Praying Right: 17OT 2016

If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right. Right? Excellence needs no argument or reason; it speaks for itself. It’s true that excellence can become an idol, a false god… but that’s true of all good things. If you’re going to spend some portion of your one precious life doing something, for heaven’s sake do it as well as you can. If you’re wise you know it matters little how your best compares to anybody else, but it matters much whether your effort is your best.

The Scoutmaster held up my whittling project; I’d asked if it was enough to finish the woodcarving merit badge. It was a little building, a tower: I meant it to look like a skyscraper, roughly carved out of some 2x2 pine. He looked it over and then looked me in the eye and asked, “Steven, is this your best, is this as good as you could make it?” I said it was. He said, “then you’re done.” I learned some interesting things about whittling, but I learned a lot more from the seriousness and earnestness with which he asked that question. I don’t think about that moment often, really, but I think in some ways that question has never left me. “Is this your best?” If it is, then you’re done.

Later in life I worked on another tower, this time as part of a big, big team effort. I think it turned out pretty great; I think it’s excellent. But what gives me real joy is not reflecting where it falls on the spectrum between a pole-barn and Chartres Cathedral. What gives me real joy is the conviction that we offered our best. I don’t think it’s vital to worship that you have a beautiful church. I do think it’s vital to worship that you offer God your best.

Which brings us the long way round to my main man Chesterton’s revision of the quote I began with. That quote is true, but he pointed out something just as true: “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” Get that? It’s the flip side of excellence: there are some things that are so worthwhile that even if you can only do it badly, there’s still virtue and nobility in the attempt. Well, when I read the story of Abraham talking to God about Sodom, and heard Jesus describing prayer as a nagging neighbor who pesters a sleeping man, that’s what came to mind.

Start with Abraham’s conversation. What the heck? Is he haggling with God? Is that your idea of a good way to pray? It’s too late now, but what if I’d asked you before these readings to describe your idea of really good prayer. Would it look like this? Mine wouldn’t. I probably would have said something about serenity and docility and acceptance and wisdom. This is more like a toddler who gets stuck on repetitive questions and wears you out.

Speaking of wearing somebody out… how about Jesus’ example of the man who basically gets what he wants out of his neighbor through sheer pestering? I’d say, if you asked me, that this is just about the worst metaphor for good prayer you could come up with. It makes the pray-er out like a brat, and worse still it makes God out like a grudging miser. That’s what I’d have said. Real Christian prayer isn’t anything like this, is it?

Jesus said it is.

I’m still not convinced there isn’t a bit of a joke at work here. And as we keep reading, we realize Jesus isn’t saying God is like that sleeping neighbor. He says “if you who are evil give your children what is good, how much more with the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” So you see the move He’s making here? Even some grudging sleepy neighbor will answer a prayer sooner or later… how much more will God!

But do we want to be the pest? Well, why not? Think a little harder about Abraham’s position and try to empathize… you’ll find it isn’t hard to relate. God is threatening wrathful punishment on Sodom. Abraham doesn’t understand. I mean, sure, we want God to get rid of evil, we ask Him to do that all the time, but what about the good that also suffers? And where’s the justice in the plan God has described? A lot of Christians read the Old Testament and have a really hard time understanding what they find there. Well, guess what? The people in the Old Testament felt the same. So Abraham stands before God and he pesters. He wants to understand. He wants to square the idea of a loving, merciful God with the reality that’s staring him in the face. So he just keeps asking. And asking.

See, prayer is one of those things that’s worth doing badly. If you’re worried about the right thing to say, or the right way to feel, that might mean you’re barking up the wrong tree. God doesn’t want your rehearsed performance of virtuoso piety. He wants the real you, unrehearsed, unfiltered, unashamed. That’s real piety.

There’s a whole great tradition of thought and theory and discipline about prayer: how to do it better, and when, and in what posture, and so on. It’s worth studying if you have the chance to do so. Who wouldn’t want any knowledge that could help us pray well? But on the other hand, there’s a time to forget about praying well and just pray. People stress out sometimes, “am I praying right?” I can see my Scoutmaster’s suddenly serious gaze: “Are you praying?… Then you’re praying right.”

But what if you do want to offer a really excellent prayer? Well, this is a best-of-both-worlds scenario, because the same Jesus who turns us loose to pray as badly as we want also gave us the perfect prayer for anytime we want to use it. We’ll pray it together in a few minutes. They are the very words of the Son offered to the Father, and we get to join our voices as His Body on Earth. Think how many people are saying this prayer right this moment around planet Earth. Pick any moment on any day and somebody somewhere is sure to be praying these very words. It’s quite possible, I should think even probable, that there has been not a single fraction of a second for centuries that someone on earth wasn’t praying these words. How’s that for persistence?


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