WHAT IS PRAYER ANYWAY?
We will begin our consideration of prayer with a look at the participants, God and me, or us, if we speak of corporate prayer. God is the One who has the wisdom and knows what we really want. He is the One who loves us with a love that gives more than it demands. I am the one in need. I am in need of enlightenment, in need of strength, in need of purpose and in need of resources to pursue the life for which I was created by God.
My greatest need is to get to know God. I need to know what He is like, to know what He wants for me, and to know what He wants from me to accomplish His will in me. Having received the capacity to know good and evil, I often believe that my current prejudices of good are correct. The truth is that I did not create myself, so I know neither God nor the purpose for which I am here. How can I know what is good and what I want?
The way I have gotten to know the people that I know well is by sitting with them and talking with them. I did not get to know them simply by my talking to them. I got to know them by listening to them as they revealed themselves to me in some way in the conversation. It was not simply a monologue that enabled us to know one another. It was a dialog
If I see prayer as a dialog, then prayer is the means whereby I come to know God. I come to know God in the same way I come to know anyone else with whom I converse. I speak and I listen. I enter into a dialog. Prayer is the dialog through which I can come to know God and His will for me.
Dialog is an interesting word. It is from the Greek words,dia, which means "through", and logos, which means "Word". Logos is the Word John uses as he opens his Gospel. "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." It is through the Word spoken into human flesh that God has made Himself known to us. When Jesus says, "No man comes to the Father except through me," He is not making an exclusion of all other ways so much as saying, "If you are going to know what God is really like, LOOK AT ME!"
Jesus Christ is the first Word of prayer. He is the Word whom God spoke as He said, "I love you.." That Word put on flesh and dwelt among us, and His promise is, "Lo, I am with you until the end of the age." (Mt 28:20) Our prayer is simply a response to that Word, as we seek to receive that Love which God has spoken to us, and allow Him to unfold it for us to see and know.
Prayer is primarily our entering into a relationship that aims at an intimacy with God, not simply as a feeling, but as a knowing His presence. It is coming to God in such a way that we might be fully open to receiving His love and revelation, as He continues to speak to us through the Word who is present with us. It is in the dialog of intimacy that we come to know the One who has spoken the first Word of prayer, and we open ourselves to seek, to find and to walk with Him in His will.
THE NEED FOR SOLITUDE
Prayer is an experience, but it must reach beyond experience to the One who gives us the experience. The Word may be apprehended through the reading of Scripture, but we must reach through the Scripture to the One to whom Scripture points. Prayer is sacramental, but it must reach through the sacraments to the One whom we receive as He comes to us. Prayer is certainly working as the presence of God in the world, but it must become aware of the One who works through us.
In short prayer demands a measure of solitude. It requires a time of simply being alone with God, attentive to the revelation of His love. We need a time to find and embrace that love so that we do not see God's love as a matter of His giving us what we desire, but rather as His giving to us what He wills for us to have from Him. A promise is only known as we begin to receive and embrace it. I recall as a child that I was promised much that filled my imagination with delight until I received what was given instead of what I anticipated. My experience with God is much the same. The difference is that His promise is more than I would have imagined. That does not mean that He promises constant bliss. His promise is a growing up into His life and love, and some of the discipline is painful. What I have found is that even in the pain there is a closeness to Him that makes the pain a small matter.
Somewhere in our prayer life we need to find the place where we can draw near to God in the comfort of His love. As a little child, we can discuss our opinions with Him. We can even argue with Him to allow Him to make His point clear to us. The great art of prayer is to always let God win.
When we win, we lose. He will allow us to go out and try our own will. He will set us free as the father of the prodigal set him free. He will love us enough to allow us the consequences of our actions; and when we come to our hog pen, and decide to come home, He will receive us into the same love that let us go away from Him.
When we see that God's will for us is better than our own, we are ready to pray as a child prays. We ask what we will, and we pray, "Thy will be done." It is in the exchange that we look for the will of God to unfold, like a child who asks a parent for candy, or to stay up or to watch TV or any number of other things, not so much to get what is asked, but to find out what the parent is truly like.
It has always intrigued me to see that children, after two years of asking "Can I...?" questions, and receiving answers like, "Yes." "No." "Not now." "Sit down." "Shut up." "Go to bed." "Brush your teeth." know the parent who answers them. In some way they develop an accurate image of the parent. When we are open to receive from God the nonverbal as well as the answers we receive, we come to know Him, and the nature of His love for us.
There is a difference between tempting God and testing God. When we pray for God to do our will, we are tempting God. That was the nature of Satan tempting Jesus by quoting Scripture. "If you are the Son of God, cast yourself down, for it is written, 'He will give His angels charge concerning you....'" Jesus reply was, "You shall not tempt the Lord your God." Mt 4:5-7
When we pray, "Thy will be done," we are testing Him. We are seeking to know His faithfulness. Will He answer me? How will He answer me? I must be still and know that He is God. Then I will find that He calls me by name. I am not just another statistic. I am His beloved child. It is when I come to know Him as a loving Father that I can begin to be open in my prayer dialog with Him.
