Thursday, August 07, 2008

The Life-long School of Prayer

When I was growing up, I knew three prayers. They all were poetic in nature. First was my going-to-bed prayer, which you no doubt have heard if not been taught as a child to say, and my mother added her own sanity-saver ending to it:

Now I lay me down to sleep;
I pray Thee, Lord, my soul to keep.
Angels guard me through the night,
And keep me safe till morning night.
Make me a good girl, Amen.

It isn't as though my Mom really thought adding "make me a good girl" would help; she doesn't seem to put much stock in matters of faith, including prayer. I'm sure though that she thought having me request my being made good wouldn't hurt. Maybe if nothing else it would make me realize I wasn't a good girl yet. I wasn't really aware that I was so bad, though. Maybe bad in that my best of efforts really never worked out the way I intended them (a la Ramona the Pest); add to that, occasionally stealing cookies. Probably in quantity. Sure, that prayer never did any harm. Maybe it helped me come to know my need for Christ.
The next were graces. There was Daddy's grace; I loved it, because it seemed elegant. I learned later that it is a Catholic grace, though he wasn't Catholic. I don't know where he learned it:

Bless us, O Lord,
And these Thy gifts
Which we are about to receive from Thy bounty.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.
Christ wasn't fully acknowledged as my Dad's Lord that I know of, but he never ate without saying grace first. I confess that I harbor a hope that God will smile on this grace-saying faithfulness of my father's, and have accepted him into heaven, though it doesn't match up with any Scripture I know, particularly. Maybe it indicates an acknowledgement of the presence of a God that he could conceivably have prayed to in the last hours of his life. I have to doubt it, but it's possible.
And the third one? You doubtless know this one too. I call a "grace" such as this a "hungry man's prayer." It goes,

God is great,
God is good,
And we thank Him for our food. Amen.

My dad let us off easy with that one. Not a lot to go on in knowing God there, though some basics are covered. It looks smaller in type than I remember it feeling when I'd say it, but it's rather pitiful, don't you think? It reminds me of all I had to go on in what God was like otherwise. We had a children's book called, Tell Me About God. I don't remember any of us ever opening the book. It had a picture of an old man's face on the front, sort of like fairy tale pictures of the West Wind. I wonder if the writer knew anything true to write in it. I don't picture God looking like the old man, thankfully--not that I can picture Him at all, anyway.
I remember visiting other people, or having them over to mealtimes, and they would pray. I don't remember specifically who, or knowing what friends held to Christian faith. I do remember thinking that since it wasn't a poem, it wouldn't be a real prayer. They seemed rambly to me, and I could never concentrate on what they were saying. I was just waiting for this non-poem to be over so that I could eat this fancy meal (usually Jell-o first).
My own prayers take so many different forms, but nothing particularly structured or poetic. My child self would have hated my prayers these days. Except when I get lazy or tired and uncreative, and then I seem to fall into the same feeble little mantras that I would expect God to take with a grain of salt, so to speak. They never rhyme, but when I'm tired they're short and I have to admit they're pretty much the same as I prayed the last time I was tired.
So now I'm reading Under the Unpredictable Plant, by Eugene Peterson. It connects pastoring with the Book of Jonah, a three-chapter book that is probably one of the best-recognized stories of all the Bible. In the midst of the Book of Jonah is Jonah's prayer that he prays while in the belly of the great fish (which I hold, against the protests of many Christians, to be a whale, because I doubt that God expected the Israelites to differentiate between marine mammals and fish--all being shaped the same, for the most part--and because I don't know of any fish that great in size, though God could certainly have overgrown a guppy, if necessary, for the sake of His will--but I digress). Peterson points out that the phrases that constitute Jonah's prayer come from the Psalms, and that the Psalms were then, and for most of history since then, the prayer-teaching book of the Bible, used by Christians until about 200 years ago for learning how to pray, learning how to talk to the Lord of earth and heaven. Our pastor's son had told us some about learning to pray from the Psalms, but I hadn't known of it being basically an institution of the faith for such continual, expected use--that it was a regular practice that most Christians would read the whole book repeatedly each month, and their own prayers would be impacted by those of David and Asaph and Solomon. Peterson points out that it was used by the Catholics as the "office"; the Book of Common Prayer of the Anglican; and "the rest of us, the Psalms divided into thirty segments and prayed through monthly, whether we feel like it or not." I figured out that it would mean reading about five psalms per day in addition to our other reading--and working all of Psalm 119 into that program.
God loves to hear poetry, of that I'm convinced; there's a passage I've always found a little mysterious and never been able to fully apply in my life; I'm pretty sure most would concur:

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is dissipation, but be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord; always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father; and be subject to one another in the fear of Christ. --Ephesians 5:18-21

I've always been intrigued to see what a society would sound like who spoke to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs. All that I can think of tends to be comical, so I'm sure my understanding is thwarted on this passage. It shows how far we are from living how God would have us live, if we can't even think to communicate with one another as He would have us do.
The Psalms being poetic in nature, I guess when I was a child, my understanding of prayer was in a way more accurate than it has been these days. Maybe I was sort of right in being impatient with the "rambling" prayers I heard; God says to beware the use of "many words" (Mt 6:7). I'm sure He hears a lot of babbling going on, too little in the way of heartfelt prayer, too little that reflects a knowledge of the Scriptures. To babble less and pray more, pray better, pray more in line with the heart of God--that seems like it would be the result of knowing the Psalms and applying them in prayer. I wonder if there's a verse in Psalms about helping me be faithful in applying that intention.

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