Prayer

On a Thursday night some years ago, I had the distinct privilege and honor of leading a class of youth in my church. This youth bible study was a continuation of the classes I taught in another state, in a different church, in a different time. That is to say that my teaching method was raw and not always up to the task. It often required me to be adept at recognizing the needs of the young adults and help explain the bible in ways that sometimes even I didn’t quite fully grasp. In my shortcomings I found ways to become less and less a fairly good teacher of several and soon the underwhelming leader of one or two.

It wasn’t exactly my best example of leadership on display. But there was this one time, a very important lesson needed to be taught. It was born of a question the kids asked one week prior.

What is prayer? And this is what I said. This is what I believe. This is what I know for myself.

Prayer is one of the most recognized actions of the faithful but the least explained. I have spent most of my life hearing the faith leaders in my life explain to me that prayer is something we as the devout do when we wish to talk to God. That its something we all do as men and women of faith. And it’s not exclusive to Christians but is common to most every religion and faith. And they told me it’s an action that must come in any one of several forms:

Praise and adoration. This is prayer that is focused upon God, Himself, and in this prayer form we express love of and for him. This prayer form outwardly shows our love of and for Him in as much as a child of God can. It’s an expression of love returned. Since love is a circle, it’s simply completing the circuit.

Penitence. This is the prayer that expresses a willingness to show an admittance of personal fault and a true need for Gods forgiveness. It’s the kind of prayer that recognizes that sin is part of who and what we are but we are still seeking His guidance. It’s not true that we are wholly sinful, but those who would follow the Word of God are expected to seek to rise above our sin filled heritage.

Petition. This is the prayer that we normally fall into. It’s the kind of prayer that is us asking for something. Usually something that has a price tag that you can affix to it. It’s always a prayer of asking. Heal my illness. Take away this hurt for my friend. Almost begging for anything and everything. The hope is that petition is not for material possessions, but instead for the betterment of self so that the glory of God can be seen clearly from within to the without. Petition should be beyond what one wears on the outside and be more about who and what we are on the inside. Asking for inner peace and a giving heart may be a good place to start. Or perhaps asking to be more like what God wants us to be: truly like Him on earth.

Thanksgiving. That’s the prayer that essentially boils down to a spirit of thankfulness. It’s a chance for us to express our gladness and joy in the blessings of God. This is the prayer that for some is most often want to offered. It is the prayer some may feel is all the prayer we ever need do. It’s the prayer form that I’ve seen some use to “lord” over the petitioner. The hard part is that many of us have a very hard time thanking folk for things they’ve done or said or given. I am an advocate of thanking God for the time he gave us to be in his presence and the time we have to live.

Intercession. This is the prayer that is selfless in nature. It’s designed to intercede on behalf of others and see to their needs and not your own. This prayer may have elements of petition-like language but the language is not personal, but magnanimous. It’s literally asking God to be a bulwark for someone where you see them in trial or trouble and have not the power yourself to help, aid, or assist. But you know God and ask for Him to step in.

So back to my class: here is where I took a left turn. I asked the children just what should a prayer say? How does one pray? Is there a certain set of rules that apply to the meditation we call prayer? Should we be on bended knee? Prostrate on the ground? Standing with our eyes closed? Open and gazing heavenward? Is there a biblically prescribed rule that says that when you pray, you must be in this place or that building or the other position?

In all my reading of the bible, the answer I have is – no.

I’ve arrived at this conclusion. And I ask you to look at this example of prayer:
president Bartlett prays
It’s an example of prayer that I’ve never before seen so wonderfully presented on television or in life. Prayer has literally nothing to do with where you physically are. Because of grace there is no requirement for us to be in any particular building, situation or physical position to speak with God. God never said that He will ignore your pleas if you are not in a massive cathedral, kneeling on a hard bench, head bowed, and hands firmly clasped in a position of supplication. That if you don’t have someone pray for you at an altar or in a room out of your eyesight then God hasn’t heard your hearts words.

Not true.

You may have heard that prayer requires a certain set of words to be acceptable as prayer. The model prayer of the bible for example. But that too is not my belief.

I believe that prayer is fully and centrally devoted not to the position of ones body, but to the position of ones heart. The heart not the mind. Ones mind may be in a state of abject fear, or confusion. But if ones heart is sincere and open to receive, then prayer can begin.

