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.
CHAMPION OF CHANGE: Thabiti Boone gave up a promising basketball career to be the kind of father he never had.
On June 13, the White House Office of Public Engagement and Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships honored ten new “Champions of Change” who do outstanding work in the field of fatherhood. They join Thabiti Boone, a previous Champion and supporter of President Obama’s White House Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative.
Boone is a college basketball hall of famer who gave up a promising career when he took responsibility for his newborn daughter as a college student. He is the International Representative for Omega Psi Phi Fraternity Fatherhood and Mentoring Initiative, a fatherhood adviser to the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation and the Fathers and Men of Professional Basketball Players, and a former New York Theological Seminary adjunct professor. UrbanFaith talked to Boone about his work with fathers and his own experience and legacy as a father. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
UrbanFaith: You work with various organizations on the issue of fatherhood. What are the key principles that you share with men about being a good father?
Thabiti Boone: I’ve always shared from my own personal background that being a father is one of the greatest joys that any man can have. I tell fathers, “The first principle is that principle of love and connection, knowing that this child who came from you and who you helped create, will always be a part of who you are and the legacy of what you stand for.” A lot of times fathers get caught up in being defined as providers, but the greatest principle is that it’s almost like a spiritual gift from God that allows a man to become a father, and so when he has a child, it’s the most beautiful blessing that a man can have.
You became a father unexpectedly in college and took your daughter to school with you. What motivated you to give up your basketball dreams to care for her?
That was life changing for me. My mom got pregnant at 13 and my dad was an older guy who wasn’t sure whether he wanted to be a father or not, so my circumstances could have come at the hands of a judge who decided that these two parents were not in a position to parent me. But my grandmother took responsibility for me. Knowing my fate could have been different because my dad questioned whether or not he wanted to be a father made me never want to be in a position to question my fatherhood of a child I produced. My dad was physically there, but I never really had the kind of father/son relationship that I felt would have benefited both of us. And so, I knew that if I ever became a father, no matter what age, I was going to be the kind of father that I know my dad wanted to be, but just couldn’t be. I wanted to be the kind of father that so many young black males growing up in my neighborhood didn’t have. I wanted to break that cycle and be the best father that I could be.
Growing up in a neighborhood where I didn’t see many hopes, dreams, aspirations, or male role models, I also knew that if I ever made it out of the streets of Brooklyn, I would not only raise a daughter and family, but I would become a mentor and role model of what it is to be a man. That was another motivating force, because even when my father wasn’t around, I was still searching, trying to identify who can take the place of my father. I didn’t have much success with that until I met my high school coach.
The last piece that was very, very motivating is when I almost lost my mother through her attempted suicide. At the age of 12, I watched my mother jump off the rooftop of a tenement building where we lived. I knew my father had something to do with that. My mother lost self-esteem, faced depression, had a nervous breakdown, and had to head a single-parent family, and she reached the breaking point. So I knew I wanted to be the kind of son and father that would never bring that kind of pain into a woman’s life. I didn’t want to disappoint my mother. I didn’t want to disappoint my grandmother, and I didn’t want disappoint myself.
EASTER AT THE WHITE HOUSE: Thabiti Boone revels in his fatherhood legacy with his daughter and grandsons.
When I did become a teenage father, I didn’t want to start making excuses like other dads make, or whatever the reasons that prevent them from being fathers. Enough had occurred in my life for me to say, “You know what? I can be inspired and motivated to really, really conquer this thing and hit this thing head on.” And so, every time I looked at and dealt with my daughter Kim, I knew that nothing was more important to me than being the greatest dad I could be. Nothing was more important to me than trying to live up to that principle of God giving me a gift to confront me with everything I’d gone through and everything that was against me. This was actually related back into fatherhood. God said, “Okay here’s your turn. Now are you going to choose basketball as your reason like a lot of fathers have chosen different reasons why they’re not in their child’s life, or are you going to step up like a true basketball player, like a true champion, and take on this thing and make whatever sacrifices you need to make to make this thing happen?” In my spirit, in my little teenage mind, I said, “I have to turn this paradigm around.” I think the way I’m living now would not have occurred if I would have denied my daughter. Becoming a dad closed the gap.
