It’s hard to relax. We’re in an uncomfortable place right now. The future is unclear. Our leaders are not all stable. And the world economy is in flux. But God. He’s our anchor. His love never changes and we know that when we pray, it helps calm our heavy hearts and anxiety about the uncertainty of it all. Below you’ll find a compilation of two-minute podcast shorts by the late Dr. Melvin E. Banks, founder of UMI, on prayer. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program which was called Daily Direction and covered a variety of issues and topics. So, turn the ringer off on your phone, find a quiet place, be still, and listen.
Sometimes you have to know when to shut up and pray.
I was listening to the discussion at a staff meeting recently when our consultant made this remark about me: “Paul is so quiet. He doesn’t seem to be passionate about anything, except maybe the person of Jesus.” I smiled, partly because it was funny and partly because on the inside I am like Barney Fife, the nervous deputy on the old Andy Griffith Show. My mind churns with ideas, and my mouth is eager to assist.
So why did I appear so calm that day? Because I was praying, quietly to myself, over and over again: Father, Father, Father. At other times I will pray the name of Jesus or the name Christ. Sometimes I find myself praying a short phrase, such as Come, Spirit.
This is not a mindless chant I practice in order to reach some higher spiritual plane. Just the opposite. I realize I’m on a low spiritual plane, and I am crying out for help like a little child who runs to his mother saying, “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy.” My heart is hunting for its true home. David captured the feel of the praying soul in Psalm 63:
O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you;
My flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (verse 1, ESV).
Why am I quietly crying out for help? My tendency to interrupt in staff meetings is a “dry and weary land.” When I feel my inner Barney Fife crying out for attention, I pray quietly, Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. Like Augustine, in his Confessions, my heart is restless, and I need to find my rest in God.
I’m at my worst when I’m passionate about a new idea. I can drift into selling instead of listening and can easily become dominating. My heart is a dry and weary land. But when I begin to pray, the energy of my life is directed into the life of God and not into changing people’s minds . . . and I shut up!
When someone shares an idea that was originally mine, I want to mention that I first thought of it. I feel unsettled, as if the universe is out of balance. In short, I want to boast. The only way to quiet my soul’s desire for prominence is to begin to pray: Apart from you I can do nothing.
Interrupting, selling, and boasting are just a few of the things that draw me into continuous prayer, into continual childlike dependence on my Father. Each of us has our own list. We can let it drive us into a praying life.
Poverty of Spirit, Not Discipline
I didn’t learn continuous prayer; I discovered I was already doing it. I found myself in difficult situations I could not control. All I could do was cry out to my heavenly Father. It happened often enough that it became a habit, a rut between my soul and God.
Even now I often don’t realize that I am praying. Possibly, it isn’t even me praying, but the Spirit. Paul said, “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!'” (Galatians 4:6). The Holy Spirit is not assisting us to pray; he is the one who is actually praying. He is the pray-er.
More specifically, it is the Spirit of his Son praying. The Spirit is bringing the childlike heart of Jesus into my heart and crying, Abba, Father. Jesus’ longing for his Father becomes my longing. My spirit meshes with the Spirit, and I too begin to cry, Father.
When Jesus prayed, most scholars think he regularly addressed his Father as abba. It is similar to our word papa. Their logic goes like this: We know the word abba because it burned itself on the disciples’ minds. They were so stunned–no one had ever spoken to God so intimately before–that when they told the Greek Christians about Jesus, they carried over the Aramaic abba word into the Greek translations of the Bible. This so shocked Paul that he used abba in both Romans and Galatians. Translators have continued the pattern set by the early disciples, and no matter what language Scripture is in, they still use abba.
This one-word prayer, Father, is uniquely Jesus’ prayer. His first recorded sentence at age 12 is about his father: “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49). Abba is the first word the prodigal son uttered when he returned home. It is the first word of the Lord’s Prayer, and it is the first word Jesus prayed in Gethsemane. It was his first word on the cross–“Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34) — and one of his last — “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46). Father was my first prayer as I began praying continuously, and I find that it is still my most frequent prayer.
I discovered myself praying simple two- and three-word prayers, such as Teach me or Help me, Jesus. The psalms are filled with this type of short bullet prayers. Praying simple one-word prayers or a verse of Scripture takes the pressure off because we don’t have to sort out exactly what we need. Paul told us, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). Often we are too weary to figure out what the problem is. We just know that life — including ours — doesn’t work. So we pray, Father, Father, Father.
