Prayer and the Personal

It is interesting to note that in many of the recorded instances where Jesus is said to pray, we are not given the substance or content of his prayer. We are merely told that he prayed. Apparently the content of his prayer was not always the issue. The gospels tell us that once he merely sighed (Mark 8:12), which is itself a prayer (“consider my sighing”, Psalm 5). All of us know that a sigh speaks in a highly personal way, one of those non-verbal cues that tell a lot. And this is how we should think about prayer, as deeply connected to the state of our heart. We could state our point another way: Jesus’ prayers were not formulas for getting things from God, but examples of true personalness and intimacy. We learn by watching him pray that prayer is, in essence, a discovery in what is most personal about us. True prayer comes from the deepest part of our souls and not merely off the top of our heads.

I want to assert that we need prayer to keep personal categories central in our lives. When we pray we are not our job or our status, we are not our bank account or our reputation. When we pray, we are just ourselves, unvarnished and unadorned. Perhaps this personal aspect of prayer makes it more necessary than ever. I say this because it seems that our cultural drift towards the impersonal -- especially in our embrace of efficiency and technique and performance -- is becoming ever more dominant.

Quentin Schultze in his book, Habits of the High-Tech Heart, explores the present technological culture and asks what technique is doing to our souls. He asks: do we really think that there is a method for everything? For instance, we tend to think about human connectedness as technique (networking we call it). I heard recently that Blackberry owners lower their functional IQ’s because of their constant distraction – they are seldom present to the task or the person before them, always being somewhere else. We tend to think about leadership and management as technique. People see through this I think – if you are a leader, you soon realize that you cannot lead without caring for people. Recently, we have begun to think about personal transformation as the application of spiritual technique. Self-help guru Tony Robbins talks about the technology of personal transformation.

I would simply like to assert that in all of this technicized living, we need prayer more than ever. And prayer is so unlike the technologies. It is highly inefficient, quite wasteful of time, and to all appearances, impractical. We need an image for this: think of prayer as like the woman pouring expensive perfume on the feet of Jesus (see Matt 26), an act that was criticized by the pragmatists in Jesus’ group, but praised by Jesus himself. Prayer is "poured-out-soul", beautiful perhaps, but costly and not very pragmatic. In economic terms, prayer does not make much sense of time and effort. But if you want to shift the focus onto the personal, prayer is priceless.

You perhaps know of Bill Gates famous quote: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning”. On one level, of course, Bill is right. Theologian Marva Dawn called worship “a royal waste of time” but she did not mean that we should not spend time in prayer and worship. She meant that this spending of time was precisely how we recaptured our personhood before God. Otherwise we become mere cogs in the cultural machinery. But to waste time with God, to be with the king, well that was “a royal waste of time”, and how liberating! On one level prayer appears to be wasteful; but on another level, on the personal level, prayer re-establishes the truest values.

Last Sunday we finished our series on the Sermon on the Mount with what I thought to be a very important and incisive message by our pastor Chris. If you missed it, get the podcast. And now we begin our move towards Easter with a series we are calling Generous.

See you Sunday at 9:29 or 11:1.


Questions for further reflection:

  1. Be honest now: how have you been tempted to turn your relationship with God into a technique?
  2. What is your experience of prayer? What is it about your life that makes it hard for you to pray?
  3. Can you name a moment in your life when you felt connected to God in a personal and intimate way? What was the lasting effect of that experience?
  4. How are you preparing yourself for Easter? How can you make the connection with Jesus more personal?