Why We Pray
Someone from the crowd answered him, “Teacher, I brought you my son; he has a spirit that makes him unable to speak; and whenever it seizes him, it dashes him down; and he foams and grinds his teeth and becomes rigid; and I asked your disciples to cast it out, but they could not do so.” He answered them, “You faithless generation, how much longer must I be among you? How much longer must I put up with you? Bring him to me.” And they brought the boy to him. When the spirit saw him, immediately it convulsed the boy, and he fell on the ground and rolled about, foaming at the mouth. Jesus asked the father, “How long has this been happening to him?” And he said, “From childhood. It has often cast him into the fire and into the water, to destroy him; but if you are able to do anything, have pity on us and help us.” Jesus said to him, “If you are able! —All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father of the child cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!” When Jesus saw that a crowd came running together, he rebuked the unclean spirit, saying to it, “You spirit that keeps this boy from speaking and hearing, I command you, come out of him, and never enter him again!” After crying out and convulsing him terribly, it came out, and the boy was like a corpse, so that most of them said, “He is dead.” But Jesus took him by the hand and lifted him up, and he was able to stand. When he had entered the house, his disciples asked him privately, “Why could we not cast it out?” He said to them, “This kind can come out only through prayer.
Mark 9:17-29 (NRSV)
Brother Lawrence (1611-1691) said, “All things are possible to him who believes. They are less difficult to him who hopes. They are more easy to him who loves, and still more easy to him who perseveres in the practice of these three virtues. The end we ought to propose to ourselves is to become, in this life, the most perfect worshipers of God that we possibly can be, as we hope to be through all eternity. The greater perfection a soul aspires after, the more dependent it is upon divine grace.”
Another way to say that we believe in grace is this: we depend on God. We depend on God for helping us know that we need God. We depend on God to help us be in a right relationship with God and our neighbors. We depend on God to give us a new spirit in our spiritual rebirth.
The reality for Christians today, as it has been in every age of the Christian era, is that we most often do not depend on God. We depend on ourselves. We depend on our training. We depend on our leaders. We depend on our government. We depend on the goodness of others. We depend on the latest advancements and theories. And in an interdependent life, those are all necessary dependences. They become sin, however, when we expect these dependences to save us and to give us meaning apart from God.
Jesus, at his resurrection, promised to be with us always, and Jesus keeps his promises. In our sin, however, we often find ourselves apart from God. Is it any wonder, then, that in the name of Christ, we have seen people rush into the latest hot issues only to be burned by fires that do not refine? Is it any wonder that we have seen disciples dive into the swells of cultural tidal changes only to be drowned in a sea of opinions? Instead, the world witnesses Christians who “foam and grind their teeth and become rigid” in their positions – which Jesus immediately identifies as a lack of faith! We have been possessed by a spirit that keeps us from “speaking and hearing” the Word of God which has come to redeem the creation, and to bring God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven.”
Prayer can cast out the sin that keeps us from hearing the Word of God and speaking the Truth in our every thought, word, and work. Or, to say it another way, prayer can help prepare in our hearts a place where only Christ may be heard. Prayer can help conform our lives to Christ, so that the power of God can work in and through us. Prayer can help us learn to have confidence in the Holy Spirit to guide and direct us in the Way, the Truth, and the Life. To expect to be able to cast out the evil spirits – in ourselves and in the world – without prayer is a sign of dependence on something much less than God. --
Guidelines for Praying
Contemplative prayer is the practice of giving up even words when we come before God. We “give up” any attempts to justify ourselves before God, as well as our petitions for what we want and need, so that all that remains in our prayer is the presence of God. Contemplative praying can lead to an "unknowing" because what we experience in God's presence, while real, we cannot adequately put into words. We don't know how to describe the One who is beyond words, except as we have been given language in the scriptures. Think about the language used in Revelation, which is both fantastic and beyond our experience, as John of Patmos struggled to describe what he had experienced.
“Giving up” is an important step on the classical spiritual path of mysticism. We referred to this earlier, but a brief refresher is in order. The steps are: 1) purgative -- we remove all that is not God by fasting and penitence; 2) illuminative -- we see the light of Christ illuminating our path; and 3) unitive -- we experience mystical union with God. The message of this path is that we give up what is not God in order to be open to receive what is God.
