Monday, March 23, 2009
Beginning to Pray
Beginning to Pray
If you really want to begin to pray, don’t buy a book on prayer or buy into a formula on prayer, but begin like Jesus taught us to begin to pray in Matthew 6: 9-10: “Our Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; Do what’s best—as above, so below (The Message).”
I was reading a book recently called Beginning to Pray, by Anthony Bloom, which delved into how one begins to pray. I was surprised at how the book began. Some say that “You cannot judge a book by its cover.” Maybe they should say, “You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover.” I try not to. However, in picking up the book Beginning to Pray, as I always do, I read the back of the book, the front cover, and then I moved to the contents page to see what I was in store for. I got stuck on the following quote on the back of the book that set the tone for the remainder of my experience of the book: “The realm of God is dangerous. You must enter into it and not just seek information about it . . . The day when God is absent, when He is silent-that is the beginning of prayer (Bloom 1970).” I was and am turned completely off by this quote and it alerted me to read vigilantly throughout this work. I do not like what I found. Not only do I disagree with this quote, but I found myself disagreeing with a lot of Bloom’s text in Beginning to Pray. I will start with this fist quote from the back of the book, and my disagreement, and move inside the book to a few more problems I had, and then I will close with where I believe we should begin in our praying.
I am with Anthony Bloom about the realm of God being dangerous. As C.S. Lewis said in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe about Aslan the Lion, referring to God, “He's not safe, but He's good.” This is true of God, and His “Wild Kingdom.” This is why prayer is so important and why it is so amazing. We can communicate with the God of the universe. “Prayer is a relationship.” as bloom says on page 26. Here is where my problem with Bloom begins in the second part of this quote, “The day when God is absent, when He is silent-that is the beginning of prayer (Bloom 1970).” God’s silence and His absence are not the beginning of prayer. God is the beginning of prayer. I also think that these previous two statements are false. God can seem to us to be absent, but is indeed omnipresent. In all fairness, Bloom does clarify this for us on page 26 when he says “God is never really absent.” As for the second part, God’s seeming to be silent can be our own hardness of heart, sin or distance from God. I was disappointed that God was not the beginning where Bloom began his work Beginning in Prayer. Instead of his book beginning at the beginning of prayer, we get a long, and I think indulgent, interview with Anthony Bloom by Timothy Wilson as the introduction, when I, the reader, was just looking to begin praying.
Another quote that I disagreed with in the first chapter of this book, The Absence of God, is this one, “As long as we ourselves are real, as long as we are truly ourselves, God can be present and can do something with us (Bloom, p. 30).” No. There is nothing right about this statement theologically. Again, the author is beginning with someone other than God, which is a non-starter. We cannot keep propping ourselves up, as if prayer were about us at all, or as if we even had the power on our own to pray. We are sinful and fallen people and cannot pray without God’s initiation. When Jesus taught his disciples how to pray, he began with God. “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. . . ” Jesus said nothing of us or being ourselves or of us being real. What does that even mean? It is prayer that could lead us to life change in Jesus, who could then empower us to look a little more as we should, or to be our true selves, or to be real. This idea that “I have to do____________ and then God will hear me,” Is works based religion. This puts the focus, the power, and the burden on us and not God.
Bloom saves this issue somewhat when he speaks of prayer needing the “fertile ground of humility” (p. 31, 35) and that God’s power is perfected in our weakness (p. 33). I agree with Bloom on this and really appreciate that he references one of my favorite prayers of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18: 10-14 that clearly makes the point that prayer is an act of surrender to God’s power and mercy, in great humility, and that prayer is not at all about our doings (p. 32). This begins to put the focus back onto God. Bloom also addresses the fact that we must be kingdom minded in our thinking about God and prayer. Jesus also said this about how we should pray in Matthew 6:10: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Bloom says we must “surrender to the king and that God is God (p. 30).” This is good, but it goes south, takes a turn for the worse, at the end of the chapter and into the second chapter, Knocking at the Door, where Bloom says that “We are outsiders to the kingdom of God (p. 36).” This is where we will pick up next.
