LIVING ON A PRAYER
excerpt from Johann Christoph Arnold's book "Seeking Peace"
There are times when nothing will give us peace but prayer. We may
strive for simplicity and silence – for detachment from sources
of unpeace around us or inside us – but we may still be left
with a void that only God can fill. And if he does not enter our
hearts uninvited, we must ask him to come in.
In Psalm 130, one of my favorites, the line “Out of the depths
I cry to thee” sheds light on how we should pray in times
of need. Actually, it reflects the spirit in which we should always
turn to God: we are always in the depths, in need of his help and
guidance, and he is always there above us, firm and secure and strong.
The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber says that whenever we pray,
we should cry out, imagining ourselves as hanging from a cliff by
our hair, with a tempest raging around us so violently that we are
sure we have only a few seconds left to be saved. Buber goes on,
“And in truth there is no counsel, no refuge, and no peace
for anyone save to lift up his eyes and his heart to God and to
cry out to him. One should do this at all times, for a man is in
great danger in the world.”
Buber’s image is dramatic, but it is not exaggerated. In a
culture like ours, where the long arm of the mass media reaches
so far that news of celebrity, scandal, or catastrophe can stop
millions of people in their tracks, the individual has never been
so susceptible to the lure of following the crowd. Nietzsche saw
this a hundred years ago when he mused on the truth of the old proverb,
“Gemeinschaft macht gemein” – “community
makes common (crude)” and warned of the dangers of a society
where mass-values are so strong that they can deaden even the strongest
Without an active prayer life we lose strength of character and
succumb to what sociologists call herd instinct: we fall prey to
fear of others, to ambition, to the desire to please people. Without
prayer, the constant traffic and opinions of people around us will
swamp our inner lives and finally drown them. We think we are our
own masters, but in actual fact many of us cannot think for ourselves,
let alone pray, anymore. Having lost its relation to God, our life
consists merely (to quote Nietzsche again) of “constant adjustments
to all sorts of different collective influences and societal demands.”
As a protective armor around the quiet flame of the heart, prayer
is the best defense in the face of such onslaughts. And it is more:
it is a life-giving discipline that can bring us to our senses –
back to God – when we have gone astray. It focuses us and
directs us to the source of peace.
Personally I have found the discipline of prayer crucial to maintaining
a sense of peace and order in my life. More than anything else it
seems that prayer (or the absence of it) can decide the outcome
of our day. As Bonhoeffer notes in his Letters and Papers from Prison,
time we waste, temptations we yield to, laziness or lethargy in
our work – in general, any lack of discipline in our thoughts
or in our interaction with others – frequently have their
root in our neglect of prayer.
Prayer need not be formal. For my wife and me, it is the natural
way we begin and end our day together; we pray every morning when
we get up, and every evening before we go to bed. Some may pray
more often than that, others less. Some people pray on their knees;
others use a prayer book. Some speak; some do not use words at all.
Pastor Blumhardt was known to open his window each evening in order
to say good night to God. As long as our prayer is genuine, and
not just an empty rite, it does not matter how we go about it. The
important thing is to make room for it, somewhere.
In the turmoil of life without, and black despair within, it is
always possible to turn aside and wait on God. Just as at the center
of a hurricane there is stillness, and above the clouds a clear
sky, so it is possible to make a little clearing in the jungle of
our human will for a rendezvous with God. He will always turn up,
though in what guise and in what circumstances cannot be foreseen
– perhaps trailing clouds of glory, perhaps as a beggar; in
the purity of the desert or in the squalor of London’s Soho
or New York’s Time Square.
Alongside Muggeridge’s thoughts stands the biblical command
to “pray without ceasing.” For many who seek God, the
idea is simple enough. Molly Kelly says, “Prayer used to be
when I would talk to God at certain times of the day – in
the morning, or before I went to bed. Now I know that it is an all-day
conversation with God. I pray as I walk through the airport or down
the supermarket aisle.”
For others, this way of thinking is an obstacle. How does one pray
all day? What does “unceasingly” mean? James Alexander,
an old friend, pondered this for years:
Although I have prayed ever since I can remember, it was only when
I began to understand prayer as a way of life – as a constant
attitude rather than a repetitive action – that I understood
the idea of praying without ceasing. The Prayer of Jesus as explained
in The Way of a Pilgrim – “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy
on me, a sinner” – was helpful too. The book says that
if there is one thing we can offer God, it is the constancy of such
a prayer. But it is not merely a group of words. It is an attitude
Nineteenth-century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins says much
It is not only prayer that gives God glory, but work. Smiting on
an anvil, sawing a beam, whitewashing a wall, driving horses, sweeping,
scouring, everything gives God some glory if being in his grace
you do it as your duty. To go to communion worthily gives God great
glory, but to take food in thankfulness and temperance gives him
glory too. To lift up the hands in prayer gives God glory, but a
man with a dung fork in his hand, a woman with a slop pail, give
him glory too. He is so great that all things give him glory if
you mean they should. So then, my brethren, live.
Each of us will pray differently. And as our circumstances change
– through illness, old age, or crisis, for instance –
so may our prayer life.
