The lectionary lessons for this Sunday (July 25, 2010) center around the theme of prayer. We have Abraham’s entreaties to God for the sake of a few righteous people in the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah from Genesis 18. In the reading from Colossians 2, starts out by holding up a life rooted in Christ and abounding in thanksgiving. In the Sunday’s Gospel reading from Luke, we heard Jesus teaching his disciples to pray, using the words we now call the Lord’s Prayer.

I’m lousy at personal, private prayer. Or, more specifically, I’m lousy at the conventional notion of such prayer. I think one of the reasons is how such conventional notions are constructed. They are so often very limiting.

First, it’s construed as an individual, personal, and private activity. Be quiet, bow your head, fold your hands, and close your eyes. Such conventional practice shuts out the world around us. That’s not necessarily a bad thing at all. There is much that can distract us, but somewhere along the way the notion becomes that this is what one has to do in order to pray.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, prayer is often thought of as if it were some bureaucratic transaction. The chief activity of conventional notions of personal prayer is giving reports and making requests. Think of the model of prayer in which one explains the situation or how one feels to God, as if writing a letter to a far away friend or long-lost relative, and often continues with petitions to God on behalf of yourself or others. There is nothing wrong with this, of course. Petitions to God in prayer are one of the chief forms of prayer through the ages, and the Genesis story of Abraham contending with God is a model of such a form. But isn’t this so often what we think of when we speak of praying? Isn’t this kind of prayer what we mean when we ask for someone’s prayers, or offer them to someone? Indeed, our English word “pray” means to entreat or implore, to offer a plea. And when practiced poorly, and without other modes of prayer in balance, this conventional notion can even become selfish. It can all too easily become about what I want God to do for me, my family and friends, and the things I care about. This is the prayer before the football game that God will see our team to scoring the most points.

And when it gets here, or when I see it heading in this direction, I end up having a hard time with prayer. I can even, at times, find it oddly repulsive.

We need a different, and broader, understanding of prayer.

Our English word for prayer is derived from the Latin word precari, which is to pray, beg, beseech. The English word imprecation derives from this Latin root. But there is another word that the church has long used to speak of prayer: orare. We can find this in the Benedictine motto ora et labora (prayer and work), and in the Latin of the Ave Maria at ora pro nobis (pray for us). It means to pray and the plead, but it also means to speak. It is the root of English words such as oration.

Perhaps, then, one can conceive of prayer as simply speaking with God. To pray for someone is to speak for them. This connects nicely with Abraham’s entreaties to God over the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. Although the language is something like that of a royal court, of a subject trying to convince a king, Abraham doesn’t just deliver a singular request to God, he contends with God and speaks on behalf of any righteous residents of those cities.

But I’d like to also take some further clue from the story of Abraham and the Gospel reading for the Sunday. Both stories give indications that the key is about relationship. Abraham doesn’t just do the ancient equivalent of submitting a form, he engages in a back and forth with God. Jesus teaches a prayer that is addressed to our Father, indicating a God who is not only personal, but one with whom we have an important and meaningful relationship.

Prayer isn’t simply something to be thought of relationally, as a quality that it has. Prayer is all about coming into the presence of God and delivering oneself to God’s presence in one’s life. Such a notion of prayer brings together petitionary prayer, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of thanksgiving, individual prayer, corporate prayer, and contemplative prayer together under one umbrella, as different modes of the same practice instead of distinct practices vaguely related.  It would characterize all of them, and would discipline all of them. It also means that prayer is not just words said silently or allowed with hands folded and eyes closed, but also acts of prayer and devotion such as a sign of the cross.

Above all, such a notion move prayer way from the selfishness that can creep into the notion of prayer when it becomes dominated by report and request, for it makes it clear the center and home of all prayer. It is not in our own agendas for God and the world, but in God and God’s mission in his creation amongst his children. Thus understood, prayer enables us to rely on God, as in “your will be done,” “your kingdom come,” and “give us our this day our daily bread.”  It enables us to give thanks for the good things that God has given us, and for the ability to rely on him. It enables us to not only make petitions, but to be advocates for neighbors and justice, to contend with God in whose presence we come, just as Abraham did over the righteous of those ancient cities, and it allows us to remind God of the promises of his covenants without being presumptuous. In prayer, we draw ourselves into the presence of God, for a moment or for a long period, alone or together, with or without words, in new words or old. But always, and at its heart, prayer is simply being with God, and not much else is necessary.


1 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. Terry Frovik #

    Yes, nicely done. Yet, prayer need not be anymore than talking to God the Father through Jesus the Son, for Christians. When prayer is urgent, we don’t think, we pray. However, I like the notion of prayer as speaking – let your requests be made know to God and the peace of God . . . . will be with you, said Paul.