People of God at St. Stephen,

Through the website, Rich asked,

Why do we pray?  Specifically, is there any distinction between thinking it would be nice if God helped me with this challenge or healed this friend, and taking the time to isolate ourselves, folding our hands, and talking to God more formally?

Great question.  Let’s explore that.  But first, I want to address a question Rich did not ask.  I promise it’s related.

Maybe you have wondered, or someone has asked you, “Why should I pray?”  This is a dangerous ques-tion because “should” is a dangerous word.  I recom-mend we completely delete it from our vocabulary.

Every should is entirely opposed to Christian faith.  This is true of not only this word, but also phrases like “I/we/they must, need to, or have to.”  Shoulds and their ilk only choke out  God’s love and our freedom.  God loves us no matter what, and Jesus makes us abundantly free.  So “we can”s and “we could”s and “we get to”s fill our lives as Christ’s disciples.  Notice the difference.  Why should I pray?  Why can I pray?  Why could I pray?  Why, I get to pray

We can begin to influence people’s thinking about prayer-first of all our own!-by changing the way we talk about it.  Make witness to God’s abundant love and Christ’s gift of freedom: squash a “should” today.

This difference between should and can makes all the difference for the question Rich asked.  For we approach prayer in the love of God and the freedom of Christ.  Why do we pray? Because God love us and Jesus freed us to pray.  Because Jesus made it possible for feeble us to communicate and commune with our listening God of love in prayer.  Because Jesus prays for and with us always, drawing us ever deeper into the presence of God’s love.

So with this background, let’s get back to Rich’s question.  It seems to be about our individual motiva-tions or reasons for praying.  In other words, what dif-ference do my motivations for praying make?  Does it matter if I pray because I want something for myself or someone I know, or if I’m seeking solitude and peace, or if I just hope to talk to God, one-on-one, in a more focused way?

Great question.  The short answer is, No, it doesn’t matter.  The long answer has everything to do with what we’ve touched on already, God’s love and our freedom in Christ.

By way of a longer answer, I’ll share some quotes from things we’ve read in class.  First, Jesuit priest Wilke Au, invites us to be quite experimental and flexible in prayer.  To build up “a repertory of diverse methods [of prayer] to maintain a vibrant prayer life.”  Then, he encourages us to

respect our religious sensibilities; that is, the peculiar ways we find ourselves responsive to the mystery of God’s presence.  The Lord draws people to intimacy with different strings of love.[1]

Whatever our motivations or reasons to pray, we can be sure that they are not really ours.  Instead, they are the strings of love God is using to draw us into intimacy.

What is most important is not our motivations or reasons but God’s love and our honesty in return. Psychologists and contemplatives, Ann and Barry Ulanov say this:

We come to God in ways we are usually careful to conceal in our dealings with people.  We do not say to a person, I want to be your friend because you are rich and may give me some of your money.  But we do say to God, I pray to you because I want you to bless me, forgive me, help me, heal me. … With God, our desire is more naked, and rightly so.  With no secrets, we come at God crudely, like beggars or greedy children.  It is no good denying this or trying to mask it.  We must see the crudeness and include it.  God loves us in the flesh.[2]

In other words, God loves us just the way we are, with our selfish motivations and our selfless motivations.  Indeed, all of our motivations will be mixed, and as we pray, we will discover the reasons we hid even from ourselves, the deeper ones we could not until now put into words.

All of our ways of praying and reasons for praying are ultimately crude, but this does not matter to God.  What is more, why any one of us decides to begin a life of prayer is a mystery.  The details are in shadows, perhaps because they are not what’s most important.  What’s most important is that God loves us and Christ has set us free.  This wipes away all the shoulds and have tos, all the rules about what is and is not appropriate to say to God.  So we simply come to prayer as we come to communion.  We come as we are, beggars and greedy children, all of us.  God welcomes us always in love and gives to us more generously than we can even recognize.

In addition to hearing from Rich, I’ve heard from some of you that you are looking forward to me sharing more about this class.  Now that it’s almost over, I’d like to hear from you more.  Call me, drop me email, leave a comment on the website, chat with me after worship.  What about prayer are you curious about?  What more about the class I took do you want to know?  What’s always bugged you about prayer?  You know, everything you’ve wanted to know but were afraid to ask.  Tell me what that is.

We could spend years exploring prayer together, and I hope we do!  I suggest starting small, and starting with our curiosity.  Perhaps, after the class is over, I’ll just keep writing about prayer in these notes.  Also, perhaps we could gather for something like a week or two during, say, Adult Forum.  Or maybe the best thing to do would be simply get together and brainstorm all our curiosities and questions, then decide together how to tackle that list.  But first, let me know what you are imagining, and, as I hear from you, I’ll make a decision about what seems most appropriate.

Finally, one way I can share the experience of this class is by sharing with you my final paper.  I’m finishing it as I type.  It’s an introduction of sorts to what we learned about contemplative prayer, and then my attempt to relate that learning about prayer to worship.  It’s been fun to write, and I hope it will be interesting to read.  So if you’d like me to run off a copy for you, I will.  Just ask.

Thanks for the questions and conversation.  I look forward to further exploring with you this mystery called prayer.

Pastor Clark Olson-Smith

[1] Au, By Way of the Heart, p 93.

[2] Ulanov, Primary Speech, p 15-16.