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Hixon: Random Thoughts on Prayer...

Guest blog by Daniel McLain Hixon.

Daniel is a United Methodist pastor serving in Louisiana. He is an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church and he blogs at: Gloria Deo: Wesleyanglican ramblings.

He says of himself: “I am a disciple of Jesus who resonates with the way of discipleship of John Wesley and the early Methodists: a thoughtful, Biblical, and lively faith in Jesus Christ our Savior; a liturgical and sacramental piety in the Anglican tradition that is open to the movement of the Spirit; spiritual disciplines as the keys to opening our lives to God's manifold grace; an active faith that reaches out to others in witness and service; and a continuity with the classic catholic faith (the "mere Christianity") that has been held in all ages, in all cultures, by all the faithful. The United Methodist Church calls its heritage "catholic, evangelical, and reformed" and I seek to embody that in my life and ministry (including my blogging).”

This was posted at his blog April 23, 2012.

Have you ever wondered if God is pleased with the Church's prayers?

During my study and sermon prep time, I was recently reading the comments of the Early Church Fathers on the First Epistle of John, chapter 3 (using the
Ancient Christian Commentary on the Scripture). In his comment on verse 22, "the venerable" St. Bede of England quotes Proverbs 28:9, which reads:

When one will not listen to the Law, even one's prayers are an abomination. (NRSV)

The Book of Proverbs doesn't occur too much in the Revised Common Lectionary that many United Methodist pastors preach from, so as a group we may not read them often, which would be a shame.

Upon reading this, my first thought was, "Well, that is harsh and scary." But as I began to contemplate the passage, several things struck me. One who does not listen to God's law, God's word, yet presumes to pray is expecting God to listen to him, though he is in fact unwilling to listen to God. I immediately began thinking of a couple of people I know that are simply impossible to have a conversation with because they only talk and never listen. Each thing they say reminds them of something else they want to say, and they rarely if ever allow anyone else to speak. At some point, I find myself trying to avoid these people altogether. If you aren't willing to listen to me, why should I want to listen to you? This seems to be part of what the Spirit says through the Proverb.

The really deplorable thing, the likely reason that the word "abomination" is used, is that to refuse to listen to God's law while also expecting God to attend and answer one's prayers makes God into our slave, or even our vending machine. It is a way of approaching God as something less than God. Rather than the all-holy and transcendent One who is worthy of all our worship, adoration, devotion and trust, God becomes simply a commodity, a means of fulfilling our perceived spiritual (or material) "needs" and desires.

Which brings me back to my question. I have a hunch (though I've not done any polling) that in the American Church most individuals are far more likely to pray — particularly to ask for things in prayer — than we are to listen to God's Law by reading and meditating upon the Sacred Text. Now I realize that prayer is something that is more immediately accessible in every situation (for example, while driving), and I am not advocating some strict separation of the Spiritual disciplines (since prayer pervades them all). What I am really wondering is: Where is our heart? What is the basic desire and movement of our spirit: is it toward interaction and conversation with the Living God or is it using God as a commodity, presenting God with a wish list?

This actually reminds me of the 4-movement pattern described by
St. Bernard of Clairvaux of how people come to desire and grow in our love of God:

We begin, he says, in the natural or fallen state, loving self for self's sake. At some point we become aware of our needs — perhaps for spiritual strength or our need of forgiveness and eternal life, and we begin to try to love God...but for self's sake. We serve, worship, and pursue God in hopes of "getting something out of it" — heaven, happiness, an escape from death and hell, social acceptability, etc.

The third movement is this: as we try to draw near to God for selfish reasons, we may begin to discover that God is beautiful, holy, and Good. That God is supremely valuable and worthy of our trust and adoration. We begin, says Bernard, to love God for God's sake — not for anything we hope to attain from him, but simply for who he is. Once this deeper love of God has taken root in us, we can look with new eyes upon his Creation, and even upon ourselves as part of his Creation, and so we can begin to love ourselves for God's sake — to love what we are because we are created by and precious to God.

Most of us, myself included, no doubt have a long way to go in that journey. I suppose it is good to remember, as this selection from Proverbs has reminded me, that our truest need and deepest blessing is not anything that God can give us, but simply God himself.

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