Why Pray? It’s a Relationship, not a Transaction

Our Father in heaven,
Reveal who you are.

Matthew 6, The Message

Those are the words Jesus uses to begin what we know as “The Lord’s Prayer.”

Of course, the version you might know sounds more like:

Our Father who art in heaven, Hallowed be thy name. (Matthew 6.8)

“Hallowed” means a few things. In the NLT, it’s translated as “may your name be kept holy.” Basically, it means something that is set apart. If something is hallowed, we acknowledge it as greater than anything else and different from anything else. Saying God’s name is hallowed is saying that we understand nothing compares to the Almighty God. We set God apart as completely other. Yet, in the same teaching in Matthew, Jesus also says we approach him as we would a good dad. It’s an interesting paradox and also a beautiful one.

Sit with Your Father

“Father” in the prayer adds a connotation of authority—a parent who deserves our obedience and trust. It’s more formal than the “abba” Jesus and Paul use elsewhere. In the following chapter, Jesus’ use of the word parent is more intimate. He speaks of an involved dad who wants to hear the words of his children and supply their needs. 

“You parents—if your children ask for a loaf of bread, do you give them a stone instead? Or if they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake? Of course not! So if you sinful people know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give good gifts to those who ask him.” (7:9-11).

In neither case does he mean an austere distant capital “F” father who doesn’t have time for his offspring. His words imply that we are to approach God aware of how deeply he loves us and how much he wants us to come to him. 

If we didn’t or don’t have a good earthly father, this may be difficult. We might have to imagine another caring, listening ear.

If a good dad wasn’t your experience, imagine is the ultimate parent who did want to listen to your every question, hear your every thought, and view every picture you ever drew. Imagine what that would have been like, and come near to God knowing that’s what he’s offering.

So one purpose of prayer is to be with our loved one and share our hearts. That’s it. It’s not a big complex thing. It’s something we can do all the time every day on the regular. We share our hearts, our thoughts, our emotions, our hurts, everything. Just as the psalmists did, we let them out to our perfect parent. Some of the prayers in the Psalms are pretty rough! Yet God as parent heard them and recognized the pain they came out of.

Talk Less, Listen More

Of course, children usually also listen to a parent for advice and comfort. We wait to hear, not just speak, because our relationship is a two-way thing. Prayer is not a time for us to do all the talking and God to do all the listening.

In fact, that leads right into the second line from the Message translation. “God, Reveal who you are.” How can God do that if I’m not listening? Prayer is a time for us to come to God and ask that we understand more about our relationship.

Again, it helps me to think about it as I would an earthly relationship with a parent. When we’re children, we really don’t know much about our dads. We might know what they do all day, and we have an idea of their character by how they treat us and others. But we actually know very little about them as people. We are content to think of them only in relationship to us. It’s not until later as we grow up that we realize they are their own separate entity and they have their own complex humanity. The older we get, if we’re fortunate, we know more and more about our dads. We come to know their hearts. We understand what gets them up in the morning and makes them passionate. We learn not just that they love us but why. We see more of how they treat others and more of who they are as a result. 

I never got that chance with my own dad. But when I think about it, I can see the parallels with my heavenly parent and how that relationship should go. As a young Christian, I only knew God in terms of what he’d done for me. I didn’t understand God at all except as it related to me. As I matured, I saw more of who God is. I saw how Jesus behaved and what he said. I saw how he treated other people.

The longer I am in relationship with God, the more I hear his heartbeat and know what he is passionate about. The more I come to him in prayer, the more I understand about who he is and who I am as a result. 

It’s a Reciprocal Relationship

One first purpose of prayer is to create that maturity in my heart so that I come to a full understanding of who God really is and who I really am. 

God, reveal who you are. May your name be kept holy. 

That’s the first and most important reason we pray. We have to establish that relationship before anything else can fall into place. Next time, we’ll talk about the next line.

Why Pray?

Photo by James Wei on Unsplash

Teaching through Leviticus can do strange things to you.

