Bart Simpson, the 10 year old son of Marge and Homer Simpson is saying his prayers.
Bart has had a difficult day trying to elude “Sideshow Bob” who has been attempting to kill Bart for as long as the Simpsons has been on TV. Marge and Homer listen outside his bedroom door …
Bart: God bless Mom, God bless Homer, God bless Lisa and God bless Maggie ……. And please kill Sideshow Bob!
Marge and Homer make an urgent entrance.
Marge (horrified): Bart! You can’t ask God to kill people!
Homer: No — you gotta do your own dirty work!
Fiction? Well maybe not entirely. Don’t we sometimes present God with a shopping list, and call it “prayer”, basically asking God to make sure things happen the way we want them to? It might be recovery from illness, success in a job interview, or just good weather for our day out, but we have already decided what God is supposed to do.
Recently I attended a discussion group of Baptist Ministers where our Regional Minister, Phil Jump, lead us in re-thinking prayer. This post is largely based on that discussion and a paper from Phil entitled: “Prayerfulness”.
Prayer is different to Magic
Magic is a way of manipulating the supernatural for our own purposes, whereas prayer is a way of subjecting ourselves to the will of a supernatural God. There are magicians in the Bible eg Simon the Sorcerer (Acts 8:9–24) who attempts to purchase the Holy Spirit to include in his show. Of course we wouldn’t do that but maybe sometimes our prayers, especially our church prayer meetings, are more about asking God to get on board with whatever we have already decided, rather than listening for what God might be doing and us getting on board with that. Of course the church prayer meeting is well-intentioned; we need more people to attend, and God values our coming to him “as a child”…
But perhaps prayer by itself it is not enough.
Much of our prayer meeting seems to be a repetitive process of reciting in a heavenward direction a catalogue of predictable requests.
Instead of using prayer to launch a barrage of well-intentioned words and expectations, might it be more beneficial to spend time trying to listen to God?
Images from the Simpsons’ church have no real relevance … but they are really funny!
Prayerfulness is different to Prayer
Listening for God implies there is a dialogue. We see this dialogue in scripture, eg Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Peter and Paul all experienced God conversationally, not just when they “closed their eyes to pray”. We are not Moses or Paul, but God can still speak with us.
If you like, prayer is something we do but prayerfulness is something we aspire to be. Prayer is specific, it is about doing, but prayerfulness is about being. In becoming prayerful we look for God, we listen for God, and we talk to God in our everyday activities, as well as in deliberate moments of stillness through the day.
Might it be better, rather than imploring our churches to “pray more”, we encourage them to be “more prayerful”?
Seeing God in the moment, listening, dialogue-ing, are all ways of becoming prayerful. Prayerfulness isn’t easy on our own and even harder when get together. The temptation is to separate off prayer from stuff we really need to do – for example in in our church meeting, prayer can simply become the bookends — the meat is in between.
Mindfulness is different to Prayerfulness
You will have come across “mindfulness” which has become popular in recent years to the extent that mindfulness is now taught in some schools as a way of reducing stress. Mindfulness is also about “being” … being in the here and now, having an intensified awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, emptying our minds of distraction and contemplating the moment. It has its origins in Buddhism. There is a lot here that is good – we do need to find stillness in a world where it is increasingly difficult. But prayerfulness goes further. It’s not just about me or even my world. Prayerfulness always leads to a Godly dialogue where we express gratitude, or worship, or listen for God’s voice, or, (…sometimes!) make those requests.
Being a contemplative Christian has its roots in ancient Christianity – long before anyone thought of words like “mindfulness”.
Talk to God – and listen to him. It’s easier the more you do it.
Release time from unused corners of your day. Driving to work, doing housework, or performing exercise may be good times for you to dialogue with God. That’s a great start but being prayerful is also about turning your face toward God’s at any moment in the day. Just look up at the sky sometime — words will come.
And beware of pitfalls. Sometimes we don’t have the conversation with God, we have it with ourselves. The phrase “the Lord told me this ….” may be just me saying “I really want this to be true!”. And remember God may give us difficult messages that are hard to bear. It’s not the case that whenever God speaks it will always be welcoming and reassuring. It could be “no”, or it could be intensely disturbing. In any event if God tells you something specific, he will confirm it in other ways and using other people.
Someone at the discussion group said “prayer is connecting with God’s purposes”, one of those profound statements that doesn’t explain anything to me, but I think its always best to nod wisely. In Homer Simpson’s world I think prayer would be a slot machine that Homer wanders up to now and then to pop loose change in and see if something good happens. But surely prayer — and prayerfulness — is a relationship, an ongoing relationship?