i brought two books that i have enjoyed reading lately, with me to NC, thinking that for sure, there’d be ample down-time for me to sit and read and maybe even finish one or both. As it was, i barely touched them. i read through the remainder of March in Dobson’s book before dinner one night, but that’s it. His writing through March has been primarily about prayer, which just so happens to be the subject matter of the other book (Yancey’s book on Prayer) that i brought with me. Coincidentally, the sermon this past Sunday @ the church i went to, focused on this topic as well [MATTHEW six].
At this point, i have LOTS of thoughts on prayer. Granted, these thoughts don’t come with much expertise — i don’t think reading books about it or even necessarily doing it makes you an expert about prayer. In fact, i s’pose i’d be bold enough to say, there’s no such thing as “expert” regarding a practice/communication that will always hold a certain amount of mystery. There are however wise people who know a thing or two about it. i wouldn’t consider myself in that category either though… i think i am lacking in reverence and much too casual about prayer at best.
That being said, i still want to write about it (again) anyhow! Sunday, in a portion of the sermon, the pastor warned about vain repititions and lofty words and the root being, what i would interpret as, our heart-matter. Ritual for the sake of ritual or lofty words for the sake of impressions regarding prayer is straight moot. People may be impressed by many facades, but God isn’t. A stuttering heart-felt commune with God, while sounding rough around the edges, may end up being far better than any well-formed Shakespearean prose. Far be it for me to be the measuring stick on that one, since i can’t see others hearts. This is a gut-check for myself. In my lack of it, i am impressed by people who have control of their spoken word and it tends to lead towards self-consciousness that i’d rather not pay such close attention to. i thank God that He doesn’t only hear my spoken-in-group-settings prayer. If i’m uncomfortable, i almost forget to whom it is i’m praying to.
People say they are praying for one another all the time. i’ve heard the term “prayer-warrior” to describe those who seem to be more dedicated to it than others. There are prayer lists, which i’ll admit, in the past have seemed closer to gossip-columns than needs to lift each other up. There are prayer meetings and seminars which make prayer sound stodgy and corporate and formulaic and members-only. Sometimes prayer seems closer to a hot-potato game, where each one holds the prayer potato for long enough to not get burnt or fumble. i can remember going to my first Bible study group a handful of years ago, with people around my age. At the end we’d stop to pray. i kid you not, my heart would begin to race. i was not used to praying out-loud. i didn’t even know how to begin. Do you start with “Lord” or “Father” or “God” or “Help me Jesus!”? It didn’t help that there’d be that long awkward silence where people expected you to jump in. My desire to connect with other Christians superseded the inevitable heart-attack i’d have each time we met. And then there were the points where i saw or felt prayer move.
In the past, i bought and have read some of Red Moon Rising: How 24-7 Prayer is Awakening a Generation by Pete Greig and Dave Roberts. What i did read inspired and reminded me that prayer is an organic thing, much more than just a checklist item on a list of things i should do as a follower of Christ. It was brought to my attention how powerful prayer really can be; how prayer is capable of changing things. It also inspired me in freedom of creativity – without need of rigid formula, the various ways i could come before God excited me. How prayers could be expressed and shared and communicated seemed endless & likewise how God could communicate back with me made me… hm… fall in love. That may sound weird, but i can’t think of any better way to put it other than falling in love.
In the past year or so of reading the Old Testament, i’ve been humbled at how much of a privilege prayer is. In Yancey’s book on prayer there’s an excerpt from someone named “Sergey”, who lived under a Communist regime in Siberia. He wrote about different groups of people that in essence, fought against the regime with prayer. He also says,
Now that we are free, we are in danger of growing complacent, of not treasuring the freedom to worship. In fact, Christians in parts of the former Soviet Union have actually voted for the Communists to return to power because the church was so much more pure in those days. Itseems we handle persecution better than prosperity.
p.119 Prayer Does it Make Any Difference excerpt: Free at Last
While i’ve never lived under Communism, i can identify with the sentiment. i’m much more likely to have a healthy prayer-life (simply meaning, constant communication with & reliance on God) in troubled waters than when all is smooth sailing. i want the calm waters, but i don’t want the complancency it seems to inherently breed. The two are like star-struck lovers, oblivious of anything other than the comfortable touch of each hand holding the other.
So about this whole “vain repetition” thing. It’s the whole reason i decided to start writing this post, because my thoughts on this have shifted some.
Up until just a few years ago, i would have just nodded my head and not given much thought to this. i’ve never questioned that repetitions are pointless. To be clear, when they’re just repetitious words for me to systematically recite without thought of meaning, then i agree, it’s pointless. As i’ve gotten older or maybe it’s better to say as i’ve grown spiritually, i’ve realized my tendency towards irreverance. In the midst of reading about all the rituals they used to have to do, to even just come before the presence of God, i’ve started to wonder…
When it’s done with the right intent, can’t ritual can be rich? If i’m mindful of the words i’m saying, can’t repetition can serve as reminders? We do it when we participate in the Lord’s Supper.
