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Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Not another canned prayer

And when you pray, do not go on and on, excessively and strangely like the outsiders; they think their verbosity will let them be heard by their deitiesDo not be like them. Your prayers need not be labored or lengthy or grandiose—for your Father knows what you need before you ever ask Him. (Matthew 6:7-8 VOICE)

As a child, the first "prayer" I learned was probably one many of us can recite from memory, but probably don't know why we prayed those words. Did you know the version of this prayer we learned was most likely not the original version of the prayer?  The prayer we probably can recite?  "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take."  The earliest version of the prayer?  "When I lay down to sleep, I recommend myself to his care; when I awake, I give myself up to his direction. Amen."  Two quite different prayers, are they not?  I did a little research on this prayer and do you know there are nine other versions of this prayer?  I could find eleven total - including the two above - with the oldest of these dating back to Joseph Addison in 1711. It has been the caption on wartime posters requesting God to look over the soldier at rest, subject of rock songs and Christian songs alike, and even proudly proclaimed by Freddy Krueger in A Nightmare on Elm Street!  As much as the words of this simple prayer are "known" it is the words of the prayer of a heart desiring to make contact with God that are heard the most!

Prayer doesn't have to be "recited" - it has just to be spoken. God cares more about the things we struggle with in our minds, yearn for with our hearts, and which give us emotional excitement or stress more than he does the words we use to express those things.  The religious leaders of Jesus' time were known for their "grandiose" prayers - recited at length, sometimes as "religiously" as on certain days, at certain times, with rehearsed accuracy.  These aren't usually prayers anymore - although they very well could have started out as prayers as much as our simple "Now I lay me down..." did back in the day.  In time, what is just rehearsed and repeated loses meaning - it becomes "rote" and not really something which shares much of what our heart holds. Think about it a little and you might just realize you recite the Our Father (The Lord's Prayer) just as readily as you once recited this simple bedtime prayer - also without much consideration of the words and/or the intent of the prayer.

As Jesus gave the "illustration" of the Lord's Prayer, he wasn't advocating the disciples use the exact words of the prayer, but merely share from their heart their praise for what God has done in their lives and how much he means to us. He was reminding them of the importance of seeking him above all things - not just looking to him as a "last resort" when other options fail us. He was focusing them on being "real" with God as we pray - not rehearsed, polished, or "proper" even. In fact, God appreciates an honest heart sharing their hurts, hang-ups, and hold-outs more than he does the polished recital of the prayers of the "church-goer" who might just know a few well-worded prayers, but isn't connected to God when he recites them.  Being raised in a denomination which taught what I will refer to as "canned prayers" on certain days of the year, or whenever you needed to pray for a certain thing, it was a little difficult for me to think of prayer as an "exchange of words" between me and God. I didn't think he wanted to listen to my ranting, nor my honest appraisal of what I was going through, anymore than he wanted to hear nails on a chalkboard!

There comes a moment in a believer's life when they make this connection, though. The moment when they realize all their "canned prayers" aren't cutting it. There is something which "clicks" inside of the believer - calling them a little deeper - getting them out of their comfort zone a little bit - into a place where the heart begins to swell in excitement to just share whatever is in there with the one they love the deepest. There is nothing more exciting to God than to have one of his children approach him in this manner. I think this is what Jesus had in mind as he spoke with his disciples about prayer - it wasn't the length or specific words as much as it was this anticipation, excitement, willingness to share that mattered to God the Father.  Do you know what?  Some of the most meaningful times I have had with God in prayer might not even be considered "prayer times" to the one "looking in on my life" as an observer.  In fact, I have been lifted into "prayer" in songs sung in the midst of worship service, and while pondering the beauty of the river's edge on a leisurely hike through the woods. We don't have to "be somewhere" or "say something" specific - we just have to sense his presence and share our heart. Just sayin!