Doug Moody, a member of my church, found little meaning in prayer
as a young man. Upset by the hypocrisy he perceived in his mainstream
denomination, Doug found himself increasingly at odds with the church
of his youth, especially on the issue of military service, which
he opposed as a conscientious objector to war. After the bombing
of Pearl Harbor, classmates and teachers at the University of North
Carolina praised his refusal to be conscripted, but his church did
not. The judge who tried and sentenced him as a felon for evading
the draft was a member of his own congregation.
There I sat in an antiquated county jail, with crab lice, awful
food, a broken shower, and no issue of clothes. Fortunately, my
mother was able to bring me soap and a change of underwear. It was
the first, hardest period of my sentence, and was lightened only
by listening day after day to the story of an utterly broken German
alien on his way to an internment camp. A neighbor had falsely accused
him of espionage.
In prison I read in the FOR magazine Fellowship that the Mennonite
couple who had inspired me not to register had changed their position.
I was angry. But there was a strange blessing on my imprisonment:
slowly, through my little bit of suffering – the endurance
of tedium and filth, and our treatment not as men but as numbers
– I was led to take an interest in this needy inmate in the
next bed, and the joy that comes from living for others began to
waken in me.
I began to see what Thomas Kelly meant by living in the “eternal
now,” for every inmate was constantly talking about the time
left until his release, forever living in the future. When I began
to live in the moment – not for release, not even for the
next meal or movie or chance to sleep – it became possible
for me to be at peace even in prison.
Years later, during a difficult period of struggle in his personal
life, Doug found new meaning in prayer. “In place of all the
usual ways to escape discouragement or depression, prayer –
in the simple sense of turning to God and my neighbor in love –
became the foundation for a lasting peace and a purpose in living.”
Now, as he enters old age, Doug says that his personal prayer life
has taken on an importance it never had in earlier years.
Regular prayer with my wife, or alone – morning, noon, bedtime,
and when I lie awake at night – has become a lifeline, the
only help in the face of the inevitable failures, temptations, discouragements,
or periods of depression that each of us goes through at one time
It is not always a matter of words. Part of it is a quiet turning
toward God throughout the day, an upward glance, a moment or two
of silence remembering someone who is sick or suffering or struggling.
Part of it might be considering various concerns and questions of
the day. Part of it is asking for light to see my wrongs, to recognize
where I might have hurt others. Prayer helps me strengthen my commitment
to Christ and to my brothers and sisters. In all of this there is
peace –not as the world gives, but the peace of Jesus.
Karl Barth once wrote that to clasp one’s hands in prayer
is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world.
If this is true, and I believe it is, then our prayer life cannot
exist in a separate sphere, and our prayers must consist of more
than longings or intentions. Just as faith without deeds means spiritual
deadness, so prayer without work is hypocrisy. Even without deeds,
our prayers must be more than self-centered pleas for personal happiness
if they are to have any effect on the rest of the world.
Doug hints at the importance of including others in our prayers.
Among the early Christians and down through the history of the persecuted
church and its martyrs, we find the same thought, and an even more
radical one – the practice of praying, as Jesus commanded,
for those who persecute us. We must be ready to do the same for
those who hurt us, whether through backbiting, slander, or anything
If we claim to love our enemies but then fail to pray for them,
we deceive ourselves.
Sojourners founder Jim Wallis writes:
As long as we do not pray for our enemies, we continue to see only
our own point of view – our own righteousness – and
to ignore their perspective. Prayer breaks down the distinctions
between us and them. To do violence to others, you must make them
enemies. Prayer, on the other hand, makes enemies into friends.
When we have brought our enemies into our hearts in prayer, it becomes
difficult to maintain the hostility necessary for violence. In bringing
them close to us, prayer even serves to protect our enemies. Thus
prayer undermines the propaganda and policies designed to make us
hate and fear our enemies. By softening our hearts towards our adversaries,
prayer can even become treasonous. Fervent prayer for our enemies
is a great obstacle to war and the feelings that lead to war.
People pray to God because they want God to fulfill some of their
needs. If they want to have a picnic, they may ask God for a clear,
sunny day. At the same time, farmers who need more rain might pray
for the opposite. If the weather is clear, the picnickers may say,
“God is on our side; he answered our prayers.” But if
it rains, the farmers will say that God heard their prayers. This
is the way we usually pray.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus taught, “Blessed are the
peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.”
Those who work for peace must have a peaceful heart. When you have
a peaceful heart, you are the child of God. But many who work for
peace are not at peace. They still have anger and frustration, and
their work is not really peaceful…
When you pray only for your own picnic and not for the farmers who
need the rain, you are doing the opposite of what Jesus taught.
Jesus said, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you.”
When we look deeply into our anger, we see that the person we call
our enemy is also suffering. As soon as we see that, we have the
capacity of accepting and having compassion for him. Jesus called
this “loving your enemy.” When we are able to love our
enemy, he or she is no longer our enemy. The idea of “enemy”
vanishes and is replaced by the notion of someone suffering a great
deal who needs our compassion. Loving others is sometimes easier
than we might think, but we need to practice it. If we read the
Bible but don’t practice it, it will not help much.
For anyone sick of the spiritual soup filling so many bookstore
shelves these days, Seeking Peace is sure to satisfy
a deep hunger. Arnold offers no easy solutions, but also no unrealistic
promises. He spells out what peace demands. "There is a peace
greater than self-fulfillment," he writes. But you won't find
it if you go looking for it. It is waiting for everyone ready to
sacrifice the search for individual peace, everyone ready to "die
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