Why do we pray? We’ve spent some time thinking about Who we are talking to and where the conversation takes place. This is the next logical question. Your answer may change over time; I know that mine has.
When I was small, I prayed because I was supposed to. I went to Sunday school, and we prayed. We were taught how to pray at bedtime, before meals, and, especially, in a big group once a week. I had no grasp of theology, and while I felt certain that God was around there somewhere and that the process was a positive one, that was about it. You’re supposed to floss once a day, you should always say "please" and "thank you," and you pray. Effectual prayer requires conscious involvement of head and heart, however, which may be the reason why my prayers for a functional Batmobile never really panned out.
As I grew, and my world got exponentially bigger too, I became increasingly aware that the world was a scary place, full of things I could not control. Children of the 1970’s weren’t shielded to any real degree; at a pretty early age were were told that wars were happening all over the place, that the gas necessary to take us to the toy store was messing up the environment, that the wrappers from our candy bars were making Iron Eyes Cody cry. The more I felt that the Bad Guys might be real but Batman might not be, the more I moved into a different paradigm for prayer. Obligation gave way to fear.
I was fortunate enough to be raised with the idea that God loved me. I was never afraid of God. On the contrary, I was pretty sure He was my only real ally in a scary world. I might not know what my parents, or OPEC, or my first-grade teacher Ms. Debbie were all about, but God had my back. That said, fear is fear, no matter what the object is, and prayer is a terrific magnifier.
Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering. (Matthew 5:23-24, NASB)
Jesus teaches us to make a pure offering, and to be pure of heart when we make it. Religious tradition is full of rituals and practices designed to support that idea. But why? God is not petty, can not be offended, and is not fooled. We don’t do the things we do when we enter a holy place in order to make it nice for God; God is just as present in the parking lot or across town as He is in the front row of the sanctuary. We do what we do because whatever we take into our sacred time is magnified. You get more of whatever you place on the altar. A fear-based prayer isn’t going to make fear go away. Don’t try that one at home, kids.
A lot of people pray because they want something. I’ve been there, for sure. I’ve prayed with the idea that God was like Santa Claus or a freshly-released genie, and that the goal of the prayer process was acquisition. Strangely enough, that approach never worked very well. Either nothing would happen at all or, occasionally, I’d get the thing I wanted only to find out that it didn’t make me any better, smarter, or happier.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting things. I have a prodigious Amazon Wish List myself. But the toys on that list can’t become the reason I do what I do. I dream about Water and Stone having its own building. I can see it when I close my eyes. But the moment I start caring more about the number of chairs in the sanctuary than I do about serving God and inspiring change, this stops being a church.
Manifestiation is fine, but it’s a byproduct. If it becomes the goal, the prayer process gets short-circuited. If my goal is acquisition, or attraction, or manifestation, or hoarding, all of which are synonymous to some extent, I’ve added an element of distance to my worldview. I cannot really believe that God is right here, nearer than hands and feet, if I also believe that I’m supposed to "attract" my good to me or "send" it someplace else. The distance idea is just as dysfunctional as the fear idea, and is just as detrimental to the prayer process. That’s not why we pray. If God already knows what I need before I ask (Matthew 6:8), what’s the point of using my prayer time to read Him a shopping list?
My Jenny is an incredible cook, as you probably know. While I may outwardly resemble a grown man, one of my greatest joys remains the possibility that I might at some point be invited into the kitchen to lick a spoon. What can I say?
The icing-covered spoon is a byproduct of a greater process. If I only hung around our house because I wanted to be a human dishwasher, it wouldn’t be much of a marriage. If Jenny only cooked to have something to put on a spoon, the process would be compromised. Besides, part of the reason she makes such amazing food is that she does everything with love. The finished dish isn’t even the goal, really. It has instead to do with care, service, friendship, and love. Or, put another way, and as long as we’re talking about baked goods,
But He answered and said, “It is written, ‘man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.'” (Matthew 4:4, NASB)
For prayer to work, it can’t be transactional. Transactions require at least two parties, and the name of the game here is oneness. Manifestation happens naturally, effortlessly, as a byproduct of being conscious of the presence of God and the right relationship of source, channel, and destination. You and I are the second part of that trinity.
Give us this day our daily bread. (Matthew 6:11, NASB)
What we have comes from God. It may pass through all kinds of intermediaries, and we ought to be grateful for (and even celebrate) each of them, but this part of our Lord’s Prayer is a reminder to focus on God as Source.
Bread is a powerful, accessible, symbol of the process. Human effort certainly has a part to play in the process; there’s planting, harvesting, grinding, baking, eating, and so on. But the truly important steps are mystical. The growth of the plant, the leavening of the dough, the magical thing that happens when heat is applied, and so on, are in God’s hands. The life-giving transformation that happens when we consume that universal foodstuff and let it become part of us is Spirit in action.
We’re told that when Jesus fed the multitudes, He blessed the bread and broke it (Matthew 14:19). Symbolically, this represents breaking through the crust of outer appearances and into an acknowledgement that the process of creation is a spiritual one. Let’s carry that same idea into our prayers. When we know that we are neither source nor destination, we can release any fears about tomorrow and give thanks for daily bread. Release requires forgiveness, however.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matthew 6:12, NASB)
By now you know that this isn’t really about money. We’ve just gotten done talking about materialism as a besides-the-point issue. Jesus isn’t slipping out of a prayer class and into an Econ 101 lecture. What we have here instead is the companion piece to the preceding idea. First, we acknowledged that God is the Source of all that is. Now, coming at this from the other side, we are removing any idea of absence or lack from our minds, hearts, and, yes, lives. If you carry the debt idea, the concept that there is room for a vacuum in your relationship with God, into your prayer time, you know what you’re going to get.
The proactive nature of this second part is really important. We start the process by removing the idea of absence, by forgiving our debtors, and then our debts are forgiven, too. It does not, and can not, work the other way around. It begins with you and me. Let’s make some room.