“What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” Some people seem to associate devout prayer with rewards from God. Did you hear of the five-year-old boy who announced to his parents that he never wanted to pray again? When she probed his remark, his mother got this explanation: “I prayed and prayed, and prayed for a new puppy, and all I got was a new baby brother.” Prayer is not only a question for young boys wanting puppies, but also for adults who struggle with the issues of life! I read this quote recently: “Faith is not about everything turning out OK; faith is about being OK no matter how things turn out.” “The purpose of prayer”, so says Author Dr. Wayne W. Dyer, “is not to influence God to grant you special favors, but rather to remind yourself that you are always connected to God.”
So “What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” Is it something that requires a lot of our time? Susannah Wesley, mother of John and Charles, once said she couldn’t approve someone who spent less than four hours a day in prayer. But how many of us would be so disciplined? There is a place for highly directed, devoutly practiced, long-term prayer, of course. There is a vocation for deeply dedicated prayer.
Some 30 years ago, Dr. Spencer Johnson and Dr. Ken Blanchard published a breakthrough book titled The One-Minute Manager. The book became popular because the authors offered a simple, direct way to manage people in the workplace. The goal? To set people free to be all that they can be in their work, and to do it quickly, just a minute at a time. That’s the idea of a “one-minute manager”. So how about “one-minute faithfulness”, and finding even there the very presence of God?
I am rather intrigued by the “logo” on the automobile I acquired this past year. The Acura has this medallion representing accuracy in engineering, but if one can see symbolism, to me it resembles the famous “Praying hands”. So while driving, I have this constant reminder to be aware of God’s presence, even a mantle of protection, a call to drive carefully, to continually inquire of God’s will for my life, and the life of my family, the welfare of my congregation, and for all the people of the world.
So I believe it’s entirely possible, in the words of I Thessalonians 5:17, to “ . . . pray without ceasing.”
To remain constant in prayer does not really happen automatically though, or mere good intentions. It takes dedication, and yes, discipline! I heard about a particular African village, where each Christian would have his or her own private shrine for prayer, away from the noisy distractions of the village. If the African Christian was devoted in prayer, there would be a well-worn pathway from their hut to the place of prayer. However, if it was noticeable that the track had become overgrown with weeds and grass because it was not being used, another Christian would come and admonish his friend and say, “Friend, your prayer pathway is growing up with weeds.” Each of us might well ask ourselves, How is the pathway to my shrine of prayer? Has it become overgrown with weeds of neglect because I’ve not been spending time regularly with God?
My special friend, Rev. Elwain Mckeen, has some very inspirational writings, among them, “Spending Time With God”, in which he says,
Many people say that they believe in God, the Creator of all things,
And yet they ignore Him in their everyday life of pleasure and of work.
Yes, some might show some thankfulness to God for what He brings.
But when it comes to real worship – in this they tend to shirk. . . .
In this hectic life that we face with each new dawning day,
It is so easy to let ourselves be distracted – to forget to pray!
And then find ourselves out of orbit, like a star falling from the sky,
But if we will be trust the Savior, we can known where help will lie. . . .
Maybe you heard about the pastor who died and is waiting in line at the Pearly Gates. Ahead of him is this fellow in a loud shirt, leather jacket, and jeans. St. Pete asks the fellow, “Who are you, so that I may admit you to Heaven?” The chap replies, “I’m Fred Smedley, taxi driver, of Noo Yawk City.”Saint Peter consults his list. He smiles and says, “Take this silken robe and golden staff and enter Heaven.” The pastor steps up and booms out, “I am Joe H. Jones, Methodist pastor for the last 48 years.” St. Pete consults his list and says, “Pastor, take this cotton robe and wooden staff and enter Heaven.” “Just a minute,” says pastor. “That man was a cab driver and he gets a silken robe and golden staff. How can this be?” “Up here, we work by results,” says St. Pete. “While you preached, people slept; while he drove, people prayed.”
And it’s possible that what we think is prayer can be misguided! Did you see the B.C. cartoon where one of the prehistoric characters says, “God, please grant me one request. Destroy my worst enemy.” The request barely got out of the guy’s mouth when a bolt of lightning strikes him and incinerates him on the spot. In the final frame, a voice comes from the ashes saying, “Let me rephrase that request.”
