I’ve been praying since I could talk. I was never taught; never guided. I was simply told to have a conversation; to speak my requests. I’ve prayed for a new cabbage patch doll at Christmas time, acceptance into college, and for a miraculous A on a test I didn’t study for. I’ve prayed for jobs, for pregnancy and childbirth, for healthy children, for healing, and for safe travels.
I was certain if I prayed for something long enough, if I was diligent, if I asked enough people to pray with me, then my wishes would come true.
This worked so long as I was getting exactly what I wanted. But I began to see friends and family who weren’t. I prayed diligently with friends who weren’t finding jobs, who were doing all that they could, but were unable to feed their families. I prayed with friends whose pregnancies did not bring new life. I prayed with friends whose family did not experience healing, whose travels had tragic endings. I began to question how God could grant a little girl a new cabbage patch doll at Christmas, but not let a mother feel the relief of her child’s first cry.
I started studying prayer in scripture. As I did, I began to see the enormity of the gap between how I had understood prayer throughout my life and how prayer was demonstrated in scripture. As it turned out, when confronted with what I found, I realized I had never really understood the nature of prayer.
The prophets are filled with examples of God rebuking unjust religious behaviors. In Isaiah 58 the people were fasting, but exploiting their workers, quarreling with and abusing one another as they pretended to honor God. God says that this isn’t the kind of fast that he listens to. He does not dignify this behavior with a response. It’s no different than my own children expressing their love for me while they have their sibling pinned to the ground in the attempt to steal their toy.
God says in Isaiah 58:6, “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?” This verse is actually Jesus’ inaugural address in the Gospel of Luke. It is this scroll that Jesus is handed in the temple and the text that defines his mission. It follows nicely after Mary’s Song in Luke 1 which prophesies that her son will scatter the proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, sending the rich away empty, performing mighty deeds, lifting up the humble, filling the hungry. (Luke 1:46-55)
It doesn’t matter how impressive my religious acts are. God isn’t all that impressed by how many times I’ve read through my Bible, how often I fast, or how regularly I recite my bedtime prayers. While those are important things, they aren’t the point. Being a disciple isn’t about my religious acts nor is it about my self-righteous routines. In Isaiah 58:5 God says, “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?” At this point we don’t even give a day, rather a 140 character tweet expressing our prayers are with the hurting.
That’s it. A tweet. (You can read the political reaction to yesterday's mass shooting in San Bernadino here.) A modern day hypocrite praying on the street corner. Jesus says whoever does this, has already received their reward in full. In Amos 5, God says that he hates the religious festivals, he won’t accept the burnt offerings, nor will he listen to their songs. Instead, “let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!” (Amos 5:24)
Prayer is absolutely important, but it was never meant to be a passive substitute for our call to justice. It is not something to tack on to the end of the day. It is not a list of “honey do’s” for God to get done. God isn’t sitting up in the sky like a puppeteer, taking our requests into consideration as he makes the next move.
Jesus teaches us in the Lord’s Prayer to pray for God’s will to be done on earth as it is heaven. Jesus’ prayer is a way of life. It is an alternative pledge, declaring our allegiance to God’s kingdom and not the country we reside in. It removes us from political parties and divisive debates, so that we can be united in mission with and for the poor, the mourning, the meek, and those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. This prayer isn’t just something for us to recite on Sunday morning, but the Lord’s Prayer takes us to our feet to stand up against injustice in our world.
God isn’t a genie in a bottle, waiting to step in and grant our wishes. God is at work in this world, and has charged his followers to beat their swords into plowshares, turn their spears into pruning hooks and not to train for war anymore.(Micah 4:3) Prayer is a powerful way of life aligned with God’s kingdom. Prayer requires us to be aware of God’s movement in the world, and to be agents of God’s restorative justice.
May your prayers be actively seeking God’s will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.