Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: Teach Us to Pray

Today is National Day of Prayer. There is not an act more common to all religions than prayer. Praying is a natural response to crises of all sorts, and the natural response to the greatest joys of life. When by some strange turn of circumstances they, or someone they loved, were delivered from some near disaster, I have even heard self-proclaimed disbelievers exclaim: "Thank God", without realizing what they were saying.

We all pray -- sometimes -- but usually not enough. We are most likely to pray when we need help in a situation which lies beyond human help. When we pray we ask for many things, but sooner or later our prayers become requests for ourselves or intercession for someone we love. In times of desperation, prayer becomes raw human need crying out for divine intervention.

How should we pray? Many books have been written on the subject of prayer. I have read some of them. I am disinclined to give lengthy instructions on how to pray. My advice to those who want to know how to pray is that they should study how Jesus prayed and what he said about prayer. And Jesus really did not say very much about prayer, he just prayed, and thus became a role-model for how we should pray. How did Jesus pray? He often slipped away by himself. The disciples noticed that when Jesus came back from his private prayer retreats he seemed to have a renewed clarity of purpose. He was refreshed. His countenance reflected a renewed inner strength. They wanted that intangible quality that was so palpable, and they were quite sure that it was somehow connected with Jesus' practice of prayer.

They asked Jesus to teach them to pray, in response to which he said: "When you pray say this", and he gave them what we call "the Lord's Prayer". (Matthew 6:9-13; Luke 11:1-4) In Matthew's account the prayer consists of fifty-four words. Luke's account is only thirty-seven words. Other than this brief prayer, given as a prayer pattern, Jesus instructions regarding prayer tended to be about how not to pray. See Matthew 6:5-7 for Jesus' list of things to avoid.

We are not privy to the specific content of any of Jesus' prayers except on two occasions, and there he models for us how to commune with God with mind and heart open to His power and to be humbly submissive to His will. We have one sentence from his prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: "Father all things are possible to thee; remove this cup from me; yet not what I will, but what thou wilt." (Matthew 26:36; Mark 14:32) We have three prayer sentences he spoke from the cross. "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34). "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me" (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) "Father into thy hands I commit my spirit" (Luke 23:46).

What we know about prayer from Jesus is that he prayed often and alone, and that he advised against wordy, showy and hypocritical public prayers. The one prayer he taught the disciples to pray was brief, reverent, realistic about evil and temptation, specific about forgiveness, and he taught that it was all right to ask for one of the most basic human needs -- bread. From the Garden of Gethsemane and the cross we learn that God's will for his life was the most important thing to Jesus.

What does this teach us about how to pray? Prayer is not a way of getting what we want as much as it is getting what we need. It is not an act in which we clamor to substitute our judgment for divine wisdom. Prayer is less about asking for things to which we are attached than about relinquishing our attachments. Prayer can take us beyond fear which is an attachment. Prayer can take us beyond unhealthy relationships and habits to which we are attached. Prayer can take us beyond a desire for more security than we need; as in the silence of prayer we remember that we are pilgrims rather than permanent residents in this world. We tend to want more money, more reassurance of love and more power. Prayer should be a request for intervention on God's terms, not ours. And after we ask, then what? Christopher Robin bragged to Winnie the Pooh, "I love to talk to animals." Winnie responded, "Lots of people talk to animals. Not many listen, though." Psalm 46:10 reminds us to listen, to "Be still and know that I am God." So, let your own heart, needs, and faith guide you in the practice of prayer. Instead of studying much about how to pray, just pray.

What can you say about the recent stream of tornadoes that killed innocent people, leaving a wake of destruction, pain, and fear? What can you say about a tsunami that killed thousands? What do you say when you're facing financial or personal problems that feel as big as the tsunami and as powerful as the tornadoes? You can say, "Our Father, who art in heaven...." Prayer can work miracles by making us sensitive to God's will and providing us the strength to change the things we can and meek enough to accept the things we cannot change.

Prayer can bring some surprising outcomes even to those who grudgingly believe. Let me tell you a story.

Several years ago a clergy colleague, Dr. Phil Amerson, who is now a seminary president, was pastor of a church in Indiana. There was a group of women in that church who formed a prayer group and practiced praying and anointing with oil. They would put oil on their hands and touch each other and pray, claiming God's healing power for one another, for the neighborhood, and the world.

There was a parking lot beside the church which was a playground for children by day; however, at night it became a hangout for older youth. There was drinking, passing of drugs, gambling and other unacceptable behavior. One night a young man was killed by gunfire during a drug-related incident in the parking lot. The next week Pauline, the head of the women's prayer group, boldly said: "I think we should go out and anoint our church parking lot." Dr. Amerson was a little uncomfortable with this unconventional idea, but Pauline and her little band of prayer warriors went out to anoint the parking lot. The Pastor reluctantly followed.

Pauline handed him the oil and said: "Here, anoint the parking lot". He asked where he should do it and she said: "Under that tree". "What do I do?" he asked, and she said "Just anoint the lot." Dr. Amerson knelt down and poured a little oil in the shape of a cross. The prayer group then joined hands to pray. The children saw what they were doing and came over. Pauline invited the children to join the prayer circle. There were about 40 people. When they finished praying, Pauline gave a piece of chalk to a young boy. "Here" she said, "go and write these words on the parking lot: ‘The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof.'"

Reflecting on this unorthodox experience in which he had so reluctantly participated the pastor said: "Nothing negative happened in that parking lot after the anointing." Then he added: "I wish I had enough oil to anoint all our cities!"

Do you know any people and places that need anointing? Got oil?