Spontaneous Prayer

I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks Oranssuspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand.  According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart.  I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.

One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine.  He was a well known Christian recording artist.  Because I was a musician too, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith.  As I looked in  his guitar case, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God.  Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully.  Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering.  One minute he was praying.  The next he was thinking about something else entirely.   I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too.  What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.

On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon.  The prayer went something like this:  “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings.  Be with the missionaries in foreign fields.  Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening.  Bless the gift and the giver.  In Jesus’ name, Amen.”   This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before.  As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,

let Your name remain holy.

Bring about Your Kingdom,

Manifest Your will here on earth,

as it is manifest in heaven.

Give us each day that day’s bread—

no more, no less—

And forgive us our debts

as we forgive those who owe us something.

Lead us not into temptation,

but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13; The Voice)

Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this.  One is scripted.  The other is more spontaneous.

One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does.  Perhaps you will agree.  I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.

Here is a good prayer exercise.  Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer.  It may help to write it down on a piece of paper.  In any case make it your own.   There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.

Who Speaks for the Church?

The drums of war are beating, the President has asked Congress for support of military action, the Congress is debating. It is 1990, it is 2003, it is 2013. The President is Republican, the President is Democrat. The story in one form or another goes back decades, sometimes with congressional votes involved and sometimes without (e.g. the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when I was in high school). Every President I can remember has been involved in such conflicts, overtly or covertly. We in this USA are a non-partisan warring nation. In these crises and conflicts the President speaks, the Congress speaks, various lobby groups speak, and to some degree the public speaks (if they bother to contact with Senator or Representative), but who speaks for the Church? Who speaks from the perspective of the King of Kings?

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Reading Scripture Fixed and Free

Let us begin by clearing up the old confusion between the man who loves learning and the man who loves reading, and point out that there is no connection whatever between the two.

– Virginia Woolf, “Hours in a Library” in Times Literary Supplement, 30 November 1916.

I am convinced that hardly a Christian reads the Bible. We may crack its spine every morning, study it groups, or vocalize it in services, but we never, ever, actually read it.

That’s because we use the Bible. We approach Scripture with the specific agenda of learning from it. We burn through four chapters a day to complete it in a year, distill theological principles from paragraphs, and make moral applications from the Decalogue.

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry via Wikimedia Commons

Learning from the Bible is undoubtedly good, but when is the last time that you just read it? Not to prepare for a lesson or to discern a principle or to understand theology but merely to rest inside a narrative? To feel the energy between sentences, to let a poem’s emotion wash over you, to feel the horror of Judges 19 and sublimity of Psalm 23? Maybe never. But this is what reading is. It’s approaching a text with the agenda of mere enjoyment.

But we don’t enjoy the Bible. We use it as a vehicle to get us somewhere else — to another spiritual reality, a different moral space, a more developed theological perspective. We hardly ever linger within its pages, asking it to do nothing else than capture our imagination. But surely this is one of the things its editors desired. Why else would they have assembled a canon that contains genealogies, cosmologies, etiologies, biographies, narratives, laments, liturgies, letters, credos, contracts, visions, riddles, oracles, apocalypses, histories, hymns, parables, proverbs, poems, laws, ordinances, reports, dreams, encouragements, rebukes, songs, and speeches when they could have saved some ink by giving us a few bullet points of doctrine, some ethical guidelines, and a barebones narrative?

It seems that the Bible was intended to nourish the entire person, not merely shape our beliefs and guide our behavior. Otherwise, the poetic and literary nature of the Bible is purely superfluous. Yet, most of us never take a break from studying the Bible to read it.

There are several reasons for this but perhaps the biggest stumbling block is our conception of what Scripture is. We think of it as a divine handbook, a love letter, a depository of data to fuel research, or a story of salvation history and then we strip mine it for information. Rarely to do we consider it a work of art or a cultural expression that could shape our aesthetic. But why not? The mere fact that it contains poetry should be enough to convince us that Scripture has an artistic nature in addition to a didactic one.

Many Christians approach the Bible through a rigid system — a liturgical calendar, a prescribed reading schedule, or a daily quota. This is tremendously problematic if these are the only ways in which we relate to our most sacred text. Potentially, the Bible becomes another task that we tick off our to-do-list. We need to cultivate times of unstructured reading. To borrow a phrase from Alan Jacobs, we need to read at whim. If the desire arises to read a Psalm or a Pauline letter, or, dare we say, Leviticus, and it’s not the specified passage for the day, carve out a few minutes and soak in it.

But equally problematic is the person who reads the Bible with no rhyme or reason, retweeting a random verse here and flicking open a Bible to whatever page there but never getting around to finishing an entire narrative. There’s hardly a chance that this person will enjoy the Bible’s story lines or integrate its teachings into coherent ideas. The books that make up the whole were intend to be read through. If we treat the Bible like a jumble of hypertexts and bounce around its pages we will never appreciate it in the ways its authors intended.

There is an inherent tension in our relationship to the Bible. This tension is similar to the ways in which Jewish tradition approaches prayer — certain prayers are to be recited at particular times but petitions should also flow out of the heart. Prayer demands both keva (set times of recitation) and kavanah (spontaneous intention). We could loosely translate these terms as “fixed and free.”

Like prayer, the Bible is best read fixed and free. Impromptu sessions should accompany liturgical recitations and whim should interrupt schedules. In addition, we should read the Bible for enjoyment as well as study it for understanding. To a large degree these are very different acts but embracing the Bible more fully involves holding together the tension of keva and kavanah.

Is Prayer Surrender?

