One expectation I have for the New Year is to make progress in personal prayer - a very basic component of Christianity that I am simply not very exercised in. In pursuit of this end, I have enlisted the services of a skill in which I can claim more proficiency: reading.
Besides paying close attention to N. T. Wright's chapter in Simply Christian on prayer, (aforementioned excerpts here,) I also read Leonard Ravenhill's Revival Praying. Both were helpful, although I found Ravenhill's blunt, absolutist style a bit abrasive and disconcerting. No doubt this was precisely his intention, but while I'm sure there is a place for heavy-handed rebuke and exhortation, it seemed somewhat overcooked. It is easy to mimic the directness of Christ's words without the grace.
That said, Ravenhill's assessment of our average condition was undeniably accurate: "Most of us have enough grace to scrape through the day, but we have nothing over. We are conquerors but are not 'more than conquerors.' We can fight off the enemy but cannot take any prisoners." We must understand this spiritual warfare dynamic - the "Screwtape perspective": "Do you wonder that the devil strives with might and main with all that is reasonable - and all that is unreasonable too - to keep us from this soul-hearing, soul-seeing, soul-activating place of prayer?"
I was surprised by Anglican Wright's very human handling of the subject of "rehearsed" or "canned" prayers; something I have generally been adamantly opposed to. Consider the Lord's Prayer. When the disciples queried Jesus about the subject, He gave them a form: something concrete they could do. He did not tell them to assume a certain posture and wait for inspiration. As Wright says, "the important thing is to get on with it."
"Part of our difficulty here is that we moderns are so anxious to do things our own way, so concerned that if we get help from anyone else our prayer won't be 'authentic' and come from our own heart, that we are instantly suspicious about using anyone else's prayers. We are like someone who doesn't feel she's properly dressed unless she has personally designed and made all her own clothes; or like someone who feels it's artificial to drive a car he hasn't built all by himself. We are hamstrung by the long legacy of the Romantic movement on the one hand, and Existentialism on the other, producing the idea that things are authentic only if they come spontaneously, unbidden, from the depths of our hearts."
This is precisely the view I have traditionally held, and still hold to a large extent. Five years ago I would have qualified as a poster child for the Do-It-Yourself movement. Then I got a car.
I developed this creeping awareness that there were others who could do certain things - such as changing the oil in a Ford - better and more efficiently than myself. It sounds ridiculous, but this was a difficult realization for me. The purist may insist on fresh vegetables for awhile, but practicality has shown that canning proves awfully useful come February. To quote Wright again:
"Some Christians, some of the time, can sustain a life of prayer entirely out of their own internal resources, just as there are hardy mountaineers (I've met one) who can walk the Scottish highlands in their bare feet. But most of us need boots; not because we don't want to do the walking ourselves, but because we do."
Sometimes self-sufficiency earns you nothing but blistered feet.
Moving on, I noticed another surprising thing about the Lord's Prayer: it is corporate. "Our Father, which art in heaven..." How is it that I never saw this before? Does this indicate a stronger emphasis on corporate, "two-or-three" prayer than we have had? I don't know.
Of course, closet prayer - "in secret" - is also important. This is where we find ourselves squarely confronted with who we really are, or, more accurately, who we really aren't. We are alone, undressed, and face to face with the stark standard of Hebrews 11:6. This is the crucible of conviction: is God real enough for me to deny the enticing tangibility of the material world and closet myself alone with Him? I am forced to confess that many times for me He is not.
Thankfully the story doesn't end here, as God steps in to uphold us in our pursuit of Him.
"Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered." - Romans 8:26
That's my promise, and I'm standing on it.
Images courtesy of wikipedia.org and kcl.ac.uk