Back in 2003 my family and I went to China for a month. While we were there, we took a weekend to visit Wuyi Shan, or Wuyi Mountain. It’s a popular tourist site, with the biggest attraction being hiking up the mountain itself. I was amused by the fact that bottled water cost 2 yuan at the bottom of the mountain, and 10 yuan at the top. Looks like capitalism to me. 🙂
We hired a local guide while we were there, and one of the many places she took us was a Buddhist monastery in the area. She showed us the various sections of the place, and the highlight of course was the room with a large statue of the Buddha. Unsurprisingly, there was a small shrine there, with some incense sticks that devotees could light for a small payment. Our guide lit one, placed it in the sandbox that served as a container, and paused for a few moments to fold her hands, bow her head, close her eyes, and offer a prayer. We stood quietly as she did so.
As we continued our tour, I asked her what she prayed for when she prayed to the Buddha. She seemed surprised at the question, as if there were only one possible answer. “We pray for luck,” she said. “What do you Christians pray for?”
“We pray for one another,” I said.
I know my answer was simplistic. And that’s the point of today’s post.
Prayer involves a lot of things. In a post awhile back I noted that like many other Christians I usually follow the prayer pattern ACTS, for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. There are other patterns as well, and it’s perfectly fine to follow no pattern at all.
Which brings me to my point.
I think we often miss the whole point of prayer.
I’ve seen sermons and books about “how to get your prayers answered.” A colleague of mine and I were talking about prayer once, and she satirically referred to prayer chains as “adding your vote to the luck bucket.”
Prayer is not an election. (Election in theology is a different thing entirely. 🙂 ) It’s not a democratic process in which we all get together and try to talk an inattentive or uninterested or skeptical God into being convinced that this particular thing is really, really important to us, and would he please, please do the thing so we’ll be happier, or more comfortable, or less anxious?
Prayer includes requests, things we want “answered,” of course. In fact, God himself tells us to come boldly into his presence in prayer (He 4.16) and to let our “requests be made known to” him (Php 4.6). As a father—even a deeply imperfect one—I know how much more I would have given my children if they had just asked.
But seeing prayer as primarily or essentially a shopping list is to miss the whole point of the thing.
Prayer is not a sacrament or a rite. It’s a natural consequence of being in a relationship.
For 37 years this month I’ve been in a formal, legal relationship with my wife. But it’s far more than just formal or legal. It’s personal. And because it’s personal, we communicate. We communicate because we like to, but more essentially we communicate because that’s what people in a relationship do; you can’t have a relationship without communicating, and communicating is pretty much the central way in which you conduct a relationship.
God and I have a relationship. So we talk. As you’ve often heard, he talks to us through his word, and we talk to him through prayer.
What do we talk about?
Whatever; whatever we have to say. I talk to him about what he’s said to me in his word. I talk to him about our relationship; what I’ve experienced since the last time we talked; how I feel about those experiences; what questions I have (and there are many).
We just talk.
And that’s why prayer is more than just asking for stuff, putting my vote in the luck bucket. It will include adoration—love talk, if you will—and confession and thanksgiving and yes, supplication.
And anything else.
That’s how relationships work.