"And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you." Matthew 6:5-6
According to a recent study by the Pew Forum, 75 percent of Americans report that they pray at least once a week, but only 39 percent of them attend a worship service once a week or more. In a recent 'exploration' of prayer by Zev Chafets for The New York Times Magazine, "Is There a Right Way to Pray?" this is attributed by Steven Waldman, editor in Chief of Beliefnet.com to the detachment of prayer from traditional denominations, "In a way, prayer has become its own religion in this society," he told Chafets. "People pick and choose. They want to be their own spiritual contractors."
Do-it-yourself spirituality. Let us pray for what we want when we have desires yet unfilled. Let us manipulate and treat God as a handi-wipe….only good and worthy of notice when there's a messy spill………and that's all we need to do.
Protestants burying St Josephs in the yard to help sell their homes, Orthodox Jews recommending the Lord's prayer as a path to spirituality, Jesuits using Hindu and Buddhist meditation techniques and the development of spiritual directors who have taken the place of 'learning to pray' that, according to Liz Ellmann, executive director of Spiritual Directors International, were once the bivouac of "priests and ministers and rabbis."
Chafets' investigation takes him from the Brooklyn Tabernacle, where he is told "Let God begin the conversation. Keep your prayers brief and clear. Repeat simple Scripture-based phrases. Pray standing up to fight torpor. And pray directly facing others, eye to eye, in a loud, clear voice", a Manhattan spiritual director, the rabbinical side of the "God Squad", a catholic theologian and a West Virginia Assembly of God church….advice and formulas that were as diverse as they seem to relate very little to the historical thoughts of early church theologians.
Elesha Coffman, of Christianitytoday.com, felt led by Chafets' article to pursue an investigation using the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) and was taken on a journey through Charles Spurgeon to John Calvin….finding a commonality that spanned time and tradition between them for 'this core Christian practice.'
"They asserted that prayer is rather simple...namely to ask for what you need and expect to get it."
Charles Spurgeon wrote "Prayer is always the preface to blessing. It goes before the blessing as the blessing's shadow. When the sunlight of God's mercies rises upon our necessities, it casts the shadow of prayer far down upon the plain…….Prayer is thus connected with the blessing to show us the value of it. If we had the blessings without asking for them, we should think them common things; but prayer makes our mercies more precious than diamonds." Coffman boils this down to a simple formula: ask, receive and give thanks. Sounds like the proverbial call from the college student to home….."Mom, can you do my laundry? Dad, can you send me some money?" and the thankful expression at the end of the call.
Justin Martyr, the second century apologetic, notes that prayer is a part of early Christianity but does not mention a formulaic format. Coffman notes that the chapter context leads one to believe "that needs were central…..surely a community so attentive to needs also understood prayer as an expression of want bearing a promise of relief."
In a study on Madame Guyon, a 17th-18th condemned Catholic mystic, and the study of Quietism, Coffman discovers that "prayer is the application to the heart of God, and the internal exercise of love." (A Short and Easy Method of Prayer) The conclusion is reached that "anyone can pray and the benefits are abundant."
In John Calvin's Institutes of Christian Traditions, Coffman finds four rules for prayer in Chapter 20:
" to have our heart and mind framed as becomes those who are entering into converse with God …  that in asking we must always truly feel our wants, and seriously considering that we need all the things which we ask, accompany the prayer with a sincere, nay, ardent desire of obtaining them …  that he who comes into the presence of God to pray must divest himself of all vainglorious thoughts …  that notwithstanding of our being thus abased and truly humbled, we should be animated to pray with the sure hope of succeeding."
A search on the theology of prayer seems to support Coffman's findings, at least in some theological thought.
The Reverend Dr. Robert Crouse, in his article Heavenly Avarice: The theology of prayer, says "prayer appears to be simply the articulation of human desires, human longings and human aspirations……….. All human desire, all human longing and aspiration, expressed in a thousand different forms, at a thousand different levels, is ultimately desire for God. Prayer is the interpretation, the articulation of all this desire: the soul¹s ceaseless desire for God; and prayer is therefore, indeed, as George Herbert describes it, "soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage." The articulation of desire, the articulation of human longings and aspirations: from the standpoint of human psychology and universal religious practice, that is the meaning of prayer. It is homesickness for God."
Bruce Wilkinson, in The Prayer of Jabez, claims that praying for God's blessings for your desires and wants "is not the self-centered act it might appear, but a supremely spiritual one and exactly the kind of request our Father longs to hear…….[it] emphasizes the Christian's dependence upon God and inability to do God's work in human power alone." In asking for the imparting of supernatural favor we aren't "asking for more of what we could get for ourselves."