In the chapter Knocking at the Door, Bloom says that “We are outsiders to the kingdom of God and that we need to knock at the door to be allowed in (p. 39).” Bloom does not want us to take for granted that we are insiders and miss something of God and I can respect that thought, but he takes it too far and it is a skewed thought and is a bad theology of who pursues who in the relationship between God and ourselves. Revelation chapter 3:20-22 describes Jesus knocking on our heart’s door: “Look at me. I stand at the door. I knock. If you hear me call and open the door, I’ll come right in and sit down to supper with you. Conquerors will sit alongside me at the head table, just as I, having conquered, took the place of honor at the side of my Father. That’s my gift to the conquerors! “Are your ears awake? Listen. Listen to the Wind Words, the Spirit blowing through the churches.” It is clear in this passage that God does the knocking and pursuing of us.
I know that Jesus also said, “Knock and the door shall be opened unto you” in another great passage on prayer that I highly regard in Matthew 7:7-11, but scriptures also tell us in Romans 8:26-28 that “the moment we get tired in the waiting, God’s Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don’t know how or what to pray, it doesn’t matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God. That’s why we can be so sure that every detail in our lives of love for God is worked into something good.” This scripture, coupled with 1 Corinthians 2:10, which says that “we have seen and heard it because God by his Spirit has brought it all out into the open before us,” Illustrates that knowledge of God, and the propensity to pray, are all God’s works and not our own doing or knocking.
The ideas of poverty and kingdom, as they relate to prayer, come up in chapter two as well with a paragraph that stands out in a serious way. Bloom says, “This is the kingdom, the sense that we are free from possession, and that this freedom establishes us in a relationship where everything is love-human love and love divine (p. 41).” I agree, on the surface, with Bloom that poverty and simplicity may draw us closer with God, but I disagree that this is the kingdom. I am overwhelmed by this over simplification of kingdom here and do not think that it helps deepen prayer. A deeper thought is that we should be possessed by God in all aspects of our life and in our prayer.
It seems to me that Bloom is piggy backing off of A.W. Tozer’s idea of “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing” in Chapter 2 of his book, The Pursuit of God, which I highly recommend for drawing close to God in life and prayer (Tozer 1949). To credit Bloom with some ideas that I appreciate here, it is worth pointing out that he seems to have influenced one of my favorite Catholic authors Henri Nouwen in his work on prayer, which I also highly recommend titled With Open Hands (Nouwen 1972). In this work Nouwen also hits on this idea that Bloom presents of keeping your hands open to what God puts into them and to what God may take out. Poverty is the beginning to receiving from God and not standing on your own.
Prayer is a relationship with the creator of the universe. He is the author of life and of prayer itself. The very nature of the incarnation, God coming in human form and dwelling with us, dictates that God pursues us and wants a relationship with us. God draws us to himself. God sent His only begotten Son to die on a cross and raised Him from the dead so that our sins could be forgiven and we could relate directly to Him and have a relationship with Him. Prayer has its genesis in the God who created us, and prayer itself. We begin with God in our praying.
When Jesus was hanging from the cross and dying for us so that we could know Him and enter into His Kingdom, He cried out, and the earth shook, and the Temple Curtain tore in two from the top to the bottom. This curtain separated the Holy of Holies, where God dwelt, from the rest of the temple populace and only the priests could meet God there to intercede on the sinner’s behalf. When God tore this curtain at Jesus’ battle cry from the cross, it gave us all direct access to God through His son (Matthew 27: 45-54). God is not silent. His cry allowed our cries to be heard and answered. This is where we begin to pray; at the foot of the cross.
The title of Anthony Bloom’s book, Beginning to Pray, let me down and then the content let me down. You would think that you could give a book with a title like this to a new believer or someone who is struggling to learn to pray. I can’t. I could not recommend this work to someone beginning to pray, because it does not start right. I would recommend to someone wanting to learn a lot about prayer so that they could set out on their own to read Richard J. Foster’s Prayer: Finding The Heart’s True Home (Foster 1992).
May we begin our praying in Jesus,
Bloom, A. A. (1970). Beginning to Pray. Mahwah, N.J., Paulist Press.
Foster, R. J. (1992). Prayer: Finding The Heart’s True Home. San Francisco, CA, Harper San Francisco.
Nouwen, H. J. M. (1972). With Open Hands. Notre Dame, IN, Ave Maria Press, Inc.
Peterson, Eugene H.: The Message : The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, Colo. : NavPress, 2002, S. Mt 6:9-10, S. Ro 8:26-28, S. Re 3:20-22, S. I Cor. 2:10
Tozer, A. W. (1949). The Pursuit of God. Camp Hill, PA, Christian Publications Inc.
The Holy Bible : English Standard Version. Wheaton : Standard Bible Society, 2001, S. Mt 6:9