“Giving up” can also be called mortification, which usually conjures up images of hair shirts, bare feet, sleeping on hard surfaces, and other challenges to deny our flesh comfort and ease. John Wesley had a place for mortification in his understanding of going on to perfection; yet, it was a practical mortification that had safeguards against pride. We see this in his questions for his Wednesday evening prayer. These questions are:
Have I done anything merely because it was pleasing?
Have I not just resisted passionate pleasures, but also sough to deny myself that pleasure?
Were any unavoidable inconveniences gladly received as a means of testing?
Have I made any excuses to avoid self-denial?
Have I thought any chance at self-denial as unimportant?
Have I taken pleasure, at the request of others (except where the glory of God is concerned), as a means of denying myself total control over this discipline?
Have I set aside some time for seeking after a lively sense of the suffering of Christ for my sins?
Have I set aside time to consider God’s judgments on me, and how I may seek to grow in grace and discipleship?
What is important in these questions is identifying our intention in practicing mortification. If it is to be mindful of the sacrifices that Jesus made on our behalf, or to prepare our self for times of testing by the world, then mortification is an acceptable practice for those seeking to go on to perfection. If it is to prove our worthiness when confronted with severe challenges, or to separate ourselves from others by our mastery of this discipline, then mortification counts for nothing and may indeed lead us away from true Christian faith.
Closely related to contemplative prayer is “centering prayer,” and it can often lead to contemplative praying. This can take several forms, but the intent is to let go of the distractions that take us away from being in the presence of God. One method includes focusing on our breathing as God's breath/Spirit entering our bodies. Another method is repeating a short verse or prayer over and over again so that is finds a rhythm like our breathing. During a trying time in my ministry, when I would go for my morning walk, my prayer was “create in me a clean heart, O God,” repeated each time I breathed in and out as I walked. Eventually, I was able to let go of the stresses I was carrying and focus on the work of the ministry again.
The most famous “breath prayer” comes out of the Eastern traditions of the Church, and is known as the “Jesus prayer,” which is based on Luke 18:13. When you first begin, the phrase is “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over time, the “pray-er” needs fewer words: Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me; Jesus, have mercy on me; Jesus, have mercy; Jesus; and finally the awareness of your breathing helps you enter into a silent prayer ready to listen for God. It is not a silence of nothingness, as in some Eastern religions, but instead a silence prepared where only God can speak.
Meditation in Christianity historically has been a
reflection on what a scripture text means for Christians living together as
disciples. It is seeking within the text a word from God for the faith
community today. Often, one text does not stand alone when we meditate, as
other texts are called to mind to reinforce or refine what we believe God is
still saying to us. As a gift to the
community, it is also tested by the community of faith, using formally or
informally the standards of Scripture, Tradition (how our faith community has
interpreted this passage before), our Faith Experience (how is my experience as
a redeemed child of God through the grace of Jesus Christ reflected in this
passage), and Reason within the faith (is what we hear in this reasonably
consistent with what we have heard in scripture, tradition, and our
Lectio divina is a listening to the text, usually as we read it out loud for ourselves, in such a way that is becomes my story, my encounter with God. Here we are seeking to understand who we are before God in our sin, and in our redemption, so that we may hear our calling to repentance, and our calling to respond to the Spirit of Christ at work through us. It is usually recommended that we listen deeply to one story at a time, or one part of the story, or even just one verse or word in scripture, knowing that God can and does speak to us in every word of the scripture and not just in the "Cliff notes" version we usually remember. Throughout the day, we return again and again to that one word or verse, to hear it call us to listen to what God is saying to us deeply.
The common “thread” in meditation and lectio divina, as well as in contemplative and centering prayer, is that we are not telling God what to do! Instead we are waiting on God, waiting for God, waiting for a word from God, because we acknowledge and accept that we are not God. And that is something we all need to hear consistently and continually if we are to be humble before God, and ready to love God and to love our neighbors.
Francis de Sales (1567-1622) advocated devotion as a reasonable method for growing in faith and love. “Devotion is spiritual agility and vivacity, by means of which charity works in us lovingly and readily. Charity leads us to obey and fulfill all God’s commandments; devotion leads us to obey them promptly and diligently. Therefore, no one who fails to observe these commandments can truly be virtuous or devout, since to be good one must have charity, and to be devout a ready eagerness to fulfill the laws of charity. . . . Charity and devotion differ no more than the flame from the fire. Charity is a spiritual fire which breaks out into flame and is then called devotion. Devotion simply adds a flame to the fire of charity which makes it ready, active and diligent not only in keeping God’s commandments, but also in carrying out the heavenly counsels and inspirations.”