There is no mention of the Lord's Prayer beyond the Orthodox Jewish usage as a pathway to spirituality. The Brooklyn Tabernacle's admonishment that prayer is public and loud seems to be defeated in light of Matthew. And none of the early historical references seem to bring much light to either one. Prayer is simply a matter of giving a grocery list to God for His 'to-do-list' and expecting its bagged fulfillment upon our doorstep seems a bit too self-serving and totally out of character in light of what we know of Jesus' prayer life and other references to prayer.
It seems like it would simply be a matter of, like the recent story in the Detroit Free Press, of creating a website with a PayPal account and announcing that you'd like to escape the environment or life that you find yourself in. You simply write down the things you feel are the 'needs' of want and seriously expect a notice in your email account of it being put in the PayPal account for your spending pleasure.
The only thing in common that most denominations or sects of Christianity all agree upon is that prayer is the "act of communicating with God" and an "important theme in Christianity." How such prayer is to be performed is as varied as the denominational names.
The Catholics, Orthodox and Anglicans believe in praying through intercessors, such as Mary and the saints where most Protestant religious denominations do not.
Many denominations believe in scripted prayer or canticles: the prayer of forgiveness (in the Lord's prayer), the Lord's prayer, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, the Believer's prayer, Saint Stephen's prayer, Simon Magus' prayer and the Maranatha from the New Testament and several forms of prayer books, developed over the centuries:
The Book of Common Prayer (Anglican), Agenda (Lutheran), The Upper Room (Methodist), The Roman Breviary (Roman Catholic) and the Book of Psalms. Christian meditation uses such books followed by silent prayer as its formula for proper prayer dictation.
More traditional sects feel that 'medieval' gestures such as genuflection, making the sign of the Cross, kneeling, bowing, hands together palms inward, hands with palms up and elbows in and prostrations are physical forms of proper prayer. But, far from John Calvin's four step prayer format, the Brooklyn Tabernacle's public and loud prayer style, or the various traditional canticles or books…this communication with God bears more meaning in its simplicity that its complexity and far from a formic or formulaic style of prayer, it is more intimate and personal than either Coffman or Chafets appear to think.
John Piper, in A Summary Theology of Prayer, notes that prayer is God's way of "preserve[ing] and manifest[ing] the dependence of His people on His grace and power. The necessity of prayer is a constant reminder and display of our dependence on God for everything, so that He gets the glory when we get the help………When the Spirit inspires and directs the groaning in our hearts…….God get the glory…..because our hearts are made the theater for this divine activity, so that we know and experience God's gracious intercession for us and consciously give Him thanks and praise."
Ted Elmore, director of the Baptist General Convention of Texas prayer office, says a person who feels the need to pray a specific prayer like the prayer of Jabez, one of the form prayers some Baptist use, as a formula to achieve God's blessing is 'a person who's more concerned with prayer than the God who answers prayer. Our confidence is not in prayer; our confidence is in God."
Edmund P. Clowney, in The Biblical Theology of Prayer, notes that "Prayer, like all worship, is always a [reverent] response to God's revelation of Himself and His will. Prayer, in the biblical context, is always response to the God who has made Himself known. [Prayer is] a supremely personal [form]….not a magical formula to be repeated, but the personal communication, awed and adoring, of the redeemed creature who stands in the presence of the Savior God."
N.T. Wright, in Into God's Presence: Prayer in the New Testament, considers prayer an invitation to "share in the divine life itself." Considering the Lord's Prayer, Wright points to the references in the Gospels that Jesus' own practice of private prayer reflects "awareness on the part of His first followers that this kind of private prayer ---not simply formulaic petitions, but wrestling with God over real issues and questions ---formed the undercurrent of His life and public work. The prayer that Jesus gave His followers embodies His own prayer life and His wider kingdom ministry in every clause." Wright says that the model of the Lord's Prayer which Christ gave to His followers is Him "inviting His followers to share the intimacy of His own life with the Father."
No matter what 'form and style' of prayer you or the congregation you belong to use….the bible is very specific about this less-than-mysterious practice of communicating with God.
The first mention of prayer is found in Genesis, chapter 4/verse 26. "And as for Seth, to him also a son was born; and he named him Enosh. Then men began to call on the name of the Lord."