I also believe that prayer is not more recognizable nor more correct nor likely to be heard by the Almighty God if it is of a particular length. No prayer must be long winded and include all the elements of “traditional” prayer. I say “traditional” because I am hoping to see a new tradition. One centered upon the open dialogue and personal relationship that develops with communion. Let’s not fool ourselves. Prayer is communion with God. Common. Union. Unification with God as a commonality. It need not be formal. Grandiose. Edited for clarity. Presented to a board for approval. Written and checked for grammar.

Prayer is a chance to chat with God. Or to yell at Him. Share your day with Him. To tell God off. Ask Him how He’s doing. Tell Him how unfair things are. Mull things over with Him. Chew the fat with God. Tell Him all your troubles not so much because you think He doesn’t know them. Far from it. But as an acknowledgement that YOU know the troubles and are not above asking His intercession on your behalf with a penitent spirit.

Prayers may be as long as the Gettysburg address. Or they may be a single word. It’s not the length or the position or the formality. It’s the heart that supplies the prayer with its power. Sharing time, our most valuable possession beyond life itself, with God, is the ultimate gift to him. Time well spent builds relationship, not just with Him but with our fellow humans too. And in the end, that is what God really wants with His children. Relationship.

So whether you are a Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Druid, or Wiccan, prayer is a chance to express your heart to your God or god or goddess. I am not here to judge your faith walk. I am only suggesting that if you have faith, and you feel like it is waning in the slightest, maybe you need to take a minute…. Just a tiny little minute… And have a nice little chat with someone.

Oh, Ye of Little Religion

Sunday morning at 11 o’clock, it has been said, is the most segregated time in America. It is a time when the people of Christendom gather with other like minded folk of Christendom and enter into common union. A time when folk look to hear a Word, break bread, and drink of the cup. Gather to accept a new life. Perhaps cast off an old life and accept the new.

By and large, it’s also a time when they focus less on faith and more fully on religion. Therein lays the sadness.

First the Word.

Matthew 8:26, 16:8, 6:30, 14:31…. All of these passages describe a moment in people’s lives when they require dependence on something or someone greater than they. There is a time in all our lives where we look to people or things for assistance and there is nothing wrong with it. You sometimes need a car when the distance is long. A library when you need an answer. A friend when the day is hard. A hammer when facing a reticent nail. No one does it all by themselves. Even the most strident individualist must use assistance of some kind at some point.

That’s the world.

Spiritually the help becomes less tangible and perhaps a bit more grey area. And that is just where the disciples were in these passages. Y’know I do believe many of us are there today too. We too need help, aid or assistance and look to something that is greater than we to solve it.

So what did Jesus do? He said go to the temple and petition the rabbis. Right? No.

He said hire a catering company if you need food. Right? No.

He reminded them in five words that man can fail but faith never does. He said not to focus effort on the solutions of the world but of the eternal. He said, in essence, let go of your expectations of the world. He said not to run to the comfort of religion but instead grasp onto the strong hand of faith. How do I arrive at this?

Because He did not say “…oh, ye of little religion…”.

The world was then and is now already full of various religions. In my opinion religion is the great divider, not uniter. We find more ways to divide, separate and segregate from one another in the name of religion than one might think possible. We have each and every one of us formed our own idea of what is the “correct” way to supplicate and request and praise and honor God. My way. Your way. His way. Her way. Their way. And there is always something wrong with someone else’s way. Divide.

No, there was quite enough religion, thank you.

But faith. That was sadly lacking. That IS sadly lacking.

Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. It is the inspiration for pressing on when “common sense” says to stop. To climb that last hill. Ride that last mile. Apply for that last job. Ask that woman or man to marry you. Believe that it’s gonna be alright when you are done. That is faith. Faith is what encourages. Strengthens. Bolsters. And fuels the spirit for one last go.

Let me ask those of you: When you drive a car to work, you check road conditions on tv? Okay. So do I. But then do you walk the route? Call the sky-cam team and double confirm the report? Check social media for its input? Consult the polls for the latest results in infrastructure funding to be sure that monies went to the pothole you saw yesterday and aren’t sure was fixed last night? Then do you call the department of transportation to verify that all traffic signals and painted lines are in place and as they should be? No? Why not? Because you have a form of faith called trust that the road conditions, other drivers, and your own skills at driving will allow you safe passage to work.

