Prayer: Opening a Heavenly Window
First Things First
In 1989 Stephen Covey shook up the world of business when he published his highly popular book, The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Covey stated in the book that people who are effective live by a set of common principles. He argues that these principles are universal and timeless. They can be practiced by anyone. The third principle or habit that he presented was the idea that we should be putting First Things First in our lives. That seems simple enough but it is not always the case especially when we are talking about matters in the spiritual life. For example when I ask people what they consider to be the most beneficial practice in their spiritual life they nearly always answer, prayer. Nine out of ten people report on surveys and polls that they pray regularly. Three out of four claim to pray every day but when asked how long they pray very few report that they pray for more than five to 10 minutes and even fewer find their prayer life satisfying.
That is one of many incongruities in our spiritual life. We may say that prayer is important but the needs and time constraints of the secular world impinge upon us. This happened to the well known Catholic theologian Hans Kung when he wrote his book, On Becoming a Christian. The book is 720 pages long, including end notes and index but does not have one chapter on prayer. Kung later admitted that this was a very regrettable oversight. He explained that the Vatican censors and the publisher's deadlines put so must pressure on him that he simply forgot. I do not condemn Kung, there are too many days when I also forget to pray as I should. I just do not put first things first.
Unlike my life and the Catholic theologian Huns Kung, the author of Luke makes sure that he puts first things first in his record of the baptism of Jesus. While the event is recorded in all four gospels in some form, only Luke mentions that Jesus was praying around the time of his baptism. Some scholars attribute this less to the actual events and more to Luke's particular interests. The physician brings up the topic of prayer more than any other writer in two ways. First, he includes in his account seven instances of Jesus praying that the other three gospel writers leave out.
In addition to making sure we know that Jesus himself prayed, Luke includes three additional parables on prayer than the other writers of the the gospels—the friend at midnight (11:5-13), the persistent widow (18:1-18), and the tax collector and the Pharisee (18:11-13). He also is the only one who records Jesus telling Peter that he had made supplication for the future leader of the church so that after his denial he could be restored.
Associating the act of prayer and supernatural events is important for Luke. Later he will tell us that the Spirit came down on the disciples at Pentecost when they had gathered for prayer. The physician will also mention that Peter was in prayer when he saw a vision that would encourage him to take the gospel to the Gentiles. Luke also notes that the early church was praying for Peter the night that he had miraculously escaped from prison. Luke's intention is obvious, dramatic things happen when people put prayer first in their lives.
During the coming year, I will be talking a great deal about prayer. I will encourage us to look at the friend who comes at midnight, the persistent widow, the Lord's prayer and other passages as models of prayer in hopes of expanding our faith and diligence in the ancient practice. However, before we explore the basic how-tos of prayer I think that we need to reorient our thinking about prayer. We need this reorientation because most of the time we are looking in the wrong direction. Most of the time we begin our prayers with our concerns. We inform God with our petitions as if he did not have a clue about our needs. We plead with him in hopes of changing his mind about a disastrous set of events that are unfolding before us as if our mere words could really change his will. We make pious promises to overcome his divine reluctance. We need a different orientation.
The View From Above
Phillip Yancy suggests that we need a view from above. We need to shift our direction and realize that God already knows about the school teacher with the broken leg, the friend with Parkinson's, the rebellious teenager, the family who is losing their home and the single mom who is unemployed. I do not mean that we should not mention them in prayer. However, that is not where we are to begin. We need to begin first with God, who bears the responsibility for what happens on this third rock from the sun. Before we tell God what we want him to do, Yancy suggests that we should be first asking God what part he wants us to play in his divine plan.
Gazing from above is not that easy. Ministers also make the same mistakes as lay people. I have been in prayer groups with pastors in which we have even talked about the need to first focus our eyes on God before rattling off our petitions. Everyone present agree but then we bow in prayer and the first words out of someone's mouth is a request for God to heal someone, reconcile a marriage, open a door for employment or block legislation that does not reflective a Biblical perspective. This has happened with such regularity that I do not even bother to suggest it anymore. The needs of this material world so overwhelm us that they distort our thinking. They are like advanced cataracts that cast a haze upon our vision.
When we begin from above our whole perspective on life changes. We gaze upon the beauty of creation and see more than grass, flowers and trees but the signature of a grand artist. We look at other people and see beyond how they can fulfill our selfish needs and see that they are the reflection of God's image.
The psalms offer us direction in how to reorient our vision and recast our prayers. Throughout the history of the church, the book of Psalms has been the prayer book of God's people. By allowing the psalms to shape our prayers we are taken away from the immediacy of our lives. Our thoughts are shaped by words uttered thousands of years ago. Our words are shaped by wisdom that has withstood the ebb and flow of popular fads. We are elevated to higher ground and into the very mind of God. Therefore I encourage you before you rush to ask God to fix some problem on which he is already working, take a few moments to read a psalm that reminds you of the God who created the heavens and the earth.
I am not suggesting that Jesus was praying the day he saw a heavenly window open. We do not have a record of that prayer but we do know that being a good Jew he would have prayed those psalms at sometime in his life. We may not be able to open the heavens simply by imitating Jesus' prayer but at least it will be a start to shifting our vision from below to above.
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