Are original, spontaneous prayers the only prayers that come “from the heart”? Why do many Christians look down upon recited or written prayers as inferior?
In a recent sermon I mentioned this aversion to “recited prayers” and preference for so-called prayers that come “from the heart.” I think this phenomenon is very new and modern, and is a departure from the way Christians have prayed throughout most of history. I suggested that if we only pray when we “feel like it” then our faith rises and falls on our our whims and fluctuating moods. Wouldn’t it be better to douse our weary and fickle minds with regular buckets of Kingdom truth? And where better to find those overflowing buckets than in the Scriptures or great prayers of the saints?
Richard Foster, the dean of spiritual formation and experienced guide into a deeper prayer life, tells how one of the most liberating experiences of his life was when he learned to pray “so that my experience conformed to the words of Jesus rather than trying to make his words conform to my impoverished experience.” I suggested in my sermon last week that we let the prayer Jesus taught us be a starting point.
Similarly, Scot McKnight offers the Lord’s Prayer as a means by which we can reorder our desires and begin to share God’s yearning for his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. Note also how the structure of the Lord’s Prayer follows the “Jesus Creed”, that is, the two greatest commands to love God and love others:
“In the Lord’s Prayer our desires are reordered into the ways of God and the ways of the Kingdom….I stand with those who see in the Lord’s Prayer an essential guide to the message and mission of Jesus…his prayer expresses the heart of Jesus’ kingdom vision… We learn in the recitation, memorization, and repetition of this prayer to year for God’s glory and for God’s name to be held in highest honor, and we learn to long for God’s kingdom (not ours) and for God’s will (not ours) to be done. Then we learn to year and ache for the good of others. We yearn that each person will have sufficient food, that each person will find reconciliation with God through forgiveness of sins, and that each person will be protected and preserved by God’s grace from the snares of temptations and the grasps of evil (or the evil one). When we are done, our desires have been reordered to God and to others, and in having those desires we find ourselves as God made us to be: beings to have proper loves, that is, love for God and love for others” (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 191).
McKnight also reminds us that the early church, shaped by Jewish practice of reciting Shema prayer three times daily, began reciting this prayer regularly (probably 3 times each day). For those who poo-poo recitational prayer as “not from the heart,” or worse, empty or “vain repetition”, McKnight challenges us to get back to the ancient practice and let Jesus’ great prayer begin to stir up a stronger yearning for the Kingdom in our lives!
So, let us pray: Our Father, who art in Heaven…