Thursday, May 12, 2016

Thoughts About Thoughts and Prayer

(From the May 12, 2016 edition of the Grand Haven Tribune)

One week ago, May 5, was the National Day of Prayer for 2016. This formalized event was established in 1952 by an act of Congress that the United States set aside a day each year, other than Sunday, as a National Day of Prayer.

In 1988 President Reagan signed a bill designating specifically the first Thursday in May as the official day. A decade later, in 1998, President Clinton signed a law stipulating that the president issue a proclamation each year in association with this day that the people may (not must) turn to God in prayer in churches, in groups, and as individuals.

It seems that tax day grabbed more attention. For all the presidential and federal government involvement, the National Day of Prayer seems to have come and gone.

That may be in part because of the nature of the government and prayer. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution covers it—we don’t need the government’s permission to pray nor may he government compel people to do so. So this national day is more ceremonial and symbolic than legal.

The people’s reaction to this day is no doubt varied. Some who do not pray regularly probably shrug at a national day designated for that purpose, if they notice at all. Those who do pray regularly probably pray quietly on the national day the same way they do all the other days of the year. Hence, there is no great attention given to the day, at least in public.
            
concerns citizens, especially in the climate of world events and our current presidential election campaigns. We need to pray for the country, and many believers know that God speaks to this as recorded in 2 Chronicles 7:14: “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” That’s a solid encouragement to pray for the nation.

But I am also somewhat dubious about a national day of prayer, in the sense that we should probably pray on more than one day. In fact, the Apostle Paul encouraged early Christians to “pray continually” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). That may seem extreme or impossible. After all, we need to go to work, shop for groceries, sleep and so on. But the meaning if not literal is clear: consider prayer something done all the time, not just in designated days or situations.

I have certainly learned this in the past few years. Since my wife’s diagnosis with cancer more than four years ago, I have prayed more, and in more places, than ever before. This past year a small group I am part of in my church read and discussed a great book about prayer that I would highly recommend: “A Praying Life” by Paul Miller. As a lifelong Christian who thought I understood prayer, I must confess I learned a lot.

For one thing, I noticed there are different attitudes about prayer. I became sensitive to hearing people say things like “thinking of you” or “sending positive thoughts your way.” What is that? I think people who say that mean they don’t want the person they are addressing to feel alone or despair.

Other people mention prayer specifically, but one wonders if it is a casual off-hand comment in order to move past discussion of something difficult. For example, “I’ll pray for you” can be a comfort but it can also be a way to bring closure to a conversation.

By comparison, I learned from some impressive people that prayer does not have to be deferred for later. If these people are talking to someone about a difficult situation, they just pray right there in the car, the hallway, the restaurant or wherever.

I also learned that prayer can and even should be “messy.” You don’t have to be a suave orator or brilliant writer to offer an effective prayer. Prayer is spilling your heart. It is not, however, a wish list or God’s vending machine. In other words, prayer is not all about asking and getting instant gratification. God has a plan and His own timing.

That was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Prayer isn’t about jobs, health and personal needs. It’s not about other people. It’s about your own heart, and getting closer to God, having a relationship with Him instead of a mere abstract concept.


At the end of the day, prayer teaches us to see God as a father. As such, we do not use prayer for just asking Him for things, but spending time together. Praying should be seen not as a burden or obligation, but a rich privilege and relief. It is not a last resort but a first instinct. Prayer is not the result of a periodic government proclamation, but a constant Godly invitation.