This is the exact opposite of Eastern mysticism, which is a psychospiritual technique that disengages from relationship and escapes pain by dulling self. Eastern mystics are trying to empty their minds and become one with the nonpersonal “all.” But as Christians we realize we can’t cure ourselves, so we cry out to our Father, our primary relationship.
I was driving to work one day, thinking about all the options for a new three-year plan at work. The closer I got to the office, the more overwhelmed I became–I didn’t have the wisdom to sort through the options. The scripture “Lead me to the rock that is higher than I” (Psalm 61:2) came to mind, and I turned it into a simple prayer. I needed a rock higher than myself. That momentary poverty of spirit (I became overwhelmed . . . I didn’t have the wisdom) was the door to prayer. We don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; we just need to be poor in spirit. Poverty of spirit makes room for his Spirit. It creates a God-shaped hole in our hearts and offers us a new way to relate to others.
A praying spirit transforms how we look at people. As we walk through the mall, our hearts can tempt us to judge, despise, or lust. We see overweight people, skinny people, teenagers with piercings and tattoos, well-dressed women, security guards, and older people shuffling along. If we are tempted to judge an overweight person, we might pray that he or she loses weight. When we see a teenage girl with a nose ring, we can pray that she would find her community in Christ. When we see a security guard, we might pray for his career. When we pass an older couple shuffling along, we can pray for grace as they age.
Paul the apostle was constantly aware of his helplessness and the helplessness of the churches he loved — and so he prayed constantly.
Paul’s Example and Teaching
“Unceasing prayer” is Paul’s most frequent description of how he prayed and of how he wanted the church to pray. This was a real experience for Paul and not a formula. In the twelve times he mentioned continuous praying, he seldom said it the same way twice (emphasis added throughout):
• Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers. (Romans 1:9-10)
• I give thanks to my God always for you. (1 Corinthians 1:4)
• I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. (Ephesians 1:16)
• Praying at all times in the Spirit. (Ephesians 6:18)
• We have not ceased to pray for you. (Colossians 1:9)
• Continue steadfastly in prayer. (Colossians 4:2)
• Always struggling on your behalf in his prayers. (Colossians 4:12)
• Constantly mentioning you in our prayers. (1 Thessalonians 1:2)
• We also thank God constantly for this. (1 Thessalonians 2:13)
• As we pray most earnestly night and day. (1 Thessalonians 3:10)
• We always pray for you. (2 Thessalonians 1:11)
• I remember you constantly in my prayers night and day. (2 Timothy 1:3)
When Paul told the young churches to pray, he encouraged them in this same pattern of “constant in prayer”:
• Be constant in prayer. (Romans 12:12)
• Pray without ceasing. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
Given Paul’s emphasis, it is not surprising to see examples of continual prayer in the early church.
The Jesus Prayer
The Greek Orthodox Church still uses a simple fifth-century prayer sometimes called the Prayer of Jesus: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner (see the Philokalia, Vol. 4). The Orthodox tradition calls short prayers like this “breath prayers” because they can be spoken in a single breath.
The earliest version of this prayer came from a blind beggar named Bartimaeus, who cried out as Jesus was passing by, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” (Luke 18:38). If you add Paul’s Philippian hymn, “confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:11), you’ve got the Jesus Prayer. From the beginning, this prayer was used continuously. When the crowd shushed Bartimaeus, “he cried out all the more” (Luke 18:39). He must have been shouting at the top of his lungs because three of the gospels mention his loud persistence!
My wife, Jill, has her own version of the Jesus Prayer. When we walk the dogs together on Sunday morning, we pass by an incredibly neat house with a well-manicured lawn. It is especially entertaining in the fall, when both the husband and the wife run around with a shoulder-pack leaf blower, chasing individual leaves. With her German heritage, Jill feels the pressure to obsess over neatness. As we walk by this immaculate house, she’ll start praying repeatedly, God, save me from myself. God, save me from myself.
When our kids were teenagers, Jill asked me, “Do you know what our family needs most?” Lots of things came to mind, including a newer car. Her one-word answer took me completely by surprise: “mercy.” We didn’t need to get more organized. We didn’t need more money. We needed mercy. That mindset creates a praying heart.
A praying life isn’t simply a morning prayer time. It’s about slipping into prayer at odd hours of the day — and not because we are disciplined. We are in touch with our own poverty of spirit, realizing that we can’t even walk through a mall or our neighborhood without the help of the Spirit of Jesus.
It’s hard to relax. We’re in an uncomfortable place right now. The future is unclear. Our leaders are not all stable. And the world economy is in flux. But God. He’s our anchor. His love never changes and we know that when we pray, it helps calm our heavy hearts and anxiety about the uncertainty of it all. Below you’ll find a compilation of two-minute podcast shorts by Dr. Melvin E. Banks, founder of UMI, on prayer. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of issues and topics. So, turn the ringer off on your phone, find a quiet place, be still, and listen.