There seems to be no set way that we are instructed to pray, even the Lord's Prayer is an example, but not the rule. There is no need to sweat though…we have our provision for this difficulty: the Holy Spirit. Far beyond the limited capability of our own language, the Holy Spirit will groan in a voice that we cannot understand…but God does…..
"In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will" (Romans 8:26-27 NIV)
Far from prayer being a ask and receive type of communication, i.e. the college kid calling home for funds or a reverent response to God's holiness, it is an intimate journey that helps draw us into closer relationship with God…..Zech. 13:9b & John 15:7 highlight this. It is not a human tradition or a corporate church motion to pray….though traditionally the congregations pray when they gather together. We are required, in obedience, to pray as Christ instructed us.
There is no correct or certain posture that's declared…..the Bible notes people praying on their knees, bowing, on their faces and even standing. There seems to be no direction as to eyes open or closed, sub-vocalization or speaking aloud….only that you should be comfortable and not distracted and the length or eloquence of your words aren't what is impressive or required by the Creator.
Repetitive uttering of prayers does not seem to be biblical, as Matthew's gospel notes "When you pray, don't babble on and on as people in other religions do. They think their prayers are answered only by repeating their words again and again" (Matt. 6:7 NLT). There is nothing wrong with using prayer books and the psalms to read during devo and prayer time, but God wants to hear our hearts, not our eloquence or repeating capabilities.
In fact, it would seem that the biblical rule is that our prayers be short, as declared in Ecclesiastes. "Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few." (Ecc. 5:2 NIV). We get directly to the point of our hearts….if it's worship, then worship; if its need, then need; if its illness, then speak its desired healing; and if its brokenness, then cry it out…..as James tells us, "Is anyone of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise. Is anyone of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up. If he has sinned, he will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective." (James 5:13-16)
The apostle Paul urges the Philippians….and us… (in original Greek translation) to ""Only behave as a citizens worthy of the gospel of Christ." (Philippians 1:27, ESV)—and according to the Scriptures, the gospel of Christ is the good news we are commanded to speak….not in the churches, not in our isolated communities…but boldly to the whole of the world until no corner, no shadow has not had the light shined in it.
S. Michael Craven, an awesome author, references Dr. John Armstrong's quote from fellow friend and author of Christ is All!, Dr. David Bryant that I think hits on the 'how' we are to pray……David says:
"We speak of Christ's greatness in the past tense and in the future tense but rarely do we speak of it in the present tense. We speak of his work of redemption and of his coming again to judge and to save. But too few of us speak of his greatness right now, i.e., in the present tense. [I suggest] that Christ's kingship does not come up in Christian conversations and living because, for all intents and purposes, he is not a part of our daily lives. This is why we do not see Christians pursuing a "purpose driven life" because the Person who gives our lives real purpose does not presently reign in our understanding and affections."
He is not someone we leave a message for, remember a conversation from the past but He is actively involved in our lives…..a turn away, a "phone call" if you will from the cell phone of our hearts…….
If our prayer is our communication link to God; we should use it as an active and vital link. In the foxholes of this war, He is on the end of walkie talkie waiting for us to signal our need for reinforcements….provisions…..ammunition. In the beautiful gardens of our sanctuary, He is the gardener who waits for our acknowledgement of His ability and perfection in His undying care of what we see. In the college of our minds, He is the teacher who shows us true knowledge and greater understanding than we could ever know, if we only seek it. In the childhood of our hearts, He is the father who cheers us on to the goal and the mother who nurses our wounds. And in the joy of our souls, He is the worthy and only source of its existence…….that we need to acknowledge with the humility of a people redeemed.
The financial provisions that God has promised have come through in the past and yet it seems to be dried up as I sit upon the bottom of this pit……but I will rest in the assurance of His care and continue to lift up the needs of my family to His mercy seat…..the home provision is precarious and difficult and I lift up the hope of a place where me and my children can call home…for a long and fruitful time…..the car repairs once again are getting ahead of the ability to keep up….but I lift up the memory of the past provision, not only for the repairs, but for the purchase of the car in the first place. I lift my sorrows, my agonies and my fears to Him….and listen to His reply, seeking His wisdom and His love in the never-ending flow of His peace.
I will continue to speak of His good news through the testimony of my life for as long as I have a breath, offer Him the just and worthy due of the blessings I have received noticed and unnoticed…..I will continue to cry out to Him in the darkness of this world…..all this because I can do nothing less……
I 'phone home' sometimes hourly, definitely daily, if only to hear my Savior's voice urging me on………..