, admittedly). As to Jesus in Gethsemane, you give a valid example. Nevertheless, we are not given anything but the short version of His petition–the summary. And, had He prayed that short summary in all of 10 seconds, and not sweated blood and such, it would still have been a perfectly valid prayer, and He would have been “ignored” in heaven just the same–all the way to the cross. Emotions do not *cause* anything different in our prayer, they are outward expressions that happen naturally in our humanity. The Lord knows very well the intensity of your feelings as you pray, better than you do yourself. That means we don’t have to make a point of expressing them as we pray. The point of the original article is still quite valid.

      • I was never arguing the validity of the article, in fact my first response was an affirmation of what the author was saying. I suppose, if I would be arguing anything, it would be to not discount the emotional expression of prayer. This often happens in a few other denominations, not just the Liturgical Lutherans; which I believe is a cultural attribute. I would say the denouncing of emotional prayer is just as wrong as denouncing the simple short prayer. God hears both, because both come from His children’s hearts.

      • God hears both, but only because they come from the hearts of those He has made His children by putting His Word into said hearts. I.e., faith. As I’ve thought about this more, this is where I wind up wrt “emotional” prayer–Go ahead and pray in your closet (or a stone’s throw away from your friends, i.e., in private) as emotionally as you wish. Emotions *are*. That’s fine. (Many would say I wear my heart on my sleeve.) In public, however, I *try* to take myself out of the prayer so that the prayer–the speaking back to God His own Words, whatever prayer it happens to be–the Creed, the Psalm, the Our Father, or something I have composed, etc.–is the thing people focus on, not how “earnestly” I am praying it. I don’t think our original blogger’s point was to *discount* emotions or “intensity” in prayer, but to point out the problems with the judgment against “short, emotionless” “requisition-form” prayer in the comments he cited from another source.

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