As I venture out with a little bit of faith, just enough to ask, I find that I am in relationship with a loving Father. I can be honest. I can bear my heart to Him without fear. As I find His love manifested in my life, I find that my faith is not blind anymore. It is informed by His grace given to me. It is rooted in the substance of things hoped for. It is the grounded in the evidence of things unseen. We see then that coincidence is, "God's way of remaining anonymous."
It is in this relationship that we pray, "Thy will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else."
GOD SPEAKS TO US
When Peter preached on Pentecost, he cited the prophet Joel. In the latter days, God will pour out His Spirit. The young men shall have visions, the old men shall dream dreams...Sons and daughters will prophesy. It is not God's intent to remain hidden to those who seek Him. Indeed it was not God who hid in the Garden but Adam.
God speaks to us in "knowing", and we translate that knowing into visual or verbal imagery so we can hold it and communicate it. Every prophetic word that I have heard has come through some human with a limited vocabulary like mine, and Paul made clear that the things of heaven cannot be embodied completely in human words. (IICor 12:2-4)
If we are to pray effectively, and receive the revelation of God's love for us, we must be willing to seek the means He will use to speak to us. Will He speak to us in an audible voice as to Samuel? Will He speak to us through dreams as to Joseph? Will He speak to us in visions as to Isaiah? Will He speak to us in prophecy as to many in the early community? Will He speak to us through Scripture as to St. Augustine?
Jesus promise is, "My sheep know my voice." When we practice listening, we learn to hear and grasp the knowing that God speaks into us. It is much as a child listens to a parent and finally learns to listen as well as to speak, until the dialog is established.
When reading the Scripture listening for God's voice, ask God to speak to you through the words. Read them slowly, and when you hit the place where Holy Spirit brings some new dimension to the text, stop reading and listen to what He is saying. When He has finished talking, continue to read until the next time.
If you are one who journals what God speaks to you, you are experiencing something like a written prophecy. If you are listening to a sermon, ask God to help you discern between Him and the preacher so that you might receive His Word for you without confusion. Pray for the preacher and listen for God's voice through his.
Listening prayer can be done individually or corporately. There are times when it is easier to hear God's voice within you while you are with others who are listening. Often the people who gather to listen will hear a bit of the message, and as each one shares what has been heard, the vision is clarified and made whole by the group.
If you are seeking your own walk with the Lord, then you must listen for that Word. If you are a part of a Body which listens, listen and share what you have heard that the body might receive the whole message.
Every prayer is heard and every prayer is answered. It is heard by a loving Father, and it is answered out of that love. God will neither impose His will as some benevolent tyrant, nor will He indulge the pray-er. The answer that is received is from His love. If there is no apparent answer, you might go back and ask what He wants you to ask.
Prayer does not change God's mind, it opens the doors and invites Him into the life of someone who has need. It might be into my own life as I petition God for those things I believe He wants for me; and I find out by asking. It might be as the four brought the paralytic to Jesus on the stretcher. The invitation was extended, the answer in that case was not what was expected, but it was love and healing, and a demonstration of the authority of Jesus to forgive sins on earth.
When I become involved in a prayer discipline that brings me repeatedly into the presence of God, I come to know Him and enter into an increasing intimacy with Him. I can ask Him what He wants, and allow Him to unfold the revelation of His love that He has for me. I can grow beyond the "Can I have?" prayers into prayer that simply listens for what He wants of me and what He wants for me.
Answered prayer is not getting God to give me what I want, or even what I think He wants for me. It is surrendering my life to Him in a relationship of patient love so that He might make His will known to me, and lead me into the Kingdom He has prepared for me from before the foundation of the world.
That is the purpose of prayer. There are times when we will ask and receive abundantly more than we can imagine. There are times when we will ask and wonder if God hears; but as we pray, "Thy will be done. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else." We will see His love unfold and embrace us to bring us into that intimacy prayer is intended to establish.
METHODS OF PRAYER
There are many methods and techniques that have been taught. I have found some helpful, and others not so helpful. Those which have not been helpful to me have been invaluable to others. The important thing to remember is what we are trying to do. We are trying to bring our lives into the presence of God so that He might love us into wholeness. Through petition I bring myself. Through intercession, I bring those I love. Through thanksgiving, I acknowledge Him to be the source of all things. Through confession, I give Him access to my inadequacies that issue in sin. When I have come to know Him and the love that He has for me, I bring Him my praise and adoration as my response to His infinite and unconditional love for me.
Learning to pray is like learning to walk. It is not done by study so much as the continuing practice until it becomes a reality through which we come to know God in the intimacy for which He has created us and to which He has called us.
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