I’m not saying that no chair will ever fail you, but it is highly unlikely that you take no seat without first checking the engineering reports by its designer and subject it to a load test to assure it will support your weight. No. You don’t. I’m sure of that. What you do is take it on faith that the chair will be fine with you on it or under someone else.

I would submit that if you have more religion than faith, you are not necessarily living as Christ hoped for his followers. I say that He led with the hope that Christians who would profess to love Him would be less dogmatic in religion and more comforted by faith.

I believe that those who cast off the shackles of religion as the source of faith and instead embrace the freedom of faith as the inspiration of our religion are the happiest and most complete people of God you’ll meet.

Choices

In America today, there are a great number of people who are unaware of their birthday. It’s fairly common in the Cambodian immigrant community who may have multiple siblings. Very old black Americans too were likely to have a date fed to them because records of black folk were not the top priority of their birthing midwives, doctors or mothers out there in a field. My own grandfather knew the city of his birth, but not the affirmed and government attested date.

But if you were in that same situation. Knew little to nothing about what day you were born, what date would you choose?

Would it be a date steeped in history? A date that currently is someone else’s to emulate them? Perhaps in a way to honor them because of some way they touched your life? Or would you choose a date that has negative associations in an effort to flip the script? To make a positive spin on the day. To change the conversation, if you will?

I wonder if that is the same question asked by Christian leaders in the early church.

It’s well known that Jesus The Christ was a real person. Certainly a prophet and influential leader. I will not entertain arguments of his divinity. But for this blogs point, let’s simply accept that he was and is a powerful influence to millions throughout human history, if nothing else. Since we know that at least that much is true, I think its safe to assume the early Christians knew that his birth and death occurred. But they may likely have been at least ambivalent on the exact date of either. What date could they assume? Assume as in the definition of take on as your own. In my sanctified imagination, they had a serious problem. The people of God wanted to celebrate and honor his death and his birth.

So, again, the early Christian leaders came upon a problem. The scrolls and letters that were being congealed into today’s bible didn’t explicitly answer the question of His birth. Nor of his death. A least not beyond the day of the week. Were these early authors really all that different from the Cambodians and Black Americans I mentioned before?

Consider this possibility, if you will. We are alive, but realistically we are unsure of the actual date. In fact, to be real about it, the only reason we can observe our own birth on an annual basis is because we believed whomever it was that presented us a slip of paper with a seal on it that listed our name and a date saying this is the certificate of our birth.

Do you actually recall the date of your birth and have you tracked that date from then to now chronologically with calendar in hand? I think not. You accept certain truths (as you are able to accept them) all the time with no real evidence beyond what someone you never met wrote down. Does that make you gullible? I don’t believe so. What it really means is that we accept certain things on faith.

Just as Christians do.

I know. If your are not a person of faith, this truth may upset you. But it is still the truth.

I imagine that the choice early Christians had was not an enviable one. They needed to commemorate the birth and death of Jesus. But what days? I’m not excusing the day early Christian zealots choice to place His birthday and sacrifice day on, but to ignore the days altogether is disrespectful. Yes, they placed His death on a preexisting holiday and the title sounded rather similar. And His birth was placed over a pagan holiday as a means to replace the local pagan religions with the new one. I’ll accept that truth.

So what was the point? What was their true intent? What would be mine? Or yours? What point can be made to even bother celebrating a birthday of the divine? The point, to me, is not to curry favor with God.

It is to show love.

Celebration of another human, or God, is not, to me, a thing to add currency in a spiritual bank account for the hear after. It is simply a celebration of the love I have for the other who has manifest some part of themselves in me. We are broken vessels, eager to be rebuilt and made whole. In that endeavor, we tend to seek approval and do things that we only hope will restore us. But that act alone does NOT make us heathens by commemorating the assassination of Jesus the Christ.

If my mother died, I would commemorate her passing on the anniversary. Not because I refuse to move forward. But because knowing and retelling my past allows me to remember and hopefully learn from it. Its the same reason we tell the old stories of uncle so and so when he got drunk or sister such and such when she got into college. Because we love them, and we do not wish to forget. So just because Jesus didn’t tell us to recall his passing doesn’t make it wrong to do so. Just be sure its celebrated for the correct reasons.