What is Prayer?

What is Prayer?

The Egyptians and Druids were pre-occupied with the Sun and Moon. The Persians took their cues from the stars. The Canaanites, Amalekites, Hittites, and Amorites prayed to idols representing the forces of nature.

And the Greeks and Romans had a pantheon of gods who embodied the best of deity and the worst of humanity.

But the Hebrew people stood out from among them.  They had one and only one God.  And their God, instead of capriciously messing with their lives or demanding bribes in exchange for sunshine or rainfall, was genuinely interested in His people.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob wanted to hear from them.  And when they spoke to Him, He listened.

In Deuteronomy 4, God asks His people through Moses: “What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to Him?”

God was not dis-interested or uninterested.  He was in their very midst, in the tabernacle which they carried with them.  He led them with a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of cloud by night.

And we have His promise that He is still in our midst, in the person of the Holy Spirit.  The writer of the letter to the Hebrews tells us that we are to “Boldly approach the throne of grace,” coming right into God’s presence.

Have you ever thought that when you pray you get that close to God? Not only is God accessible 24/7, but God is also close at hand. So prayer for the Christian is a close encounter with God.

That is much more than just talking to God, which is what most people would say prayer is.  Even our Shorter Catechism sells prayer a bit short when it says that prayer is “an offering up of our desires to God, for things agreeable to His will, in the Name of Christ, with confession of our sins, and thankful acknowledgment of His mercies.”

Peter Scazzero writes in his book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality that as we grow in our relationship with God, our prayers progress.

We begin with “talking at God” – rattling off prayers we have memorized, like “Now I lay me down to sleep” and “God is great, God is good …” That is also the case, far too often, with the Lord’s Prayer – which we will be talking about between now and Advent.

“Talking at God” moves on to “talking to God” – finding our own words with which to pray, telling God what we want: our hopes, our fears, our desires, our concerns for ourselves and for others.  That also includes praising and thanking God for all He has done, is doing, and will do.  Many of us are stuck at this point in our prayer development.

But we can advance to “Listening to God” – when prayer becomes a two-way relationship, true communication.

One of the first Lay Pastors in our Presbytery and one of my teachers in CLP class was Carl Ruthem.  He endured back and shoulder pain for years.  If you saw him standing, his hand was always resting on the opposite shoulder with his other hand supporting that elbow.

He told some of us at a CLP gathering that he had prayed for years for deliverance from the pain, and had become very discouraged because relief had not come.

But he said he had learned from that experience that prayer is not only talking to God, but also listening to God. And the message was one of encouragement: that God heard Carl’s prayers and would give Carl the grace to endure.  And God did, until the day Carl died and the pain was gone forever.

Ultimately, though, we can arrive at “Being with God.”  That’s the goal: being with God.  Some people call it “resting in God.”  It is being so comfortable with God that you need no words – you communicate as effortlessly as you breathe.  Being in God’s presence is the most important thing in life to you.

At that point, prayer has become Communion with God.

The French have a word for it: “Rapprochement,” which means “coming closer together.”  Not one thing moving closer to another, but two or more things moving toward each other.

That’s a great way to describe prayer: When we pray, we move closer to God and God moves closer to us.

The story is told of a Scottish coastal town that was hit by a severe gale.  The lightning flashed and the thunder roared and the wind howled.  The next day, the local pastor visited an old widow who lived alone on a hill overlooking the sea.  He asked her if the storm had frightened her.

“Frightened me?  Heavens, no!  When the storms of life come I just pull my apron over my head and visit God in His tabernacle.”

“His tabernacle” – the place where God dwelled with His people in the wilderness.  And God dwells with us when we enter into communion with Him.  It can be under an apron or under the open sky, in a cathedral or in a hospital bed.

There is a danger that praying the Lord’s Prayer can become meaningless repetition for us.  But if we study it – going beneath the surface of the words Jesus used in teaching His disciples to pray – it can lead us into communion with God.  The great old hymn tells us “There is a place of quiet rest, near to the heart of God.”  Let’s use the Lord’s prayer together to move nearer to the heart of God.  Amen.