Friday, July 27, 2012

Prayer By Any Name

How do you pray?  What words would you use to describe your prayers?  Can prayer be silent?  When and where do you pray?  How would you describe your posture of prayer?

These questions are taken up in great detail in chapter two Patrick D. Miller's They Cried To the Lord: The Form and Theology of Biblical Prayer (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994).   This is a stimulating study on the terminology, timing, locations, and actions associated with biblical prayers (focused particularly upon the OT). Miller reaffirms the case that the Scriptures do not limit pray-ers to one "correct" way of praying, but rather frees them by recognizing a variety of manners of communicating with God, a flexibility with regard to timing and location, and also appropriate, meaningful gestures.

This chapter is divided into three primary sections covering Terminology, Time and Place, and Gestures and Acts. 

The discussion of the terminology of prayer takes up the majority of space in which we are introduced to the variety of terms used in Scripture.  Identifying the terms used for communication between mankind and the divine is a task I've undertaken only on a limited scale and with reference to the NT.  This study is helpful and reads like an entry into NIDOTT.  Miller identifies general terms for communication, technical terms for prayer, and general terms of communication that have been adopted as technical terms for specific prayers (such as crying, complaining, and meditating).

What I learned from this is that prayer cannot be pigeon-holed into a single expression; for instance, "asking and receiving," or "obtaining answers."  Rather, prayer is a diverse act which is normally calm and controlled, often load and emotional, and sometimes quiet or silent altogether.

With regard to the time and place of prayer, Miller concludes:
Holy place and private room, sanctuary and sickbed are all places of prayer.  Set times and any time, morning and night are all times of prayer.  The Scriptures identify prayer as an act that could be set in particular moments and places and routinized in definite ways.  But it was not confined to such settings.  Formality and fixity interchange with openness and freedom in the time and place of prayer. (50, empahsis mine)
Questions about gestures and posture in prayer often meet inadequate answers and unbiblical reservedness.  At least that has been my experience up until lately.  The final section explores this issue with refreshing insight.  
"Praying is so much a verbal act, even if only in the mind, that one is inclined to neglect the nonverbal dimension that is frequently indicated in the texts.  But in ancient times as much or more than the present, dimensions of prayer were expressed with the body and in acts, movements, and gestures" (50).  
According to the OT data, sitting, laying prostrate, and kneeling convey a sense of humility before God, "that the conversation is not ordinary conversation" (50).  The upraised or outstretched hands in praise or petition "convey a sense of the transcendent, that prayer is directed beyond oneself and this world to the God who is in heaven" (51).  This posture is worth considering a bit further since it seems to provoke the most confusion, if not controversy.  Miller continues, 
All these gestures and actions serve to recognize that the act of praying to God, of setting one's case before God or presenting prayers in behalf of another in need, is not simply a routine action.  In some sense, one moves one's whole being into a stance of prayer.  There is a break from whatever is happening, an acknowledgement that now one is coming before God. ... Not all praying assumes a specifically holy ground, but this kind of action is not done matter-of-factly, and the reaching to heaven or to the holy place, the sanctuary, symbolizes that fact, that the very act of prayer takes one into another world, reaches out toward the transcendent. (51, emphasis mine)
What's interesting here is that we often accept "extreme gestures and acts" such as weeping and wailing, pulling the hair, tearing the cloths, fasting, etc.; yet we quibble about uplifted hands in public.  Hmmm!  Maybe we're missing something rich and vital to prayer, when we insist on strict restraint and propriety in all cases, especially when in public.

In summary, Miller writes, "However direct the encounter of prayer may be, however, open and assertive may be those who cry out and complain, there is no doubt that these are prayers of creature before creator, that anguish and anger do not belie the relationship" (54).
Notes on the Introduction and Chapter 1