Between all the sacrifices and laws and weird details about menstrual cycles and eating shellfish, some things began to come together for me in ways they hadn’t before. Rituals and disciplines have been part of the Christian life for centuries. Yet how often have we neglected their importance in recent decades? I know I have. I’m not a ritual kind of person. I love novelty, and I don’t like to do the same thing twice very often. (Unless it’s reading/watching Lord of the Rings or Pride and Prejudice. These can be done multiple times a year, if necessary.)

What I hadn’t noticed is that these rituals that define and describe our life with God are catalogued in Leviticus not as a bunch of strange laws but as a way of making order in a chaotic world to draw us toward our Creator.

Now, we don’t participate in sacrifices or casting people out of the tent for a week. We do, however, practice rituals and disciplines that order our lives with God. The most important is prayer. 

Why Pray?

What the point of prayer? It seems reasonable to start focusing that question with what we call the Lord’s Prayer—a small part of Matthew 6 where, when the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, he told them. It’s not a magical prayer that we use to get what we want from God. We don’t just repeat it and hope that good things will happen because we do. It’s not a mantra or a spell. But it is a good example and pattern for us to follow in prayer. So in asking the question—why pray? It’s a good starting point.

Good Routines

The doctor I see for my Restless Leg Syndrome has helped me learn new bedtime routines that make the difficult task of falling asleep with RLS a little easier. Now, I know that if I want to succeed in a good night’s sleep, I start a few things in the hours before. 

Photo by Erik Brolin on Unsplash

I stretch. Maybe do a few yoga moves. I take a few turns around the dining room table and, if it’s really bad, apply some heating pads. Much earlier, I’ve forgone caffeine early and exercise during the day. I turn off all the screens by nine. This last one is huge. Along with taking the medication she’s given me, if I’m lucky, I’ll get to sleep.

Our hearts in the minutes before prayer also require some routines and exercises to prepare us for a good conversation in prayer.

Jesus begins: 

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat?

“Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.” (Matthew 6.5-6, Message)

First of all, Jesus tells us to find a quiet secluded place. Why? So we won’t make a public production of our prayers. We need to be able to get alone with God and focus on him. The last thing we need is to focus on how other people are perceiving how we pray. A lot of people, including myself, the pastor, don’t like to pray in public. There is an important place for communal prayer, and I think we need to all practice it. But first, we need to practice being alone with God and being honest with him. If we don’t get that straight, we won’t pray together straight either. 

The World Is not a Stage

Jesus has just taught his followers the same concept regarding giving. When we give away our money, time, or whatever, we’re not supposed to do it in a showy way. We quietly obey God by being generous while keeping it to ourselves as best we can. It’s not a false humility where we actually take pride in being so humble and secretive about how awesome we are. It’s a quiet humility that knows everything we have is from God anyway, and our ability to give is the results of God’s generosity. 

Then, Jesus teaches the same thing about prayer. Don’t pray as a show. Pray as a relationship between two beings. 

I wouldn’t go to my spouse and, wanting to chat about our plans for the weekend, create a dramatic production of my pitch and sell tickets to the neighbors. This isn’t how a relationship works. 

If we’re focused on making a production of our prayer and worrying about how others see it, we’re not really focused on God. We’re not putting ourselves in a place of humble acceptance of whatever he has to say. We’re thinking of ourselves, and that is a terrible way to approach prayer. 

We all know people whose voice changes when they are praying in public. They suddenly have a “holy voice” instead of the regular one that they use with us. It’s kind of weird, but most of us do it sometimes. We think we have to put on a holy voice to sound like we are being holy in front of other people. But really, Jesus asks us to come and speak like we’re talking to someone we love, and it should sound that way. Otherwise, we’re in danger of pride as we pray, and that will definitely keep us from hearing God.

So the first thing Jesus teaches us is those beautiful words—“just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace.”

When we shift our focus, and it happens without us realizing it usually, God’s grace becomes so apparent. We feel God’s presence. We forget about ourselves and we begin to think about our Creator. We begin to think about listening instead of speaking. 