What keeps men from being the kind of dads that their children need them to be?
Several things are barriers. So many fathers are coming from this cycle of father absence in their own lives that you have generations of fathers who don’t have fathers. They become fathers and there’s no compass and action plan. By the time they become dads, they don’t have the proper tools or the emotional wherewithal to be able to come into fatherhood the right way.
As we’ve been going around the country talking to dads, a lot of them deep down really want to be dads, emotionally, but they’re stuck with their own hurt of fathers who have rejected them and have not been in their lives. They bring that pain into their relationship as they become fathers to their own children and this cycle just keeps viciously going. And so, one of things we’re trying to do is assist fathers with how to overcome their own personal challenges around fatherhood in their own lives.
The second barrier comes from employment. One of the biggest responsibilities a father has to his family and children is economic. You have to provide for them and make sure they have the things that they need to prosper. A lot of fathers, especially in the African American and Hispanic communities, don’t have a proper job and background, and it really presents a serious challenge for them in meeting that financial responsibility. That’s why a lot of father programs and government programs are geared around helping fathers get jobs. If we can continue to help dads with skill development and education, it will allow them to meet the financial responsibility of their children.
I know what it feels like when you can’t provide. When I was in college as a basketball player, I saw that my daughter needed Pampers and milk, so I started to develop a little low self-esteem because I couldn’t give her those things. I felt better when I took my scholarship money and income from part-time jobs to give her things that she needed. If fathers can get that kind of assistance, it would be a great self-esteem boost for them in terms of that barrier.
The last thing is how fathers are received. We have to start asking: How do we define fathers and what is that definition based on? Do we continue to beat up on them and call them “dead-beats” and irresponsible, or do we do more to analyze and understand what is making our fathers who they are and what is causing father absence? Having that conversation really helps dads to know that there is some common ground and that society is not saying to them, “You’re worthless and inconsequential,” but instead, “You’re needed.”
What we’re finding in this fatherhood movement, whether it’s in my work with Allan Houston or with President Obama, is that celebrating dads and giving them the benefit of the doubt that they can do it if they step up does a lot to help them in their overall commitment to their children.
Do you think President Obama would be as passionate about fatherhood if hadn’t had an absentee father himself?
One of the things he has shared at the White House both publicly and with us that work with him is that if he was not the president, he still would feel the importance of this issue based on his personal challenge with his own dad. And so, I think he would still be as passionate about this issue and would do all that he can to support it even if he wasn’t the president. With all the things that he has going on as president, the fact that he still feels the need to have this initiative says a lot about what he thinks about this issue.
In an interview with Yahoo! Sports last year, your daughter, who is a married nurse with two sons of her own, said you are a “real man who stepped up to the plate.” In that same interview, you said that the fact that your grandsons have not know poverty or tragedy is your legacy. You traded the potential to have a professional basketball career for this legacy. How do they compare?
People like Allan Houston, who was one of the greatest players in the NBA and has a wonderful foundation that addresses the issue of fatherhood, would have no interest in having me advise and assist him on the issue of fatherhood if he didn’t respect what I did with my own daughter. The same thing is true of the president, other NBA players, and people that I work with in other walks of life. We can be remembered for how great we were on the court, but basketball is only going to be in our lives for a certain amount of time. What we do to impact our families as fathers and to impact society as fathers and men, that’s the lasting legacy.
My choice was: Do I want Kim to say, “My dad used to be a pretty good ball player,” or do I want her to say, “My dad will always be remembered for the fact that I was more important that anything in this world.” And so, when I see my grandsons, who are growing up in a two-parent home, never having experienced what I’ve experienced, with two loving parents, I cannot beat that kind of legacy. Going back to what I said earlier about the generational challenge around father absence, God forbid my two grandsons ever know what that feels like, because their grandfather took on the challenge to eliminate and then bring into their life a legacy of father presence through my son-in-law.
I’m proud to have been in the basketball hall of fame as a college player, and I’m proud of my success and all my accomplishments, but nothing compares to the feedback that I get from what I’ve done in terms of being a father. I would not trade all that other stuff in for the world. I will forever be known as the guy who stood up and stepped up when fatherhood really wasn’t that popular back in 1984.
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