John Wesley talked of the means of grace as reasonable methods for waiting faithfully for God to work in and through us. These means include hearing the Word of God, participating in the sacrament of communion, prayer, fasting, and Christian conferencing.
Too often, in our individualistic pursuit of perfection, we reverse the pattern of formation and transformation – we assume that God is already dwelling in our hearts, and we pray for God to change the world to conform to us; instead of praying that God will change us so that we conform to Christ, and that we may discover the God who is dwelling in the world among the least of these. The reversal reveals that our focus is still on ourselves, rather than on God and our neighbors. Is it any wonder then that "prayer" seems to be so ineffective for so many people!
The Necessity of Praying
Then they came to
'My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations'?
But you have made it a den of robbers."
And when the chief priests and the scribes heard it, they kept looking for a way to kill him; for they were afraid of him, because the whole crowd was spellbound by his teaching.
Wesley wrote in “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection,” “God's command to ‘pray without ceasing’ is founded on the necessity we have of his grace to preserve the life of God in the soul, which can no more subsist one moment without it, than the body can without air. Whether we think of, or speak to, God; whether we act or suffer for him, all is prayer, when we have no other object than his love, and the desire of pleasing him. All that a Christian does, even in eating and sleeping, is prayer, when it is done in simplicity, according to the order of God, without either adding to or diminishing from it by his own choice. Prayer continues in the desire of the heart, though the understanding be employed on outward things. In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is a continual prayer. As the furious hate which the devil bears us is termed the roaring of a lion, so our vehement love may be termed crying after God. God only requires of his adult children, that their hearts be truly purified, and that they offer him continually the wishes and vows that naturally spring from perfect love. For these desires, being the genuine fruits of love, are the most perfect prayers that can spring from it.”
In Wesley’s abridged edition of William Law’s “A Practical Treatise on Christian Perfection,” we read “It is the habitual taste for music that carries people to concerts; and again, it is concerts that increase the habitual love of music: so it is the right disposition of the heart towards God that leads people to outward acts of prayer; and on the other side, outward acts of prayer preserve and strengthen the right disposition of the heart towards God. So therefore we are to judge the significance of our prayers by looking to the state and temper of our heart; so we are also to judge the state of our heart by the frequency, constancy, and importunity of our prayers. For we are sure that our prayers are insignificant unless they proceed from a right heart; so unless our prayers be frequent, constant and full of importunity, we may be sure our heart is not right towards God. . . . Now prayer never so corrects and amends the heart as we extend it to all the particulars of our state, enumerating all our wants, infirmities, and disorders; not because God needs to be informed of them, but because by this means we inform ourselves, and make our hearts in the best manner acquainted with our true condition. When our prayers thus descend to all the circumstances of our condition, they become a faithful glass to us; and so often we see ourselves in a true light.” (Paragraphs 63, 64)
Prayer is also our opportunity to rehearse and
examine our vision of the
All of these concerns and emphases are found within Wesley’s collection of forms of prayers, which have a rhythm that is similar to the prayers of the Celtic Christians. This example from “Celtic Fire” (pages 173-174) could easily be attributed to Wesley on the basis of style and content, but instead comes from a collected oral tradition.
Lord of my heart, give me vision to inspire me,
that, working or resting,
I may always think of you.
Lord of my heart, give me the light to guide me,
that, at home or abroad,
I may always walk in your way.
Lord of my heart, give me wisdom to direct me,
that, thinking or acting,
I may always discern right from wrong.
Lord of my heart, give me courage to strengthen me,
that, amongst friends or enemies
I may always proclaim your justice.
Lord of my heart, give me trust to console me,
that, hungry or well-fed,
I may always rely on your mercy.
Lord of my heart, save me from empty praise,
that I may always boast of you.
Lord of my heart, save me from worldly wealth,
that I may always look to the riches of heaven.
Lord of my heart, save me from military prowess,
that I may always seek your protection.
