Sunday, March 17, 2013

And When You Pray

 “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.”
~Jesus, {Matthew 6:5-8}
Perhaps it’s because my concentration is Christian Formation and Soul Care.  Maybe it’s because I process events, emotions, and even thoughts out loud.  Or perhaps it’s because my top two love languages are words of affirmation and quality time.  Likely, it’s a combination of all three.  But something that genuinely irks me in contemporary worship is the variation on the following theme:

·         Let’s pray really quickly so that we can get started

·         Betty, will you say a quick prayer before we close

·         Tom, can you quickly ask the Lord to attend to the unvoiced prayers in all our hearts

Quick – as if prayer is a box to check off so that the group may move to the real business.  Quick – as though one were dialing God in on a conference call, to ensure He’s really in the room.  Quick – as if conversing with the LORD Almighty is something that takes precious time away from whatever else we are there doing.  Quick – so that we can get on with our lives.
Now I understand in our fast-paced, time-oriented culture, the expenditure of time is something to which we must show deference.  I know that God does already know the contents and struggles and desires of our hearts.  I get that everyone’s on a tight schedule, squeezing bible studies and prayer meetings and even church in among the everything-else that needs to get done. And I recognize that because of this, there are times when quick prayers are necessary; gatherings where agendas and schedules must be respected.  But these calls to prayer before digging into God’s word or moving forward with a meeting presuppose a time of personal lingering before the Lord, and a communal period seeking God through prayer in another venue.   

What is concerning is that with increasing frequency prayer is linked to synonyms of hasty; that prayer has thus begun to come with the expectation of quick.   We have come to anticipate a three sentence, bullet-pointed edition of encouragement, or invitation for God’s presence when we gather for prayer, or worse, in our private prayer time.  And we use Matthew 6:5-8 as our justification thus.  For surely if Jesus, who was teaching His disciples how to pray, says that we are to avoid too many words then we ought to be as brief as possible.  Right?  We wouldn’t want to be like the pagans who Christ said are too wordy.  That’s what He was cautioning His followers against… Isn’t it?       
I submit that this is not, in fact, what Jesus was saying.  But to apprehend this we need to consider the words and actions of the incarnate Christ, as well as the cultural context into which these words were uttered.  First, we should remember – and it is always important to keep this in mind when thinking about Jesus – that Christ was first century, Palestinian Jew.   This means that He kept the Sabbath, celebrated the feasts, honored the holy days, and participated in the traditional prayers of His fellow Hebrews.  Consider for a moment the Shema, which is a prayerful recitation of Deuteronomy 6:4-9, 11:13-21, and Numbers 15:37-41, that many faithful Jewish people pray twice daily.  Also, we need to remember Daniel, who hid himself away morning, noon, and night that he could pray to God even when he was serving a foreign king.  We can look to the end of the gospels and find Jesus praying in the garden at Gethsemane before His trial.  While His recorded words are few, we must also note that those who would have overhead Christ’s prayer (and thus been able to relay His prayer to the gospel writers), fell asleep.  Three times.  That very fact is not indicative of a “quick” prayer session.            

“And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” {emphasis mine}

This, I think is where most of us put the emphasis when reading this passage; and this is where many teachers have warned us against lengthy prayer.  Wouldn’t want to babble on like those pagans…  However, Jesus could have easily said, “get to the point when you pray; the Father is a busy guy and doesn’t want to hear you yammer on all day” to get His point across; but He didn’t.  Instead, He references pagans.  Twice.   The very mention of pagans would have, in the minds of His first century, Palestinian audience, called to mind a particular means of worship.  A way that the pagans behaved when they prayed. 

Since very few of us today have a picture of what that kind of worship might look like, I suggest we glance back (a few centuries before Christ, granted) to the time of Elijah for some clarification. 

{1Kings 18:22-39} paying special attention to vv. 26-29

Notice that the pagan prophets “called on the name of Baal from morning till noon... But there was no response; no one answered. And they danced around the altar they had made... So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.  Midday passed, and they continued their frantic prophesying until the time for the evening sacrifice. But there was no response, no one answered, no one paid attention.”
The last sentence explains exactly what Jesus was talking about when He said, “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for THEY THINK THEY WILL BE HEARD because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:5-8) {emphasis mine}. 

Few of us can image a prayer service involving frantic dancing, or shouting, let alone one culminating in self-mutilation for hours on end.  But that is what the pagans commonly did.  They had to get the attention of their gods somehow.  Which is exactly why “at noon Elijah began to taunt them. ‘Shout louder!’ he said. ‘Surely [Baal] is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened’” (1 Kings 18:27).   And though they started with merely calling on the name of their gods, they had to escalate their behavior – to the point of drawing their own blood – in an attempt to get attention.  And even after an entire day, dripping with their own blood, they still were not guaranteed to be heard. 

Contrast the pagan god with the One True God, the LORD Almighty, the Father whom Jesus refers to when He says:  “And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.” {emphasis mine}

It’s right there – the Father is attending to us before we even call out to Him!  We don’t have to dance or scream or dial a phone or cut ourselves just to reach Him.  We don’t have to hope that He’s not busy dealing with something of more import, somewhere else in the world.  He is omnipresent.  He is El Roi – the God who sees you.  He is near you, listening to your heart, even when you’re not revealing it with words.  Thus Christ’s point is that, unlike the pagan gods, His Father the LORD of Heaven and Earth is always listening to us, always paying attention to us, always, always near to us.  

El Roi, the God who sees me.

During this season of Lent when we remember the completely unique and glorious work of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, let me encourage you to linger in prayer, as you would in conversation with a dear friend or even with a lover. Do not worry about your words being too many or too few; speak them knowing that Your Heavenly Father is listening. And He wants all of them, from your lips to His heart.


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