Football season has kicked off. Besides all the fanaticism that accompanies American football (or sports in general), there’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me: the inclination of athletes to pray before, during or after their games. What makes us think that God cares about our silly competitions? I mean doesn’t God have more important things to concern himself with?
Well I’ve been doing some reading on prayer lately–not just because of football–but because I need some renewal there. Often when I need revival in prayer, I will go to my books. And the past few weeks I’ve been dabbling in a few books on prayer. One of those is Tim Keller’s book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God. In chapter three he discusses the amazing breadth of style and practice of prayer across the world. He writes:
“Prayer presents a dizzying variety to the eye of the observer. Just look at the religious trance of Native American shamanists; the changing in Benedictine monasteries; devotees doing yoga in Manhattan offices; the hour-long pastoral prayers of the seventeenth-century Puritan ministers; speaking in tongues in Pentecostal churches; Muslims engaging in sujud, with forehead, hands and knees on the ground toward Mecca; Hasidim swaying and bowing in prayer; and the Anglican priest reading from the Book of Common Prayer.”1
At the end of this his very broad survey of prayer he manages to find a “common thread”: prayer is a communicative response to an individual’s knowledge of God.
A couple big things strike me about his definition:
First, that it’s a response. If prayer is a response it implies that God has somewhere spoken; that God has initiated conversation. Prayer is a response to that. We Christians of course believe that God has spoken in the two “books” of nature and the Bible. Prayer is a response to God’s communication through nature and through his word.
The second thing I find very interesting about his definition of prayer is that prayer is something that grows out of a knowledge of God. Often it seems that we make the mistake of driving a wedge between our prayer life and the life of our minds. We tend to think of prayer as purely a spiritual thing or a heart thing. But if Keller is right then prayer is something that depends upon our understanding. That the manner, form, experience and quality of our prayer life hinges in a way upon what we think or know of God.
Another book I’ve been reading on prayer is John Bunyan’s book creatively titled “Prayer.” He too addresses the role of the understanding in prayer following the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 14 verses 3, 4, 12, 19, 24, and 25. Bunyan writes:
“It is expedient…that the understanding should be occupied in prayer, as well as the heart and mouth: ‘I will pray with the Spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.’ That which is done with understanding, is done more effectually, sensibly, and heartily…than that which is done without it; which made the apostle pray for the Colossians, that God would fill them ‘with the knowledge of his will, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding’ (Col. 1:9). And for the Ephesians, that God would give unto them ‘the spirit of wisdom and revelation, in the knowledge of him’ (Eph. 1:17). And so for the Philippians, that God would make them abound ‘in knowledge, and in all judgment’ (Phil. 1:9). A suitable understanding is good in everything a man undertakes, either civil or spiritual; and therefore it must be desired by all them that would be a praying people.” 2
Whether or not God really cares about who wins a football game is still up for debate, but one thing is for sure: we wouldn’t pray on the field if we didn’t think that God takes some kind of an interest in sports.
My life is one of contradictions. I’m a southern boy living in northern New England; a boring guy married to super-fun girl; a conservative pastor in a progressive Christian denomination; a changed man in need of change; a sinner loved by a holy and perfect God.