Isn’t it beautiful that the writer tells us we can pray very simply to God because he already knows what we want and, more importantly, what we need? There are no special words to say to get what we want. Our focus is not supposed to be getting what we want. It’s supposed to be talking to God. It’s kind of like when I was a kid and came into the living room and just sat down at the foot of my dad’s chair and leaned on his knee. I didn’t want anything from him. I just wanted to be in his presence. I loved being with him. That’s what God wants from us when we come in prayer. 

Jesus continues:

“The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply.” (Matthew 6.7-8)

It’s Also not a Vending Machine

My daughter regularly grumbles about the vending machine at work. I have to agree with her—there is nothing worse than putting in your dollar, pushing the buttons that correspond to a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup, and seeing a bag of pretzels drop in the slot instead. This is not what we ordered. We paid good money, and we got a dud.

Photo by Jesse Chan on Unsplash

Yet a lot of people approach prayer similarly. We believe that if we put in certain words, a holy vocal timbre, or the right dollop of faith, what we want from God will drop in the slot. When it doesn’t happen, we get ticked off at God. 

Prayer isn’t a formula. Prayer is definitely not a transaction. God isn’t a vending machine ready to offer us what we want if only we find the right buttons to push. Can you imagine treating someone you love like that? No one feels loved by a manipulator.

With a loving God, we can pray very simply. Prayer, first of all, is about a relationship. It’s about chatting with and listening to the one who loves you more than you can even imagine. That’s what Jesus is trying to get across when he tells us to approach God quietly, with humility, and without pretense of games. 

Next time, we’ll begin the famous first words a lot of us know: Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.

Reading Through Black History Month

I’ve really returned to my love of reading this year. The past several years, I’ve read for my dissertation and classes but not a lot for fun. I loved reading for school! But there was little time for other things.

So to wrap up February, in honor of Black History Month, I want to offer you a round up of some of the books I’ve read the last few years written by black authors. Some are new reads this month; others are old friends.

The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone

“Both the cross and the lynching tree represented the worst in human beings and at the same time ‘an unquenchable ontological thirst’ for life that refuses to let the worst determine our final meaning.”

Such a disturbing and needed theology of black suffering and history in America and its relationship to white Christianity. This is the first book I read in February. learned so much, and I especially liked learning about the black women who stepped into their faith and told the truth about injustice. It’s hard, painful, and important to read this book as a white Christian. You will read things you wish you had never known about. But we must know about them. 

I’ve been reading a lot of the Bible, especially the exodus stories, this past year from the point of view of the suffering, and it’s been huge in my understanding of Scripture. Cone brings us through this process so that we can see God, and the cross, when we see the lynching tree.

I’m Still Here, Austin Channing Brown. A favorite book of 2018. 

“Anger is not inherently destructive. My anger can be a force for good. My anger can be creative and imaginative, seeing a better world that doesn’t yet exist. It can fuel a righteous movement toward justice and freedom. I don’t need to fear my own anger. I don’t have to be afraid of myself. I am not mild-mannered. I am passionate and strong and clear-eyed and focused.” 

Brown has a great ability to explain exactly how it feels to be a black woman in America in a way others can understand. She is unflinching but also positive in her assessment of what can be done to honor her and others for being “still here” despite all the attempts to negate their existence. 

If you want to understand the daily struggles that black women, and men, face that we really don’t see, listen to Brown. 

Ready To Rise, Jo Saxton

“What is the cost when a woman lacks access and investment, encouragement to own her voice, and opportunities for influence in her sphere when there is no obvious pathway to progress?”

This book about women in leadership asks: How do women uniquely learn to believe in and develop their voice as a leader? I love her emphasis on women encouraging one another to find their voice and rise together. Saxton refuses to give in to scarcity thinking and wishes for everyone to learn their power. I plan to put into place some of the things I learned in the chapter on finding a village. I’ve never really had a mentor, and I definitely need sponsors. Also, I need to be those things for others.

All the Colors We Will See, Patrice Gopo. 