Lord of my heart, save me from vain knowledge,
that I may always study your Word.
Lord of my heart, save me from unnatural pleasures,
that I may always find joy in your wonderful creation.
Heart of my own heart, whatever may befall me,
rule over my thoughts and feelings,
my words and actions.
It has been suggested that the influence of
Celtic Christian prayer forms was the leaven in
Wesley’s understanding of salvation is revealed even in his prayers, as this petition from Friday morning shows prayer being based in dependence on God, conformity to Christ, and confidence in the Holy Spirit:
Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty,
I, a miserable sinner, humbly acknowledge
that I am unworthy to pray for myself.
But it is your command that I make prayers for all people;
it is in obedience, not worthiness,
and in confidence of your unlimited goodness,
that I commend to your mercy the wants and necessities of all persons.
The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving has a traditional form that engages the congregation in the whole Story of God at work among us. There the two anamneses, or remembering of the mighty acts of God in the Old Testament and in Jesus Christ; the words of institution that recall us to the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper; the hymn sung by the angels gathered before the throne of God; and the epiclesis, or invocation of the Holy Spirit, to be at work through this sacrament and in the people gathered around the table. The prayer does not make Christ present in the sacrament, but helps us to be aware that Christ has always been present with us.
Sermon 21 opens up the power of the Lord’s Prayer within the life of the disciple and the community of faith in forming them into vessels of grace through which God can pour grace. One of the temptations we have when we use the Lord’s Prayer in every worship service is that it becomes nothing more than “so many words” that pass through our mouths without ever touching our hearts. I was at one meeting where, in the interest of being “contemporary,” a worship leader wanted to eliminate this prayer because it was meaningless to him. This was a complaint that Wesley dealt with in several sermons, for the complaint ends up being evidence of our sin of antinomianism, believing that we are already as we should be, and therefore have no need for doing what Jesus did or commanded.
Prayers that are common to a faith community can help form a connection and identity with others. When I was a youth, we closed each meeting with what we called the Wesleyan Benediction, the blessing found in Numbers 6:24-26. When we went to a district youth rally and closed with this benediction, I knew we were connected by more than just the events of that afternoon. And when we closed a conference youth rally with this same benediction, I knew I belonged to something, and Someone, that was much bigger than my thoughts, feelings, and local connections.
We are mindful of Wesley’s admonition: Formulas for prayer can help direct us, but the formulas will not save us apart from the religion of the heart. The practice of prayer, both personally and corporately, is to help form us as we wait for God to work change in us.
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name,
Thy Kingdom Come, Thy Will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day, our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For Thine is
the Kingdom, and the Power, and the Glory, forever,
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God,
have mercy on me, a sinner.
Prayer of Salvation
Dear God, I acknowledge that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.
I believe that He was born of the Virgin Mary.
I believe that He died on the cross, that His blood was shed for my sins and that He arose from the dead.
I confess that I have disobeyed your commandments.
I ask you to forgive me for these sins.
I now ask Jesus to come into my heart.
Be my Savior. Be my Lord. Be my soon coming King.
I will do my best to obey your teachings as recorded in the Bible.
Thank you, in Jesus name. Amen.
Wesleyan Covenant Prayer
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low for thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth, let it be ratified in heaven. Amen.
Our Heavenly Father, kind and good,
we thank Thee for our daily food.
We thank Thee for Thy love and care.
Be with us Lord, and hear our prayer.
Lord Jesus be our holy guest,
our morning joy, our evening rest,
and with our daily bread impart,
your love and peace to every heart. Amen.
Come Lord Jesus, be our guest,
May this food by thee be blest,
May our souls by thee be fed,
Ever on the living Bread.
I love you, God,
with all my might.
Keep me safe
all through the night.
Watch, O Lord,
with those who wake,
or watch or weep tonight,
and give your angels charge
over those who sleep.
Tend your sick ones,
O Lord Jesus Christ;
rest your weary ones;
bless your dying ones;
soothe your suffering ones;
pity your afflicted ones;
shield your joyous ones;
and all for your love's sake.
attributed to Augustine
A Children’s ACTS Prayer
God is great, God is good. (adoration)
In our sin, we have been rude. (confession)
Thank you for your grace above. (thanksgiving)
Help us, Lord, to live and love. (supplication)
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