Last night at Kilmallie Free Church we heard David Robertson’s appeal, made in his General Assembly address, for a renewal of prayer – or ‘Upreach’ as he quite cleverly called it. Afterwards, I was talking about prayer with someone, and how hard it can be to find time to pray. With our own Church Night project in its infancy, next week will see our first ‘Church Night Prayer’ meeting (we also have ‘Church Night Together’ and ‘Church Night Bible Study’ formats).
With all this in mind, I wanted to share some of Frederick Dale Bruner’s comments on prayer from his commentary on Matthew’s Gospel. Bruner is dealing with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 6:5-15. Jesus sets up two Anti-Rules for prayer:
- Don’t Pray for Show. When Jesus tells his disciples to lock the door in the room where they pray, he’s making a striking point. The supply room was the only lockable room on poor Palestinian farms. That was the room used to store feed, small animals, tools. It wasn’t just private, it was ‘the least sanctified place in the house’! The point is not the ‘room’, but that any place where a Christian finds privacy to pray is sanctified. Not the Holy of Holies, but the room with a lock!
- Don’t Go On and On. In pagan religion, a deity had to be primed to receive prayer. The worshipper must prove his sincerity by time in confession, silence or other preliminaries. Bruner is characteristically frank:
This belief de-deifies God by making him a grudging Giver and it dehumanizes persons by turning them into beasts of burden. Jesus attacks the "much" conception of prayer as unworthy of both God and human beings. By "muchism" God becomes a taskmaster and people monkeys. 1.289
The Father is not a reluctant listener (and at this point Bruner criticises Calvin’s treatment of prayer for carrying the idea of ‘preparatory rites’). Rather, he prefers Luther’s comment on this very verse: that prayers should be “brief, frequent and intense”. If we think we ‘must’ pray long prayers, we will pray less.
The paradox of prayer is that only when it is relieved of the necessity of much will people experience the freedom for much. When disciples know they don't have to pray much, they will, surprisingly, desire to pray more…. Few facts encourage prayer like release from the burden of having to pray much to get through. 1.289
These Anti-Rules paint a picture of prayer as a private conversation with a living person, not just formulas trotted out. If we always use the same phrases in prayer, what kind of conversation is that? We wouldn’t get away with it with our friends or family! Private conversations require a level of privacy, but that can occur anywhere in life. They require time, but not huge blocks. God the Father is always ready to listen to his children. We don’t have to fight for his attention.
‘Jesus turns prayer once more into children’s conversation with their father’ (Bruner quotes Schweitzer, 1.289).