News reports often remind us that prayer sometimes must operate under emergency conditions! One minute prayers, or even split second prayers! Did you notice the item about the emergency landing of a small plane last Tuesday in England? It seems that the pilot suddenly became sick, called the control tower, and it became clear the passenger, who had never flown a plane before, would have to land the plane. Two flight instructors were called in to give an impromptu flying lesson over the radio. They instructed the man to fly over the runway to get familiar with it, then circle again, fly over again, then do it one more time, just to be safe. And on the fourth go ‘round, he managed, with no lights in the cockpit, a blind landing in darkness, to make a pretty good three-pointer with only a little bounce, after only an hour of circling. Unfortunately, the original pilot died a short time later. But can you imagine the plight of the pilot, deathly sick at the controls, and the anxiety of the passenger, who’d never piloted a plane before? Was there panic? Was there prayer?
I wouldn’t say that was a perfect analogy of the way prayer works. But perhaps it’s a description of “prayer under pressure”! We have this extremely great need. We pray, “Is anybody listening?” And a voice answers and calmly instructs us step by step until all of our needs are met and our problems are solved. If that happens, we are indeed fortunate. Most of the time, that does not happen.
There is a quite new book titled You Are Already Praying, by Cathy H. George, through the Episcopalian publishers, which helps us realize how we DO pray even if it’s not the way we were taught in church or Sunday School.
“What Is, What Isn’t Prayer?” For one thing, it isn’t something we should make into a complicated procedure, or a ritual too difficult to follow through with!
I read a story of two women friends who met each other in the parking lot of a bookstore. One had a great bundle of books in her arms. “What in the world are you doing,” her friend asked, “opening your own bookstore?” “Oh, no,” said the woman, “these are all books about prayer. All my life I have been hearing about the importance of prayer, so I finally decided to learn how to pray. I have these 14 books on the subject. And not only that, I have signed up for two courses in prayer, at my church and at a friend’s church. I’m really going to master the subject!” Several weeks later, the friends met again. “How is the prayer project going?” the friend asked. The woman hung her head in despair. “It was too complicated,” she said, “and I gave it up.” As an afterthought she added, “Now I’m taking a course in yoga.”
Prayer need not be complicated, but it is helpful to have some guidelines, some instructions in valuable ways to pray. Many years ago, someone taught me that prayer, whether formally spoken such as in church, or informally in the privacy of our heart, should involve at least four different components, using the letters of the word, “A-C-T-S”:
First, there is “A” – Adoration, a time when we are still and allow God to be God. Psalm 46:10 says, “Be still, and know that I am God” – which helps us to center our thoughts completely upon God and not upon ourselves. Adoration.
Then, there is Confession, a time when we are honest with God. I John 1:9 applies: If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just, and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. One of the great prayers in Christian history says, “Create in us clean hearts, O God, and renew a right spirit within us, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Confession.
Third, there is a time of Thanksgiving, a time for expressing gratitude for the many gifts of God’s love. I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart – Psalm 9:1. Take plenty of time to acknowledge God as the source of all good gifts. “Count your blessings, name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Thanksgiving.
Finally, our Prayer should conclude with Supplication, that is, offering our concerns up to God, making requests of God. Psalm 6:9 says, The Lord has heard my supplication; the Lord accepts my prayer.
There you have it: The “Acts” of prayer: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication.
A remarkable example of God’s involvement in life occurred in the year 1932. A certain composer’s wife, Nettie by name, had died while she was giving birth, and a few days later the baby, a son, also died. This composer was broken hearted and sat at his piano, musing upon the hymn, “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone.” That song asks, “Must Jesus bear the cross alone, and all the world go free? No, there’s a cross for everyone, and there’s a cross for me.” As he modulated those chords, the Holy Spirit interceded. New chords and new words emerged. The composer’s grief began to yield to faith. And Thomas Andrew Dorsey (not the band leader, but the religious composer) went on to write,
“Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand,
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn;
Through the storm, through the night lead me on to the light:
Take my hand, precious Lord, lead me home.”
Another of Mr. Dorsey’s compositions, which he wrote for Mahalia Jackson, was:
There’ll be peace in the valley for me some day.
There’ll be peace in the valley for me
I pray no more sorrow and sadness or trouble will be
There’ll be peace in the valley for me.
Mr. Dorsey witnessed to this truth: No matter our success, failure, joy or sorrow, God can be found in prayer.