jasonbwatson

November 26, 2014

Public prayer

My entire post yesterday was the result of Max Lucado’s answer to the first question in his interview in Leadership Journal. There are other thought-provoking elements of the interview, too, though, and I want to touch here on the issue of public prayer. Lucado was asked if praying in public changes the way he prays, and he answered that it does. He elaborated on his answer though, no doubt at least in part to ensure that no one interpreted his “yes it does” as justification for the public prayers we have all heard that more closely resemble a dramatic recitation than a sincere prayer. You know what I am talking about. The voice changes to the “prayer voice” and the vocabulary changes, too, to include the “right phrases” or the Old English “thee” and “thine.” Sometimes both.

Not only is that not what Lucado had in mind, I do not think that is pleasing to the Lord. In fact, Jesus had some harsh words for the manner in which the Pharisees prayed publicly. In Matthew 6:5 Jesus said, “For they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, that they may be seen by others.” Whatever they received from others in that situation was all they were going to receive, Jesus said. Their public prayers were performances for which they expected attention and respect. God is not interested in the least in such prayers, in no small part because He is not the audience–those watching and listening are the audience.

Lucado said that praying in public is “a huge privilege.” It is a privilege to intercede on behalf of another, he said, and it is a privilege to “model sincere prayer.” Effective and appropriate public prayer is offered in a sincere manner, often focused on different praises and requests than a private prayer might be, but otherwise containing the same elements of a private prayer. Lucado cautions against the theatrical prayers I described above, saying, “May the Lord deliver us from using those [public] prayers as a time to showcase our own spirituality.” Later, he says, “It’s always a mistake to try to impress people with your knowledge or your eloquence in prayer,” calling such behavior nothing but “self promotion.”

Lucado is talking about public prayer that is offered aloud for, and within the hearing of, an assembled audience. There is another kind of public prayer that is just as important as the sincere prayers Lucado is describing, and that is the public prayer that is offered quietly or silently in a crowd, a prayer that others can see but cannot hear. This could be as simple as a bowing of the head and closing of the eyes for a few moments or it could include speaking aloud a prayer for yourself and those in your group but not for the hearing of anyone beyond. These prayers can model sincerity and devotion, as well. Since the words are not heard by the audience it is the simple act of praying in a public setting that is the testimony. It is a quiet means of declaring to those around us that prayer is important enough to us that we will do it even when it may attract looks from others or cause us to stick out.

Prayer is a tremendously private activity and the Scripture makes it clear that that is as it should be. Perhaps for that reason, perhaps for others, I actually know someone who will not pray in public. I do not mean that he does not like to do so, I mean he will not do it. Not aloud, anyway. He will attend a prayer meeting and join in a group prayer gathering, but he will not pray aloud. I am not advocating that attitude because, like Lucado, I see public prayer as a privilege and an opportunity. I would much prefer to see someone refuse to pray publicly than to pray like the Pharisees, though.

One last thought on public prayer is that we do not need to concern ourselves with how effectively we speak or how impressive our prayer sounds. Many people are uncomfortable with public prayer. Since there may be many reasons for that I am not going to judge anyone’s motives, but I will say this: if your reluctance to pray in public is because you are not sure you will “do it right,” you need to get over that. If it the prayer is sincere, that is all that matters. Maybe your prayer will not sound as authoritative or impressive as someone else’s, but God is not comparing you with anyone else and neither should you. A public prayer is just having that honest conversation with God I described yesterday…and allowing others to listen in.

November 25, 2014

“An honest conversation with God”

Filed under: Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 10:18 pm
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Max Lucado recently wrote a book entitled Before Amen. I have not read the book, but I just finished reading an interview with Lucado about the book (and the broader topic of prayer) in the fall issue of Leadership Journal. The interview reinforced my desire to read the book, but it also provided several thought-provoking admissions and statements about prayer.

