Congratulations, you’ve volunteered to join the first-ever exploration of Neptune. All your friends (both of them) think you are insane, and they may be right. After all, it takes 12 years even to get to Neptune and that is if you don’t get lost and have to stop for directions along the way! In any case, you’re going. NASA is very excited, but concerned about space boredom (there is only one other passenger). They have graciously allowed you to take ten books (your Kindle is nearly filled with books on how to survive if you crash into an asteroid). So, here’s my question: what ten books would you bring? (That’s right, this blog has suddenly become an “ice breaker” question.) NASA is also allowing you to bring ten small items from home. What ten items would you bring? They are also allowing you to bring ten prayers with you. What ten prayers would you bring?
Now, don’t go all Treasure of the Sierra Madre on me with your, “Prayers? We ain’t got no written prayers! We don’t need no written prayers. I don’t have to take any stinkin’ written prayers!” And don’t complain that you already know how to pray and would rather use the space left on your Kindle for the latest JK Rowling novel (Harry Becomes a Newt) than have to take some dusty old and useless prayer book. But let me just remind you of a few facts.
First, without a doubt, prayer is one of the most important things we can do as a Christ follower. But don’t take my word for it. Two quotes prove it. First, from St. Augustine: “What can be more excellent than prayer; what is more profitable to our life; what is sweeter to our souls; what is more sublime, in the course of our whole life, than the practice of prayer!” And second, from Martin Luther: “As it is the business of tailors to make clothes and the business of cobblers to mend shoes, so it is the business of Christians to pray!” Still not convinced? Two more quotes really prove my point. First, from St. Augustine: “He that loves little, prays little; he that loves much, prays much.” And second, from Martin Luther: “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.” In short, prayer is essential to our spiritual lives. We can’t claim that we are Christ followers if we do not accompany that claim with a life of prayer.
Second, the truth is, even though we all agree that prayer is absolutely essential and the very life-blood of a Christ-follower, we still don’t pray. And that means we need all the help we can get. It doesn’t matter if our problem in praying is mental-drift, a lack of time, boredom, doubt, or whatever; we all need help. But this is nothing new. Prayer has been and always will be hard. That’s why Jesus gives us the Lord’s Prayer. That’s why we have Paul’s prayers. That’s why we have the Psalms. That’s why the church has blessed us with the Book of Common Prayer and many other great prayer books because everyone knows, when it comes to prayer, we need help. But this is not a new problem. I’ve always been struck by the disciples’ request of Jesus in Luke 11, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.” We think that is an odd question. After all, if anyone knew how to pray, it was first century Jews! But they asked for help. Maybe they knew something about prayer that we don’t.
Third, there is another problem. We (all of us) are addicted to self-love. As a result, our prayers are often infected with selfishness designed to advance our selfish interests. And when that happens, we may be going through the motions, but we are not praying. Bonhoeffer says this better than anyone else:
“But it is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself. For then, we confuse wishes, hopes, sighs, laments, rejoicings–all of which the heart can do by itself–with prayer. And we confuse earth and heaven, man and God. Prayer does not mean simply to pour out one’s heart. It means rather to find the way to God and to speak with him, whether the heart is full or empty. No man can do that by himself. For that he needs Jesus Christ.”
Now, granted, to be fair to Bonhoeffer, he was arguing that since we are selfish, the prayers of Scripture need to guide and mold our prayers; but I do not think he would object to prayer books if those prayers were shaped by the prayers, promises and theology of the Bible.
Last, the fact is, prayer is hard because it is contrary to our own nature. Back to Bonhoeffer: “If we are to pray aright, perhaps it is quite necessary that we pray contrary to our own heart. Not what we want to pray is important, but what God wants us to pray.” It is, unfortunately, true: I pray for what I want. Even worse, I don’t even know that I’m praying for selfish reasons.
All that to say, we need someone to mentor us and to walk with us as we pray to keep us on track. So, please when you are heading out to Neptune, take some prayers with you. But what ten prayers should you take? In this blog series, I would like to provide you with ten prayers that I think are worthy of your consideration as you go to Neptune or go throughout your day; ten prayers that I believe are extremely helpful and even necessary for us if we are serious about growing in grace. Winfield Bevinis says, “Constant prayer is the key to the Christian life.” And for me, that means using written prayers, prayers that have been tested and tried in the fire of actual people’s lives for centuries, prayers that spur me on to think deeply about what I am saying and prayers that steer me clear of selfishness and pride. See, when it comes to prayer, I need all the help I can get. And perhaps the most help I need is in the area of confession of sin.
Let me wrap up this post, by giving you the first of my ten prayers which happens to be one of the greatest prayers in the whole Book of Common Prayer. It is a prayer of confession; and doubtless, you have prayed it many, many times. But for me, it never grows old. We’ll talk more about it next time, but for now I will let this prayer speak for itself.
Most merciful God,
We confess that we have sinned against you
In thought, word, and deed,
By what we have done,
And by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
We are truly sorry, and we humbly repent.
For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,
Have mercy on us and forgive us,
That we may delight in your will
And walk in your ways,
To the glory of your name. Amen.
Here’s the point: On your twelve-year trip to Neptune, with only one other person in your spaceship, you’re going to do a lot of sinning. You’re going to need this prayer. Here’s my advice: Don’t leave Earth without it.