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praying_boy+dogThe Lunatic’s Guide to Prayer

I sometimes imagine that life as Christian is like living in a mental  asylum, in which we are gradually, cured  of all the lunacies we once had. We  progress slowly from ward to ward, being healed of our various psychoses and hallucinations, and slowly gaining a mind that approaches reality.  Well such is my  paraphrase of Romans 12:12 (the renewal of your mind").

One area in which my treatment has been long and painful is on the subject  of prayer (and who knows - I  may still be slightly unhinged). I have  believed many crazy things about prayer over the years, and participated in many bizarre prayer sessions. Like the time we all gathered round  the candle in the  darkened cathedral, and sat silent and  deep as owls for 40 minutes, and then left, convinced that we had prayed the most profound prayer. Or the stage when I thought that my own  ecstatic private prayer  language (in which I sounded very- much  like a Russian Jew with a limited vocabulary and a bad ease of  stuttering) was irresistible to God, and that by virtue of using it I  would be guaranteed a positive answer.  Or the period during which I basically  gave up asking God for anything, since He, in his eternal, fixed and  unchangeable decrees would not be budged on anything, and so asking him  to respond to my requests  was a waste of my fleeting, mortal  breath.

I could fill this short article with further embarrassing examples, and  this might be amusing and even  profitable. But more profitable still  would be some of the things I have learn’t during treatment. "Just read  this book", the Doctor told me,  “especially this section with Matthew 6 at the top of the page. It  might  help you to get over the worst of it."  And sure enough, upon reading Matthew 6 I learn’t some important things  about prayer from the Master himself, the Lord of all reality'.

Here are four things I learn’t.

1. Prayer doesn't have to be long and repetitive

Being somewhat deranged, I had always thought that the longer and more  impressive the prayer,  the more likely God was to heat and  respond. This was a recurring theme in some early phases of my Christian life: the all-night prayer vigil phase; the repeating a set prayer like a mantra over and  over again phase; the keep praying until you have gained the victory phrase; and the aforementioned special  prayer language phase. In all of them, the common theme was that God  somehow needed a very large quantity' of words from me, either to fill him in on all the ins and outs of my  situation, or else to impress him by the sheer length of the prayer so that he would feel  obliged to say ‘Yes'.

Jesus' teaching on prayer could not be more different. Don't heap up empty  phrases, he says. Don't  think that you have to communicate  information to God (as if he needed to know)~ in fact, pray like this,  he says ~ and he goes on to provide a sample prayer that is all of 52  words long. No drama,  no show, no ecstasy, no repetition, no  special times or places, in fact, no real method at all. Just a short series of requests to a Father in heaven, who is both all knowing and generous.

It's so simple. Why did I have to make it so complicated?

2. You pray for God

Having been afflicted with the very common neurosis that everything (including God) existed  basically for my sake, my prayers over  the years always featured a large proportion of requests about me. My  work, my future, my Friends, my busy schedule, my stress, my children-pretty- much  anything, it, fact, that had 'my' in front of it.

What struck me immediately about the Lord's Prayer, however, is that 'me'  and 'my' don't even get  a look in during the first three  requests. According to Jesus, the very first things we should pray for  are about God. They are requests for the Father to do something for  himself and his own sake,  without reference to me at all, or any  of my relatives.

If it seems a little strange to be asking God to do something for God (to  make his name holy, to  bring in his kingdom, and so on), it is  no more strange than asking God to do something for us. After all, as  Matthew 6:8 reminds us: God knows what we need even before we ask him.  Presumably, he  can and will provide for us, even if we  do not ask him to, and he can and will bring in his kingdom, even if we  do not ask him to, We are not bringing new information to the Father's  attention-either  with regard to our own needs, or with  respect to God's eternal plans.

Yet we are urged by Jesus to pray for these things. In his kindness and  wisdom, God uses our prayers  as part of his eternal plans. Like a  generous father involving his children in his work (even though he may  be able to get it done easier without them), our Father in heaven wants  us to pray for his  work, for his glory, for his kingdom.

3. You pray for bread, one day at a time

I had always liked the 'daily bread' request of the Lord's Prayer,  because it held so much scope for  expansion. Clearly 'bread' was a  metaphor for all physical needs and wants, which in my view could  legitimately cover just about anything ~ At last, after the high-minded  spiritual goals of the  first three requests, Jesus was giving  me permission to let rip with all the things I really wanted God to do  for me.

Funny how I had never really thought about that little word 'daily'. Don't  look too far ahead, says  Jesus. Don't sweat on the medium and  long-term. After all, you've lust prayed for the long-term to be God's  kingdom. Just ask God to provide your necessities for the coming day.  That's all you need  to worry about at this stage.

This is very disturbing, when you think about it, especially to self-obsessed lunatics like me. Not only is  life not all about me, but the  future is also not all about me. The future is God's. In terms of my  physical needs, I don't need to focus too much further ahead than  tomorrow.

4. You pray to survive

Another common feature of the crazy people is that they often think they are  the most grand and  indestructible people in the world. They are Napoleon, Alexander the Great and Superman. I have been a  borderline case in 'this department’ over the years. I know that I am  anything but perfect,  and certainly not indestructible, but I  also don't like to spend too much time dwelling on my frailties. I do  okay. I survive. I'm not so bad after all, and the world is not such a  nasty place. And my  prayers accordingly aren’t much taken up with depressing details like confession of sin and surviving  temptation.

But according to Jesus, apart from praying for God to meet my daily  requirements, the other two  really important things to ask for are  all about how weak I am, and about how dangerous the Christian life is.  Please forgive me, and please help me to make it through the time of  testing and  evil-which is a not very subtle  admission of the obvious facts: 'I'm a sinner and "I don't fancy my  chances against temptation and evil.

I am not Napoleon. I am a weak and tired foot soldier facing a terrible enemy. I need deliverance.  That's what I should be praying for, both for myself and for others.

I suppose Jesus was the most completely sane person who ever lived, the one with the most  perfect grip on reality.

Certainly the more time I spend listening to him; the more I feel my own lunacy fading away.

On the subject of prayer, he showed me how simple and utterly centred on God prayer  should be.  He showed me how God's kingdom is not  only what I should long and ask for, but how it even dictates what I  should think about myself and what I should ask for myself.

It's obvious when you think about it. I was mad to ever think otherwise.

adapted from an article by Tony Payne

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