For example, when asked, “What does a good prayer do?” Lucado answered, “A prayer is simply an honest conversation with God.” If you’re like me, you have had the experience of hearing someone else pray and thinking, “Wow, it sounds like he/she is talking to another person…just having a conversation!” It always strikes me when I hear that because, more often that not, that is not how I feel when I am praying. I know God hears me and that I am talking directly to Him, but I do not talk to Him the same way I talk to my brother, my wife, my children or my friends. I say that as an admission of my own weakness, because there really is no reason why I should not talk to Him in a similar way. Yes, I need to approach God with reverence and respect; I am absolutely not advocating an overly casual approach to God. I am not even suggesting that we should allow ourselves to get too comfortable in how we approach God. He is, after all, God, and there has to be an acknowledgement and understanding of who He is and who we are.

I am reminded of a scene in the movie The American President when the President of the United States, played by Michael Douglas, is having a conversation with his long-time friend and current adviser (chief of staff, perhaps, I cannot remember) played by Martin Sheen. Sheen keeps referring to Douglas as “Mr. President,” and Douglas wants him to just call him by his name. Sheen refuses to do so, because the office Douglas holds requires that level of respect in Sheen’s opinion. In my mind, the same is true of God. Even though He desires a close, personal, even intimate relationship with me and with each of His children, even though He invites us to call him “Abba,” the equivalent of “papa,” He is still God, and I must never allow myself to forget that.

Having said that, I must also remember that there is no magic formula for speaking to God. I do not need to assume a specific posture or include specific words. I do not have to use a “prayer voice.” While I need to speak to Him respectfully and with full appreciation for who He is, I can speak to Him in the same manner in which I would speak to someone sitting at a table with me. “A good prayer,” Lucado said, “reestablishes a sense of communion with God.”

I tend to be reticent by nature, and I am not one to chit-chat just for the sake of making small talk. I do, however, enjoy conversation, and I find both pleasure and connection in conversation with friends and loved ones. I can have a lengthy conversation with someone I am not close to, of course. I have done that, and I am sure that you have, as well. I can leave that conversation feeling no closer to that person–feeling no deeper sense of personal connection–than I had before we talked. So it is not the conversation itself that establishes connection. True, regular conversation will build familiarity and increase the likelihood of closeness, but I have also had regular conversations with people to whom I am not close. In fact, I have had regular conversations with people to whom I do not even desire to be close. Our conversations are transactional in nature–giving or receiving necessary information.

That is exactly what my prayers should not be. God does not want me to approach Him as one more thing on my to-do list. God does not want me to tell Him about my day or about my needs because I am supposed to; He wants me to talk to Him because I want to. He does not want me to talk to Him with the cold formalism I reserve for people I communicate with simply because I need something. Neither does He want me to communicate with Him with the disinterested familiarity I have for people I talk to regularly but do not really know or even want to know. Instead, He wants me to talk to Him with the same kind of attitude and spirit I have when I am talking to someone I love, someone I know and want to know more, someone whose presence and company encourages me and makes me happy.

Do you know people in your life like that? If so, think about how you talk to that person and how it is different from the way you talk to your neighbor, your cubicle-mate, your boss or the teller at your bank. You may be quite friendly with those folks, but I suspect you are not often encouraged or strengthened by the time spent with them. (There may be exceptions, of course; you might have a great and deep relationship with your neighbor, cubicle-mate or even your boss. I guess it’s even possible for you to have such a relationship with your bank teller, though I suspect there would be another element to that relationship if that were the case). The people with whom we have deep, meaningful, connecting conversations are the people we are willing to be vulnerable with, people we empathize with, people we miss when we do not get to talk with them for a while and people whose presence lifts our spirits when we are together. Some of us will surely have more of these people in our lives than others, but I think it is fair to say that few of us will have a long list of people who fit that description. In fact, I think we would be fortunate to count a dozen such people in our lives.

