Wednesday, January 25, 2017

E. Stanley Jones' Ladder of Prayer

I have spoken of my respect for E. Stanley Jones. I return to his sermons and writings often times when I am in need of wisdom or learning. He is my favorite theologian of the 20th Century.

In 1943, ESJ published a little booklet or large pamphlet, How To Pray. It is not long. It only takes about 15 or 20 minutes to read through attentively. It is very practical and down to earth, as was Jones' style. It is worth reading if you would like to transform your understanding of prayer.

Because I am preaching a series of sermons on Improving Our Praying Lives. I wanted to offer some practical guidance on how to pray more often or longer. Essentially, I wanted to offer something to people so they could get more out of their time of prayer.

ESJ's booklet has been one of my resources of study for this series. I didn't want to take his guidance and turn it around in my sermons. Instead, I have really distilled the information into my own offer of guidance. What he offers to praying people is worth sharing, though.

ESJ approaches the question of "How do we pray effectively?" He does so in three categories of steps. The first, the lowest rung of prayer as he calls it, involves the first step into prayer and the background thoughts to hold. The second category of lists are the positive steps toward or into effective prayer. The final category are the 9 steps of prayer.

I want to avoid any infraction of copyright infringement or misusing the "fair use" rules. I will not post the individual lists. That seems to be violating what is right and good. But I want to touch on the reflections of what Jones offers to the praying person.

"...a heart of religion has ceased to beat and religion becomes a dead body of forms and customs and dogmas." There are times when Jones sounds like the trumpeters of the Christian anti-religion movement I have spoken against. But he is not so far into the rejection of "religion" as a category of life, though. This statement draws the clearest line between understanding religion as a necessary part of living a life of faith and religion as a set of rules. Forms, customs, and dogmas that are dry and dead curse the church with irrelevance. For Jones, prayer is key to avoiding this curse.

"Lord teach me to pray" I wonder if the majority of Christians who struggle with prayer have ever made this the first thing that is said in times of prayer. Every day is a new opportunity to experience the eternal God. God is so far outside our frame of reference that knowing how to approach God in relationship is alien. Asking how to pray every time we pray seems to be courtesy to the greater God we wish to approach.

"Prayer is not bending God's will to our will." The reality is most of us in the American church have not matured beyond the early prayer forms we all learned. And many of those prayers emphasized "give us our needs" to the minimization of  all other aspects of prayer. And that has corrupted a very important teaching of Jesus on prayer. John 14:13-14, Jesus says, "And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it." That has inspired a path of disappointing prayer life. Effective prayer is not trying to convince God that our will is the answer. But we sometimes approach it that way. Effective prayer is knowing God's will well enough that when we pray, we are in tune with God's purposes.

There will be inevitable dry periods of prayer. Jones is very clear that there will be times when prayer is not energizing or rewarding. And that experience causes people to doubt the value of prayer, the strength of their faith, or the attentiveness of God. But sometimes we just have seasons when we don't have the dynamic prayer life we once experienced. We must press forward to get through. The feelings we experience in prayer are not nearly as necessary as we feel they should be. Continue forward so the passion may returned is Jones' suggestion.

Determine if your prayer need fits within Christ's character. I love this bit of guidance. I remember as a youth the "prayers of my heart" that were so inspired by the hormones of a teenager. Thank God, the answers to those prayers were answered in God's favor and not mine. They were not in the nature of Christ. Answering those prayers in my favor would have really been a trainwreck. And our prayers as adults sometimes display the same hormonal or emotional bend. They are prayers out of our flesh nature. They are a response to urges or feelings that would pass if we were patient. They are shallow and would be filled temporarily. Then it would have reinforced a bad habit of seeking lesser things instead of the higher things of God.

Become the kind of person God can use to answer prayers through. God answers all prayers. And sometimes we are the answer to our own prayers. We have been moved to ask God to intervene. We are touched by the necessity of the one we are praying for. We are often times within arms reach of the person we are praying for or the situation that needs God's intervention. We can be the means of bringing God into that need. God has called people, through baptism and discipleship, by the power of the Holy Spirit to be witnesses in the world. That has implications from the Old Testament where witnessing brings social, societal, obvious change into lives. Jesus said, "The kingdom of God is at hand," then healed and restored, released and enlivened lives. Then he told his followers, "Go and do what I have shown you."

Promise God what you will do and do everything loving about it you can. Prayer is about hearing what God wants to happen in the world in, through, and around our lives. The more we mature into prayer we realize that prayer is not about wishlists for our benefits of being a Christian. Prayer is about God reoriented us outward into the world. Prayer is the opportunity to see the need and being transformed into an answer to that need. It is also a spiritual binding to the task that needs to be accomplished. 

This booklet is a great addition to your library of Christian resources. It is practical and meaningful for daily living. The small glimpse I offer here is just a little taste of the wisdom the E. Stanley Jones offers to our generation.