A reflection about prayer

April 15, 2014

In the following homily, which I shared at our church’s Palm Sunday evening prayer service, I made reference to some profound worship experiences I had while I was in Kenya in 2012 and 2013. The video below demonstrates the style of prayer to which I referred in my homily. Around the 40-second mark, my fellow pastors begin praying out loud, all at once. This was a completely new way of praying for me!

Twice over the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of going to Kenya to teach indigenous United Methodist pastors classes on Wesleyan theology, church doctrine, and church history. While I was there I had some profound experiences of prayer and worship, and I’d like to share one of them with you.

You know how in our worship services I ask people to lift up the name of someone in prayer—someone says a name, I say, “Lord in your mercy,”and the people respond, “Hear our prayer”? The Kenyans I worked with do something kind of similar when they worship—it’s much more chaotic than what we do, but very beautiful. During worship, they sing hymns and praise and worship songs, and then—spontaneously, without being prompted by a pastor or anyone—they begin praying. And when they pray, each person in the group of dozens or hundreds of worshipers shouts out their praise and gratitude and supplications to God—individually, all at once. Out loud! It is this beautiful cacophony of voices.

I had never heard anything like it before. Some of the pastors were literally weeping as they prayed. They seemed to pray with such holy desperation. They were pleading that God would give them whatever they were asking for!

At first it made me uncomfortable. It made me feel self-conscious. It made me feel spiritually dry—like, What’s my problem? When it comes to my own prayers, why don’t I share these pastors’enthusiasm? Why am I so buttoned-up all the time? Why do I have to play it so cool when I worship? Good heavens, I don’t even feel comfortable lifting my hands when I worship—even during songs whose words talk about “lifting up holy hands”!

And I think one powerful obstacle that prevents me from praying as well as I should is this belief that there’s this one proper way to do it, that I need to follow all the rules and “do it right.”Maybe it goes back to when I was a kid. I noticed that many of the adults who prayed in church would talk completely normally when teaching a Sunday school lesson or carrying on a conversation with us kids. But when they got up in the pulpit and prayed, their language would be filled with Thees, Thous, and Thys—you know what I mean? And there’s nothing wrong with that, either. If God is so special to you that you want to address him with these pronouns, that’s great! But I’m afraid that this experience of hearing these kinds of prayers taught me something important and harmful: that talking to God was different from the way we normally talk—and we don’t want to do it wrong!

Then, even as a youth and young adult, I would often hear about how, when you pray, you should spend this much time praying for this and that much time praying for that—and, oh by the way, praying for your own wants and needs was the least important part of prayer. Again, it taught me that there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it. So often, unless I could do it just right, I just wouldn’t bother with prayer at all.

The fear that you’re doing it wrong really puts a damper on your prayer life!

But here’s what Jesus is communicating in this parable that we just read: There really isn’t a wrong way to pray. Consider this man who knocks on his neighbor’s door at midnight asking for bread: he’s doing something wrong. After all, the neighbor and his family are poor. They’re all sleeping in one room, in one bed. The man’s knocking alone would probably wake up the neighbor’s family. But if the knocking didn’t, then the neighbor’s shouting and getting out of bed to fetch bread would have done it. And what if the neighbor had a sleeping baby? All of us parents know that you don’t wake a sleeping baby! So what the “hero”of the story was doing and asking for was very improper, inappropriate…wrong!

And what does Jesus say? We should be like him when it comes to prayer! We should come to our heavenly Father with boldness and fearlessness and simply ask for what we want! We should have that same quality I noticed when the Kenyans prayed: holy desperation.

One Christian thinker I admire, Richard Foster, has written a lot on the subject of prayer, and he put it like this: “In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer.”[1] Isn’t that liberating? In the same way that a small child cannot draw a bad picture so a child of God cannot offer a bad prayer. You know it’s true, right?

Listen: obviously that small child’s drawing isn’t a Rembrandt—but I’ll bet Rembrandt’s parents treasured his imperfect, stick-figure drawings when he was a child almost as much as his grown-up masterpieces!

The truth is, God loves our little stick-figure prayers. If there were a refrigerator in heaven, our Lord would surely take a magnet and stick them on the door. Our Father loves to hear from us. And he loves to give us what we ask for! And even if we don’t get it right or ask for all the right things, guess what? God knows the deep need underneath our prayer requests, and he is only too happy to give it to us!

Our Father wants to hear from us now, and he wants to give us what we ask for now. So we ask!

[1] Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Hearts True Home (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco: 1992), 8-9.

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