That kind of conversation is the kind that God wants us to have with Him. That is the kind of “honest conversation” that Lucado has in mind, I think. That is the kind of conversation that I, sadly, often do not have with God. I get wrapped up in trying to remember to say the right things, I neglect to mention things that I do not think are that important and, in the interest of full disclosure, I often find my mind wandering to other things when I try to spend a lengthy time in prayer. These are my weaknesses, things I need to work on. I know this because these are not problems when I am in conversation with those dozen or so people I described above. When I am conversing with those individuals I am not particularly worried about saying the right thing; I can just be myself. I am not worried about only mentioning things that reach the appropriate level of importance; instead, I will share little–even trivial things–and delight in doing so. In fact, I will encounter things, read things, do things, that cause me to think, “I want to tell this to so-and-so.” I certainly do not find my mind wandering when I am with those folks. On the contrary, I am focused on what they are saying, focused on what I want to share with them, and am more likely to lose track of the time we are spending together than to find my mind wandering to other things.

That is the kind of prayer life I want…an honest conversation with God.

April 14, 2014

Good Gifts

Filed under: Biblical Worldview,Spiritual Growth — jbwatson @ 7:42 pm
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I like to give gifts. It is something I enjoy in general, but when it comes to my wife and my children I tend to take particular delight in it. My wife thinks it is my love language–the one I use the most, not the one I necessarily need or prefer for myself. One of the inherent elements of giving gifts, though, is giving something that the other person desires or will appreciate. We’ve all the old adage “it’s the thought that counts,” and sure, that’s true to an extent. But if we’re honest we can all think of gifts we’ve received that we would have preferred not to receive! Sometimes those gifts came as a result of the giver being aloof or uninformed. Sometimes it is the result of an erroneous assumption. Sometimes the giver likes the item being given and assumes the recipient must also therefore like it. I can remember times as a child when various relatives would give baseball cards to my brother and me as gifts. I loved baseball cards. My brother, on the other hand, could not have cared less. In a way I liked it because he always ended up giving his cards to me, but I felt bad too, because I knew he would have preferred to receive something he actually liked.

The Bible talks about God giving us gifts. Of course the greatest gift that God ever gave was His Son. John 3:16 tells us just how great a gift that was, and if you’d like to read more about that see my post from February 14 of this year. There are many other gifts that God gives us, though. Indeed, James 1:17 tell us, “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

In Matthew 7 there is a familiar passage about seeking and finding. In verses 7 and 8 Jesus says, “‘Ask, and it will be given to you; seek, and you will find; knock, and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.'” We like those verses because, at first glance, it sounds like God will give us whatever we want. It doesn’t work that way, though. Jesus goes on to say, in the next three verses, “‘Or which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!'” Jesus uses examples to demonstrate that no earthly father would give dangerous or harmful gifts to his children and surely God would not either. God delights to give us those things that we ask Him for when they are within His will. This is an important qualifier. I do not give my children everything they ask me for. Sometimes I say no. I never give them things that are dangerous or harmful; I would never feed them something poisonous when they thought I was giving them something nutritious. Sometimes, though, they ask for something that I decide they do not need or something I do not think it is a good idea for them to have. God delights in giving us good gifts like wisdom, discernment, patience and more. But there are times when he says no, too.

James addresses that issue, as well. James 4:3 says, “You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” When we ask God for things that are purely selfish desires He does not give those to us. I would love to have a Porsche, but I am not going to get one anytime soon if I ask God for one because I do not need one. It would not be practical for one thing–I could not even fit my whole family in it unless I got one of the four-door Porsches (which still just seems wrong to me). It would not be cost effective. I do not need one. If I had one it would spend most of the time sitting in the garage; asking God for a Porsche would be purely the result of yielding to my own passions and fleshly desires.

As disappointing as it may be sometimes to receive gifts we do not really want–like my brother receiving baseball cards–or not receiving gifts we really do want–like a Porsche, perhaps–we can take comfort in knowing that God gives us good gifts. He gives us what we need, when we need it. His ways are perfect.

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