When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites! They love to stand up and pray in the houses of worship and on the street corners, so that everyone will see them. I assure you, they have already been paid in full. But when you pray, go to your room, close the door, and pray to your Father, who is unseen. And your Father, who sees what you do in private, will reward you.
[This is a continuation of Jesus’ teaching about proper performance of religious duties. He is explaining to his disciples how they can be “more faithful than the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees in doing what God requires.” (See Day 23)].
PRAYER: My Personal Experience I love to pray and I’ve had the privilege of praying with a lot of people from different cultures, traditions, and faith backgrounds. Of course I pray privately, but I have also been very blessed by the many experiences I’ve had with extemporaneous prayer shared in small groups and other public settings.
I remember one man I knew who prayed in French. I couldn’t understand a word he said but the presence of God was heavy when he prayed. There was another woman who came to our evening prayer meetings. She was always under the influence of something or other and could barely talk. But when it was time to pray the words poured out of her mouth – prayers from the heart of God about the suffering and the beauty of life. There was another woman whose prayers were so encouraging and powerful that they sent my spirit soaring. One night at a prayer meeting someone stood up and started singing. It was prophetic prayer and it sent chills up my spine and tears down my face.
For many years a group of us walked around the neighborhood quietly praying for peace and love in every home. We would do this on Tuesday night, and Sunday would bring people who lived along that week’s route who said they suddenly felt a strong urge to visit our church. There was a man in our church who always prayed for John and I referring to us as “our talented pastor and his equally talented wife.” We always looked forward to that blessing. And I’ll never forget those crazy prayer ministry sessions at the Toronto Airport Christian Fellowship. Life-changing! I lead a prayer group at my church. Most of the time is spent using “common prayers” published by my denomination, intermixed with specifics related to our own church. Near the end of the session there is a short time for extemporaneous prayer or sharing, but most of the people talk rather than pray during this time. We share whatever comes into our minds during the prayer time in a conversational manner. Then, we end up with the Lord’s Prayer. This seems to work well for us.
PRAYER: The Jewish Experience Because Jesus was a Jew, I thought it would be interesting to explore what Jewish prayer looks like so I could get a better perspective on this scripture and reflect on what else he might find offensive in terms of today’s prayer practices. Following is a summary of the Jewish perspective on prayer from http://www.jewfaq.org/prayer.htm:
“The Hebrew word for prayer is tefilah. It is derived from the root Pe-Lamed-Lamed and the word l’hitpalel, meaning to judge oneself. This surprising word origin provides insight into the purpose of Jewish prayer. The most important part of any Jewish prayer, whether it be a prayer of petition, of thanksgiving, of praise of G-d, or of confession, is the introspection it provides, the moment that we spend looking inside ourselves, seeing our role in the universe and our relationship to G-d. Observant Jews are constantly reminded of G-d’-s presence and of our relationship with G-d, because we are continually praying to Him. Our first thought in the morning, even before we get out of bed, is a prayer thanking G-d for returning our souls to us. There are prayers to be recited before enjoying any material pleasure, such as eating or wearing new clothes; prayers to recite before performing any mitzvah (commandment), such as washing hands or lighting candles; prayers to recite upon seeing anything unusual, such as a king, a rainbow, or the site of a great tragedy; prayers to recite whenever some good or bad thing happens; and prayers to recite before going to bed at night. All of these prayers are in addition to formal prayer services, which are performed three times a day every weekday and additional times on shabbat and festivals.”
Prayer is extremely important to the Jews. It’s about connecting with God every minute of every day. It’s disciplined and focused. It’s about submitting to God and acknowledging his presence in everything. It’s not about asking for stuff. It’s not about asking for healing. It’s not about asking for strength or courage. It’s not about us. To Jews, prayer is about God. Period. When Prayers Go Bad In this scripture Jesus describes one of the ways that he has seen prayers go off the rails. What comes to mind when I think about this scripture is some of the problems I’ve run into when leading or participating in group prayer. I have noticed that there are certain patterns of prayer are not particularly helpful. In fact they can be downright hurtful and off-putting. What follows is a sort of tongue-in-cheek thing; red flags that prayer is going astray; things that Jesus might not be crazy about. These descriptions just kind of came into my mind so hey, what the heck, I’m sharing them.
Oratorical Prayer – Speeches in the disguise of prayer. People gifted in public speaking are sometimes guilty of going on and on just because they are good at it and they enjoy letting the words have their way. Often interrupted by snoring.
Performance Prayer – These prayers are those done for dramatic effect. They may involve a lot of changes in vocal tone, yelling followed by whispering, gesticulating, singing, etc. Applause is always appreciated.
Cathartic Prayer – Starts with pleading, moves into crying, ends in screaming. Sometimes while writhing on the floor. Or, angry rants. All inappropriate.
Affected Prayer – When a person’s vocal tone and pronunciation completely change when they start to pray, it can be very distracting. Also includes youth group prayers that include a phrase like “Father God” after every 2 or 3 words.
Infirmity Prayer – Long lists of sick people with gory details about what’s wrong with each of them. Sometimes people are forced to leave the room because they feel nauseous or lightheaded. The tone is gloomy and hopeless.
Egocentric Prayer – ….me, me, me, me…….
Royal Prayer of Confession – Confessing for other people using the royal “we” – we don’t pray enough, we don’t love enough, we don’t give enough, etc. People should search their own hearts and confess their own sins.
Name It & Claim It Prayer – Ordering God around and telling him what to do. Usually a command for money or other material thing.
Educational Prayer – Prayers that are really conceived out of a need to tell others in the group what to think.
Manipulative Prayer – Prayers that are really conceived out of a need to tell others in the group what to feel or to enlist their aid in performing a task. Bossy prayer.
Patriotic Prayer – These prayers are thinly veiled patriotic speeches. They involve flag-waving, lots of talk about our military might and how we are the greatest and strongest country on earth, judgments about elected officials (pro or con), death to our enemies, etc. Always makes me want to click my heels and salute.
Soulish Prayer – These prayers are thinly veiled criticism of others. “Oh Father God, please help pastor so-and-so. Help him not to be so boring and mean. Help him learn to seek your heart, Lord. Please forgive him for not visiting me in the hospital…”
OK. There it is. I got it out. Those of you who don’t pray regularly in groups are probably offended, but if you’ve had a lot of experience with group prayer you are laughing because you know exactly what I’m talking about. As for me, I tend toward Educational or Manipulative Prayer when I go off the rails. Bossy. That’s the way I roll.
Given how important prayer is the Jews, it’s easy to see why Jesus would be very upset when “prayer goes bad.” So if we notice that we are doing any of those things I listed when we are praying, we should do as Jesus suggests. Go back to the intimacy of our homes and reconnect with God in silence. Then start adding a few words to start up the conversation – plain words, nothing fancy. We might want to find a book of common prayers. The Episcopalians and Lutherans have great common prayers. Of course Jewish prayers are super. These carefully crafted prayers can help us get centered and remember what prayer’s all about.
Just remember that even a well written prayer can go bad if our heart’s not in the right place. If you are self-conscious or have a tendency to perform, it may be that praying in public is something that you should leave to others. It’s never a mistake to accept our limitations. Because the bottom line is that reward from our Father that Jesus mentions – a word or a touch from the God of the universe in whom we live and move and have our being!! It’s imperative that we keep this goal in mind.
What does this scripture say to you?