Dr. Thomas Lane Butts: The Nature of Prayer

In our society we tend to set aside a specific day to do things that should be done every day. We have a special day for honoring parents, children, grandparents, secretaries, etc. We even have a special day set aside for prayer. Perhaps those of us who forget to pray except when we are in the zone of desperation need to be reminded that prayer is appropriate every day.

There are many aspects of prayer. Let me call your attention to just one of them, the naturalness of prayer. It is so much a part of our nature to pray that no one really needs instructions on prayer. You just pray. Forget method and proper wording. Just pray.

A prison chaplain was walking down the cell block one day and one of the prisoners called out to him and asked the chaplain to pray for him. The chaplain said to the prisoner, "I will pray for you, but I want you to pray for yourself first." The prisoner got down on his knees and began to pray. Being unfamiliar with the usual form for prayer, he could not figure out how to end the prayer. Finally he ended the prayer by saying, "And, Lord, that is just about the way it is. Amen." Having been trained in liturgy at seminary, I am better acquainted with the formal beginnings and endings of prayer, but I cannot pray better than that! Prayer should be natural and sincere. Exact wording is not important.

No human instinct is more basic and primitive than the impulse to pray. From the dawn of human consciousness, at some dim and distant date in history, the eyes of our forebearers turned upward as they struggled to communicate with some power beyond themselves. In the temple ruins of ancient civilizations all over the world we find evidence of the abiding impulse of worship. In the 17th chapter of the Book of Acts, in the New Testament, Luke recounts the Apostle Paul's visit to Areopagus (or Mars Hill) in Athens. As he stood among the altars and statues to the many gods there, he said to the people: "Ye men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are religious. When I walked through your city and looked at the places where you worship, I found an altar on which is written, 'to an unknown God'. That which you worship then, even though you do not know it, is what I now proclaim to you." We are incurably religious, and always have been.

Sometimes you encounter people whose lives reflect the naturalness of prayer with such power that no words are needed to verify this proposition. Such was my experience with an elderly minister who touched my life with grace when I was young.

The Rev. A.M. Shirah came into the ministry late in life. He never attended seminary and never served a large church. But his life had some rather remarkable dimensions of spiritual depth that were palpable. While I was a District Superintendent and supervised some one hundred churches, Brother Shirah served as a retired supply minister of a small church in my district. He was a humble man. When I came for my regular visit to his church, he would insist that I deliver the morning sermon, but he would offer the pastoral prayer. I heard Brother Shirah pray many times, and I never heard him pray but that he would begin his prayer with the word "and". "And Lord," he would say, as he began to pray. It was as if he had been carrying on an unspoken conversation with God all along, and his audible prayer was but a continuation of that on-going conversation. Every time I heard this man of God pray, I got the distinct impression that this was not the first time he had spoken with God that day. His life and his spoken prayers blended into an on-going conversation with God.

You do not have to wait until the bottom drops out of life to pray. One of the distinct teachings of Jesus was that we can talk to God anytime about anything.