[In my haphazard ongoing attempt to read through the Bible in its entirity, it’s struck me how much of the scripture tells stories about how quickly people forget to remember.]
Accepting the fact that i am human, i believe i will inadvertantly lose sight and destroy the beauty of both ritual and repetition, given enough time. But does that mean i discard them as pointless? On the flip side, to weigh my salvation on the mastery of either would be just as silly. The temptation would be to impress with something like that. Now, i haven’t given it a ton of intense thought, but i think there could be creativity within those two ‘r’ words, that may help some with keeping it pure, with a hopeful outcome of further reaching towards reverence. [Can “ritual” be flexible in creativity?] If i’m reminded of God – who He is, what He has done and has promised, and who i am in relation to Him, i would think it would lead me towards a more reverant state of mind. i’ve become more open-minded to what i used to consider formulaically closed off to grace. i’ve never put it like that before, but i guess that’s it in a nutshell.
All that being said, when Dobson started writing about praying the rosary, i got that old familiar pang of, “how pointless!” Keep in mind, i still lean towards the free-flowing prayers and i do not see any point still in praying to anyone other than God. Mary’s wonderful, but i am not compelled to, nor do i feel a necessity or any extra comfort in praying to her. When Dobson started to write about what is prayed and meditated on in the midst of a rosary, i was surprised. (maybe that should be another post entirely, since this is already getting lengthy as is.) i will say that, it seems to me that Dobson slipped into praying the rosary while trying to live like Jesus, mainly out of curiosity and perhaps finding a creative way to meditate on the scriptures, in order that it did not become that “vain repetition”. On top of trying to live like Jesus, he was also dedicated to “reading” (quotes, because for personal reasons he chose to listen to them on his iPod, rather than read them) the Gospels every week for a year.
As i mentioned earlier, a portion of March was dedicated to him exploring how Jesus would have prayed. So far i’m getting more of a sense of what a Jewish man, who happened to be Jesus would have done. This is interesting, given the popular WWJD craze. i know this is a broad statement and i may be in error but i don’t think anyone who bought the bracelets, bumper stickers, t-shirts, keychains, license plates, etc. ever truly thought What Would Jesus – as a Jewish man in that time – Do – nowadays?
But Jesus was Jewish. He lived in the Jewish village, worked as a Jewish carpenter, attended synagogue, and read the Torah. He ate like a Jew, dressed like a Jew, and prayed like a Jew. So what were his prayers like?
p. 58 The Year of Living Like Jesus
Dobson talks to Rabbi’s for further understanding and reads up on Jewish traditions and rituals and prayers. He talks about the Siddur (“order”), a prayer book which gives a sense of order and elemental understanding of prayer. He lists them out on p. 58: the prayer of petition; the prayer of thanksgiving; the prayer of praise to God; the prayer of confession. He goes on to quote further from To Pray as a Jew: A Guide to the Prayer Book and the Synagogue Service by Rabbi Hayim H. Donin,
The Hebrew word for prayer … does not mean to ask or to petition God. It is derived from a stem … that is closest in the meaning to the last of these four types of prayer. It means to judge; therefore … [to pray] … could also be translated as to judge one’s self. Here lies a clue to the real purpose for engaging in prayer. Whether we petition God to give us what we need, or thank him for whatever good was granted, or extol him for his awesome attributes, all prayer is intended to help make us better human beings.
p. 58-59 The Year of Living Like Jesus
Now i’ve never heard anyone describe prayer to me like that. Part of me isn’t in full agreement (with the intentionality part), but that may just be misinterpretation of the exclusivity of the words. He also talks about The Amida which is prayed within a Jewish synagogue service.
The Amida is from the Hebrew word meaning “standing.” … It is a series of eighteen blessings that are divided into three categories: words of praise, petitions, and thanksgiving. All of these prayers are done while standing.
p. 60 The Year of Living Like Jesus
He lists the first three of the Blessings, which are beautiful and based on the words of Hebrew Scripture. Here is where he brings up vain repetitions, that i had to smile at. He’s right.
In Northern Ireland, where I grew up, we were a part of the non-conformist church movement, which meant that we were against all forms of liturgy. Invocations, benedictions, and even praying the Lord’s Prayer were all foreign to our experience. We believed that prayer ought to be free-flowing — flowing along with the Holy Spirit who guided the prayers. We were taught that formal liturgical prayers were “vain repetitions” (Matthew 6:7 KJV). As I listened to these free-flowing prayers, of course, I soon realized that most people generally said the same thing over and over again. Even though we were against liturgical prayers, our free-flowing prayers ended up being liturgical themselves.
p. 61 The Year of Living Like Jesus
i don’t think i’ll ever lose the organic side of prayer. i think that’s ingrained in me and my personality automatically gravitates towards it. Ritual and repetition are somewhat foreign matter to me. i’m not against it anymore. In fact, i see a lot more how we all do it, to a certain extent anyhow — just perhaps a bit less formally. What makes one vain and the other not? Where’s that line? If it’s truly about my heart, then no one else can really answer that for anyone else.