Hiddenness of Prayer

‘And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ‘When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that 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

In contemplating prayer as an element of the disciple’s life, Dietrich Bonhoeffer concludes “our [i.e., Christian] prayer is never an entreaty to God, for we have no need to come before him in that way. We are privileged to know that he knows our needs before we ask him.” In other words, what Bonhoeffer seems to be saying is that prayer describes a relational category more than a mode of communication. For, if God already knows what we need, then the content of our asking becomes secondary. What is primary? The disposition to ask is.

This understanding of prayer as relationship lies at the heart of the passage that serves as the foundational text for this chapter. Integrated into Jesus’ larger excurses on the Christian life, this short instruction on prayer reminds the reader of Matthew’s gospel that discipleship is always first about relationships and secondarily about certain habits, i.e., we follow because we want to travel with God and are less concerned about the destination or the mode of travel. Habits serve the relationship and not the relationship the right practices.

Matthew displays this fact most clearly in the opening words chosen to initiate the prayer offered in the passage above. The prayer described here, a prayer we have come to call “The Lord’s Prayer,” begins with a direct, personal, informal address. The God of the universe, the creator of all things is referred to as “Father,” an intimate title used with affection and joyful trust. So, the formative, foundational prayer for the life of faith is not one filled with distant awe and austere reverence—as we might expect—but with personal privilege and gracious knowledge descriptive of relationality more than substantive accuracy or potency. This means that the subtle purpose and efficacy of prayer is disclosed in relational building and dependence rather than doctrinal accuracy and orthodoxy or proper formulation. Even more, prayer builds bonds between the one praying, the one hearing, and the others sharing in the moment of prayer.

Prayer is both personal and social.

It is this twofold aspect of praying that I want to digress into, today, i.e., (1) the personal and social aspect of prayer and (2) the reminder from prayer that discipleship is about the shared journey and not some guaranteed destination.

First, as an essential act of a personal community, I remind myself of this essence of prayer each time I lead a congregation in praying. It is my habit, my discipline when taking prayer requests to ask for specific concerns we wish to include in our common prayer. As people share concerns and situations, I make a point to ask for one specific bit of information after initially hearing a prayer concern. When the prayer concern includes a particular person, I ask for that person’s first name. I do not ask because God needs to know his or her name. I ask it because we, the gathered in prayer, need to know it.

In learning of a concern and attaching that concern to a name, our prayers take on an intimacy, an informality, a personality that has life and meaning beyond discrete bits of data about the world around us. Rather, our prayers become incarnate, taking on the flesh and faces of the one’s named. Such an incarnated prayer, it seems, helps transform our individual prayers into the corporate sinews that bind the body of Christ.

Second, if prayer helps make a community, then, prayer, also, helps focus that community on the present. Full disclosure, I admit a growing impatience with theologies more interested in what will come or a future reward as the attraction or purpose for the life of faith: (1) Such theologies seem rather selfish in nature, locating our motivation for faithful living in some expectant eternal reward for doing and believing rightly. A faith about willful self-sacrifice without a guarantee of success—i.e., the Gospel—seems like a rather odd place to locate such a theology of personal reward. (This same rationale leads to my displeasure with prosperity theologies. However, that is soapbox to be climbed upon another day.) (2) Such theologies are unfortunately well positioned to demand our ignorance of the present needs of those around us and our own needs for lives well and faithfully lived. While future expectations might certainly be an important part of Christian theology, the life of discipleship seems less focused on where we are going than how we are getting there together. In the narrative of the gospel, traveling with Jesus and others seems to be the point, a point captured in other, grander theological notions like incarnation, communion, resurrection, atonement, etc. The life of faith that we are discovering in Matthew’s gospel is a life less concerned with the possibilities of the future than with the realities of the present. Prayer, it seems, helps anchor us to the present and each other in meaningful ways.

The life of faith, in the end, is about making of a life together (with each other, the rest of creation, and God). And, prayer is a critical tool used to build such a life.

Over the coming week, read a newspaper to hear the world speak. Pause and talk with a friend to hear our community speak. Sit quietly for a moment to let your soul speak. Having heard them all, share in the stillness with God. That seems like as good a place as any to start.

Have a wonderful week and see you along the way.

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