It’s interesting to pay attention to conversations about prayer. Often it seems as though after many disclaimers about the importance of prayer that transcends Christmas-list-style requests or yard-sale-style bargaining, the conversation will conclude with a Seinfeld-esque, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” I must confess that’s how I, too, often conclude conversations about prayer. The truth is, however, that is more than just a reluctant conclusion to my conversations about prayer; the call to honesty compels me to admit that, more often than not, the reluctant conclusion is mostly a way of trying to make peace with my own failure to really practice something more than “not-that-there’s-anything-wrong-with-that” kind of prayer.
The term “prayer” could be said to be an appropriate description of far more human speech than we typically describe with the term, at least insofar as “prayer” often means for us merely requests presented to God. For instance, we don’t tend to think of the disciples, as presented to us in the gospels, as particularly prayerful folks. In fact, we tend to view them as novices, given Luke’s account of the disciples’ requesting Jesus to “teach [them] to pray.” But the reality is the disciples could be said to have been prayerful people. They “prayed” to Jesus to save them from the terrifying thunderstorm. They “prayed” to Jesus that they might be able to have a hand in destroying their Samaritan opposition. They “prayed” to Jesus in search of a declaration of their superiority compared to those who acted in Jesus’ name but whom the disciples themselves did not know. They “prayed” to Jesus for V.I.P. treatment in the afterlife. They “prayed” to Jesus in hopes of being commissioned to make a last stand against the arresting mob in the garden. It is true that the disciples were novices in terms of the spiritual maturity (or lack thereof) of their prayer lives, but it was certainly not for lack of trying.
Similarly the term “prayer” could be used to describe far more of the human speech in our own time than we typically describe with the term. Sure the proliferation of books, seminars, classes, and blog posts about prayer might suggest we view ourselves as novices when it comes to prayer. But the truth is we tend to be prayerful people. We “pray” to God to save us from natural disasters and national security crises. We “pray” to God in search of a declaration of our (team’s, church’s, community’s, country’s) superiority compared to those we do not know very well or who seem to be quite different than us. We “pray” for V.I.P. treatment in the afterlife, many of us whether or not we believe in any kind of afterlife. We “pray” for opportunities to triumph over those we perceive to be our enemies. The truth is many of us tend to be novices in terms of the spiritual maturity (or lack thereof) of our prayer lives, but it is certainly not for lack of trying.
It seems to me the challenge at the heart of the quest for a spiritually mature practice of prayer is that we often find ourselves praying for the wrong kingdom. It might be the kingdom of one’s personal life. It might be the kingdom of one’s business. It might be the kingdom of one’s church. It might be the kingdom of one’s community. It might be the kingdom of one’s country. Or it might be one of the many other kingdoms competing with the Kingdom of God. Each time we “pray” we have a choice to pray for an impostor kingdom or for the Kingdom for which Jesus encourages us to longingly pray.
We often minimize the degree to which we struggle with this choice we have each time we “pray.” To admit we do, in fact, struggle seems to be an admission of weakness or a lack of faith or an incomplete commitment. Yet we would do well to confess just such a weakness or a lack of faith or an incomplete commitment, rather than try to cover up what others often can see more clearly than we. Moreover, if we do not self-critically realize our own struggle to choose to pray for the Kingdom for which Jesus encourages us to longingly pray, we may find ourselves caught in a situation like the one captured in this video, which epitomizes the struggle many of us face day in and day out.
May God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the indwelling Holy Spirit bless us with courage, fill us with strength, and grant us wisdom that we might pray not for our own impostor kingdoms but for the only Kingdom which endures forever.