Today is Ash Wednesday, the day which marks the beginning of Lent for many in the Christian tradition. Thereafter, for 40-plus days, many will observe a period of prayer, almsgiving, and fasting from things ranging from certain types of food and television to shopping and social media. The fasting portion of Lent is what most people focus on and what people abstain from usually depends on what it is they believe is hindering their relationship with God. Most aren’t afraid to share what they will abstain from for Lent, but Lenten waters are sometimes muddied by that sharing. It is as if Lent is the new black and it is fashionable to rattle off the list of things you are giving up in order to gain the esteem of your colleagues–Christian or not. Some critics of this approach have compared it to a “benchmark for righteousness.” Stories have been published ad nauseum about the so-called “Lent trap” and I’ve noticed that, increasingly, my social media news feed is filling up with people throwing symbolic punches by way of status updates aimed at those who decide to share what it is they are fasting from. Yet no one is free from the Lent trap, not the person who makes a list and shouts it twice or the person who chin checks the person who makes the list. In both cases, the people are being boastful either about what they are giving up or the fact that they have reached a pious peak that is above stooping to the perceived valleys of talking about what they will give up.
All of this conversation must be muted for the sake of upholding the sanctity and penitent nature of this upcoming season. A season where we are all faced with the same reminder, “Remember that thou art dust, and to dust thou shalt return”(Genesis 3:19). And we are all told, “Repent, and believe the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). Whether you are one who proudly proclaims what you have given up for Lent or one who proclaims how Lent should be done in light of your revelation about the vanity of proclaiming what you will give up, the Ash Wednesday lectionary text teaches us all a lesson about the performance of piety.
Matthew 6:1-4 says,
“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven. “So whenever you give alms do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Here Jesus is contrasting the piety of the hypocrites to the piety rewarded by the Father in heaven. This piety is inward and requires the individual to do pious acts in private, which was not something the Pharisees were doing at the time. On the topic of almsgiving, Jesus warned his followers that they weren’t to alert the masses to giving alms by way of trumpet blowing, they were to give their alms in secret and their heavenly Father, who sees in secret, will reward them. In the same way, we are called to such a quietness in service so as not to draw attention to ourselves but to draw attention to God. This scripture also introduces us to two phrases that will repeat two more times throughout Ash Wednesday’s text, “Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.” And “…your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Jesus continues by talking about prayer. Of this he says,
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:5-6, NRSV).
Again Jesus warns of doing pious acts in the public eye and reminds followers that their Father “who is in secret and sees in secret will reward” them. In the case of prayer, followers are not to stand in the public places where they can be seen nor should they “heap up empty phrases as Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.” Instead he tells them to pray the prayer that we have come to know as the Lord’s Prayer. In this way there is no room for bloviating, only God-oriented thanksgiving and petition. This concern about prayer turns the act from outward posturing to inward connection.
Matthew 6:16-18, is the linchpin of the Lenten season, in it Jesus says,
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matthew 6:16-18, NRSV).
At once this scripture appears to contradict the spirit of the Lenten season. It seems to go against remembering mortality, humility, and penitence in exchange for putting on a happy face. But it isn’t a contradiction. Actually, the text focuses on three of the several disciplines of Lent; almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. In this particular text, Jesus is encouraging followers to let none be the wiser when they are fasting. By telling his followers not to look dismal or disfigure their faces he is telling them not to draw attention to themselves. They are supposed to keep the same countenance as if they weren’t fasting and let the act be about what is going on inside of them, not what they display on the outside. We too can learn from this teaching during this season, the lesson being that what we choose to fast from or how we choose to observe Lent in general is not something we proclaim to the masses lest we miss the point.
In Psalm 51, David gives us further direction about our posture during this season when he says, “You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.” Again we are faced with the secret nature of our search for God which is connected to our inward being and caring for our inward selves. Our participation in Lent is for our relationship with God “the Father who is in secret and who sees in secret.” What we choose to do is between God and us and need not be shared. Granted, we can find accountability when we share what we are abstaining from with a close circle of friends, but what we choose to do in this season is really no one’s business but our own and God’s.
By keeping our lists secret or keeping our judgement secret from those who announce their lists we open ourselves all the more to what God wants to do in our lives during this season. In doing this we open ourselves to God’s reward and that is the point of it all.
Do you participate in Lent? What does this period of reflection and sacrifice mean to you? Share your thoughts below.