Benedict XVIPaolo Flores d’Arcais wrote a breathtaking blog post for the New York Review of Books. It’s one of the most trenchant attempts to interpret Benedict XVI’s resignation that I’ve read. He explores the theological implications of a Spirit-inspired Vicar of Christ on Earth saying that he is too old to continue in his divinely appointed task. Is the Holy Spirit not able to strengthen him and the church during a time of mortal weakness?

This is a weighty question, to be sure. But what intrigued me even more is d’Arcais’s speculation that in the face of raging power struggles that are bringing the Church to her knees, Benedict decided to surrender. To scamper off to Castel Gandolfo and after that to a former convent. Too old and feeble to fight, the now Pope Emeritus chose to pray.

But should we equate prayer with surrender? The author of Ephesians writes:

We’re not waging war against enemies of flesh and blood alone. No, this fight is against tyrants, against authorities, against supernatural powers and demon princes that slither in the darkness of this world, and against wicked spiritual armies that lurk about in heavenly places (6:12, The Voice).

Possibly, Benedict had this passage in mind when he received the report he commissioned in the wake of the “Vatileaks scandal.” Scheming priests, money laundering bankers, and blackmailing bishops – they are just bit players in a much bigger game. Their sins would take some doing to unravel but the real challenge would be addressing the evil that propels them. That’s something that no pope, no matter how physically fit, is able to do on his own.

At this point – emotionally dead, physically frail, and spiritually tired – perhaps Benedict thought of Christ at Gethsemane. After his closest friends failed him and a trusted advisor betrayed him, Jesus faced his own death. The Pope may have seen similarities between his circumstances and those of his Lord. Intriguingly, Christ responded to all this by retreating in prayer.

If we keep reading we find that after this night of passionate petition Jesus went to his death and, as the Gospels confess, death was defeated in resurrection. Jesus didn’t surrender to pray, he prayed to continue the fight. But it was a fight that was won through self-sacrifice and persistent – defiant, even – prayer.

To many, Benedict’s decision seems like a foolhardy act of cowardice at best and a negligent abdication of his religious duty at worst. He gave up at a time when the church needed him the most. Yet, it might be that, in Benedict’s mind, he was taking the fight to a whole other level.

Spontaneous Prayer by David B. Capes

A post by David B. Capes:

I come from a tradition that privileges “spontaneous prayer” and looks suspiciously on scripted prayers or prayers written beforehand. According to this perspective, spontaneous prayer means prayer from the heart while prescribed prayers or prayers written down beforehand are not from the heart. I accepted this myself for many years until I met some remarkable Christians and began to read and reflect on Scripture.

One day I was looking for a guitar pick in the guitar case of a friend of mine. He was a famous Christian recording artist. Because I was a budding musician, I looked up to him not only for his talent but also because he was a man of faith. As I looked for the guitar pick, I found a stack of papers on which my friend had written out a series of prayers to God. Later he told me that he found that writing out his prayers helped him focus and pray more faithfully. Often when he prayed silently or spontaneously, he said, he found his mind wandering. One minute he was praying. The next he was thinking about something else entirely. I knew well what he meant and think you probably do too. What was clear to me is that the prayers he had written truly reflected his heart, much like love letters written to one you love.

On another occasion I heard a deacon pray before collecting the evening offering and the sermon. The prayer went something like this: “God, we thank you for this day. We thank you for your many blessings. Be with the missionaries in foreign fields. Be with the preacher as he brings the message this evening. Bless the gift and the giver. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” This was a spontaneous prayer—it was from the heart of a kind, generous Christian—but it was also in many ways a collection of thoughts and prayers we had heard many times before. As I have listened to others pray publically, I realize that in many ways spontaneous prayers are not that different than prayers scripted beforehand.

In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus instructed his disciples to pray:

Our Father in heaven,
Keep your name holy.
Let your Kingdom come,
Your will be done
on earth,
as it is in heaven.
Give us today the bread for tomorrow—
And forgive us our debts
as we forgive those who owe us something.
Lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

Any good commentary on Matthew 6 and Luke 11 will advocate that Jesus wanted his disciples to pray this prayer and he also wanted his followers to pray prayers like this. One is scripted. The other is more spontaneous.
One pastor I admire claims that prayer is the hardest work he does. Perhaps you will agree. I have come to appreciate both kinds of public prayers: spontaneous prayers spoken from the heart that collect bits and pieces of earlier prayers and scripted prayers written from the heart that reflect someone’s desire to speak honestly before a gracious God.

Here is a good prayer exercise. Read a biblical psalm through several times and then turn it into your own prayer. It may help to write it down on a piece of paper. In any case make it your own. There are many wonderful prayers in the Bible that can be models for us.

Your Kingdom Come

I pray the Lord’s Prayer frequently, for, after all, Jesus said it was the way to pray. So I pray it in church on Sunday, daily in Morning and Evening Prayer, and at other times as well. I focus on it, rejoice in it, and reflect upon it (I also sometimes expand it). It is easy to see that it is quite different than the usual extemporaneous prayers that I hear, for at least the first half is not about me or even about us, but is a collective all to “our Father” to establish his rule, his Kingdom. This, of course, builds on Jesus’ announcement of God’s rule as his basic good-news message (Mark 1:14 and parallels). I also use as a “prayer word” the single Aramaic term, Maranatha, a call to Jesus, “our Lord,” to “come.” He is God’s Anointed One (which is what we say when we use the transliterated term “Christ”) and he is to return a rule this world. The word is a prayer for him to do just that It is a term that in one form or another Paul uses and Revelation uses. It was the prayer of the early followers of Jesus. Continue reading

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