Why Pray?

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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. 

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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.

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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.

Minding My Business

Does it feel like a new year yet? I’m not sure. In some respects, we have hope this year we didn’t have a few months ago. A vaccine to end, or at least mitigate, our new reality hovers on the horizon. It trembles there, offering some measure of hope to what otherwise feels like a very old year already by February. My husband has received it, as a front line worker. I’m in group 3, and you can bet I’ll be in line.

On the other hand, January looked little different for many of us than did November or December or all the interminable months before them. We’re still here. Still isolating. Still waiting. The difference, of course, is that for those of us in the northern hinterlands, we can’t even go outside for a respite in January, and we have no holidays now for a looong time.

Left to our own devices, increasingly on our own, we develop coping skills or we wither, and personally, I’d much prefer to cope. One of the helpful things for me has been to learn a bit more mindfulness. I know—some of you have got this down like a pro. If you’re like me though, stopping to breathe isn’t really what you do.

We run from project to project, one checklist item to the next one. People like me are excited for the new year mostly because we get a new planner—a new place to write down all those ideas and goals. 

(Never underestimate the excitement of a new planner in my life. The perfect planner is akin to the holy grail for this 5.)

Mindfulness isn’t usually written in that planner. Neither is rest. Enter 2020. The year that finally (I hope) taught me that those things are not just good ideas—they’re survival. They’re also part of God’s perfect plan for us from the beginning.

We’re supposed to rest. We’re meant to breathe. God designed humans beings to sabbath—to STOP (literally, that’s what it means) and take time to notice our world.

So I have been learning to Stop. Pay attention. (Another very important word in the Bible–usually translated as “listen” or “hear.”.)

One of the things I’ve begun to do is sit in my chair in the morning and notice my senses. I take a few deep breaths and sink into the chair, closing my eyes, just paying attention to my small world. 

I notice the heat kick on. I give thanks for heat. 

I hear the tea kettle in the kitchen. I offer gratitude for a husband making me tea. That thought leads me to say a prayer for his patients that day, for their well-being and their families. 

I hear a cardinal chirp outside the window, and I am thankful God created birds, going so far as to create beautiful birds of vivid color and different design. Why? There was no need. But a creative God chose to give his people the gift of diversity on the wing.

Another day I might choose to focus on what I can smell. The licorice scent of Earl Grey steaming out of my tea mug. Oh, thank you for caffeine. And thank you for making it taste good in so many varieties. 

The smell of cat fur, as the little 7-pounder nestles into my lap, a place she finds comfort, and I find comfort and gratitude knowing a creature trusts me at that level. 

I can detect some lemongrass, so I give thanks for newly mopped floors. I think to pray for those living in refugee camps where keeping one’s home clean is a small comfort they had to leave behind, and concepts like “home” and “floor” now exist not as assumptions but hopes for the future.

These few moments of paying attention center me. They give me a morning “fix” of focus to begin a new day. After spending time quieting my mind and hearing my surroundings rather than my racing thoughts and ideas, I can hear the voice of God better. I’ve set aside my agenda long enough that God can get a word in edgewise.

I find this a good plan most days. My words are too many and too disjointed unless I’ve heard a word from God first. 

Science agrees. Mindfulness and centering give us mental focus for our day.

I’m offering this up not as a cure-all for 2021 but as one small thing I’ve found these last few months that help me center myself on where I need to be. Maybe you’re seeking some ways to focus yourself as well this new year. Small things. Baby steps. That’s all we may be able to handle right now, and thank you Lord, that’s often all we need.