I heard Patrice at Breathe Christian Writer’s Conference a few years ago and knew from the first night I would like her. When I listened to her teach about memoir, I had already picked up her book the night before. It’s a treasure of one woman’s learning how to navigate growing up, race, marriage, family, and not belonging anywhere yet finding grace. It’s beautifully written and relatable. Gopo paints such vivid portraits through essays that detail her life experience. The words are beautiful, even when the experiences aren’t, and the essays convey a story of family resilience.

Reading While Black, Esau McCaulley. My second read of this February! This is not for the theologically faint of heart. It’s hard work, but he takes the reader through the Bible, and some history of black theology, to find a solid place for a theology of freedom and justice. Like me, McCaulley seeks a theology that can hold both a tradition of justice and one of more conservative approach to scripture. I especially enjoy the section on Luke and how it intersects with the entire arc of the Bible to bring justice issues forward.

The Very Good Gospel, Lisa Sharon Harper. Another one I read a couple years ago. Harper offers a similar overview of scripture in a more accessible manner. She spreads out a gospel that is so much richer than the me-sized, individualistic gospel we’ve been taught in so many places. It’s offers a gospel that reconciles and restores. 

My favorite quote is when she talks about Finney’s revivals and how, when people came to the altar to give their lives to Christ, 

“Men and women confessed and repented of their personal sins as well as their complicity with structural evil. And when they wiped away their tears and opened their eyes, Finney thrust a pen into their hands and pointed them to sign-up sheets for the abolitionist movement. This is what it meant to be an evangelical Christian in the 1800s.”

This is what it still should mean. She makes a beautiful case for the two, personal and corporate salvation and re-creation, to be inherently intertwined as the whole gospel.

How To Fight Racism, Jemar Tisby.

Another new release! Here’s my Amazon review: In his new book, Jemar Tisby takes us on a journey of how to fight racism—the is not simply a how to manual. He gives the Christian basis for the fight in well considered textual and historical explanations. He also gives us an American perspective on the issue, with historical commentary. He explains historic systematic racism as well as the different stages people might be at in dealing with their own racist tendencies.

Nowhere does Tisby reflect a disrespect for or condescension toward either those who practice racism or those who aren’t quite sure what to do about it yet. He approaches the topic with humility and the intent to take people wherever they are and teach them at that level. It makes the book approachable and useful when talking with those who remain entrenched in certain racist tendencies or attitudes. He has a gift of teaching powerful truth in a disarming way that can get past defenses and allow for change.

His approach is clear and well explained. The framework is an acronym ARC. “ARC is an acronym that stands for awareness, relationships, and commitment.” Then, the thoughtfulness and helpful attitude with which he comes at the topic comes out: “Perhaps you are just starting the journey, and even baby steps are accompanied by the risk of stumbling and falling. But you learn how to walk one step at a time through persistent, informed practice.

And yet, he tells the clear truth about the topic.

“In order to fight for racial justice, racism must not be lightly dismissed. It must be treated as the evil offense against God and human beings that it is.” (Jemar Tisby)

I learned how to mobilize my community for change. I discovered ways I can fight systemic racism that I had no idea I could do. The church I pastor has moved past many of the troublesome issues he mentions, but we can still learn and grow and unearth attitudes and beliefs we don’t know we have. We have the tools to serve our community better because of Tisby’s book. We learn how to: talk to our kids, cultivate relationships, see our own past, learn, take apart systems, create our own statements of justice, give out to our community, and more.

A Sojourner’s Truth, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson.

Robinson tells her story of discovering life as a brilliant black woman in a world not made for her. Her stories of military school and training as a black woman are unimaginable, and it has caused her to become a great advocate for young women. She began a program to mentor girls toward leadership. This story moved me to continue following her to see what more amazing things she has planned for girls who can lead but haven’t had this truth spoken into their lives.

There you are—a handful of great black authors you could be reading and maybe have. If you have suggestions, please comment with them. I would love to see some possibilities I haven’t read!

What are you reading right now? I’m finally cracking open Jesus and John Wayne.