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Prayer. The Simplicity of Complexity? The Complexity of Simplicity? Both? And We Wonder Why People Don’t Pray More…

Written by: on January 26, 2015

MaryKate Morse’s A Guidebook to Prayer offers a multiplicity of windows into the character and the heart of the Triune God. What’s great about Morse’s work is that she well recognizes the simple truth that “one size doesn’t fit all.” And even if one size were to fit all people at one time or another, one size certainly doesn’t fit all the people all the time. Morse offers all kinds of ways forward for growing in faith in all kinds of different moments and seasons of life. [1]

It really is a guidebook. The book walks you through 24 different forms of prayer practice differentiated under three broad section headings of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

I like this text; actually, I find it rather fabulous. I think texts like this are eminently valuable. I appreciate the sources utilized and the obvious authenticity that has been put into this work.

I recognize and agree that people often seek and need guidance in moving “forward in” or “more deeply into” prayer – that is, in really learning the “how is it done” pieces of the process. Morse’s book does this well and does it with grace and wisdom.

In fact, I know that after offering this review sometime in the future, I will go back and reread this – perhaps some of the chapters multiple times – and appreciate again the wisdom that is offered.

However, for the moment, having read through it, I would like to consider a story by Leo Tolstoy on prayer that has been of some significant meaning for me for many years. Tolstoy’s story is called the Three Hermits.[2]

In this story, a bishop embarks on a sea voyage and hears a tale about the legend of three holy hermits living in solitude together on a small, distant, isolated island. The bishop is intrigued and wishes to visit. The captain assents and they journey as close as possible. The bishop then gets ashore by the aid of some of the crew rowing a small vessel dropped into the water from the larger seafaring boat. Upon meeting the hermits – who he meets as they are holding hands together standing on the island waiting for him to disembark — he presents himself as a humble bishop and notes that he is honored to meet the holy hermits and hopes to teach them a bit. He asks them how they pray. In unison they recite, “three are ye, three are we, have mercy upon us.” The bishop had compassion on them and praised the sincerity of their hearts, but said they did not pray correctly. So, he spent hours struggling to teach them the Lord’s Prayer (the Our Father). After the entirety of the day into the night, he finally succeeded in getting these mostly silent, very old hermits to be able to recite all of the prayer. They fall asleep and the bishop is rowed back to the boat grateful to God to have been of such service to these worthy brethren.

Later that night as the seafaring vessel is well into continuing its journey, the ship all comes awake as a cry from the helmsman arises. It is the hermits running toward the boat on the water as if it was dry land. They get to the boat and apologize to the bishop that after they fell asleep and awoke they tried to repeat his prayer, but forgot it. They ask him if he would help them relearn the prayer.

“and raising their heads, all three as with one voice, began to say:

‘We have forgotten your teaching, servant of God. As long as we kept repeating it we remembered, but when we stopped saying it for a time, a word dropped out, and now it has all gone to pieces. We can remember nothing of it. Teach us again.’

The Bishop crossed himself, and leaning over the ship’s side, said:

‘Your own prayer will reach the Lord, men of God. It is not for me to teach you. Pray for us sinners.”[3]

I wonder if, sometimes, even with the very best of intentions, we unnecessarily complicate matters? If God knows the very motivations, inclinations of our heart – even ones of which we are unaware – then how much does method matter? Of course (well, at least “of course” to me), we don’t employ methodology for God, but rather for us. Prayer is not magic and God cannot be coerced. Yet, even with employing sophisticated methodology that is meant to facilitate our greater connectivity with the Divine…I wonder if we more often than not get caught up in the rigmarole of the whole thing and therefore miss the relationality at its core?

Could we possibly take a cue from Nike’s old motto in this – Just Do It!

I also like Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day poem in thinking about all of this:

Who made the world?

Who made the swan, and the black bear?

Who made the grasshopper?

This grasshopper, I mean-

the one who has flung herself out of the grass,

the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,

who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-

who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.

Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.

Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.

I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.

I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down

into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,

how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,

which is what I have been doing all day.

Tell me, what else should I have done?

Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?

Tell me, what is it you plan to do

with your one wild and precious life?[4]

For Oliver here, it all comes down to one thing, ‘pay attention.’

Well, perhaps I might even audaciously further simplify the prayer of the hermits…

“Have mercy upon us.”

(I could reflect on this phrase, but at the moment that seems to rather defeat the point…)

 

 

[1] MaryKate Morse, A Guidebook to Prayer: Twenty-four Ways to Walk with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2013), 13-21.

[2] Leo Tolstoy, Walk in the Light and Twenty-Three Tales (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 2011), 191-196.

[3] Ibid., 196.

[4] Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems: Volume 1 (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 170-171.

About the Author

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Clint Baldwin

3 responses to “Prayer. The Simplicity of Complexity? The Complexity of Simplicity? Both? And We Wonder Why People Don’t Pray More…”

  1. Clint,

    This is an amazing post — the best one of the week in my view. It is real. It is honest. It is true. I especially love this: “Prayer is not magic and God cannot be coerced. Yet, even with employing sophisticated methodology that is meant to facilitate our greater connectivity with the Divine…I wonder if we more often than not get caught up in the rigmarole of the whole thing and therefore miss the relationality at its core?” Right on! I so agree; prayer is not magic. But we turn it into magic. But God cannot be manipulated. And woe to us who think that we can manipulate Him. Yes, it is about relationality — or it is nothing at all. This gives me hope.

    I also love your admonition to “pay attention.” This is at the heart of what God would ask us to do. He will reveal Himself in amazing ways and in simple ways, if we are paying attention. My studies in Native-American spirituality and leadership have constantly pointed to this truth. God is “the Great Mystery.” If you have not yet discovered Kent Nerburn, I highly encourage you to do so. His book “Neither Wolf nor Dog” will reinforce what you say in this post. I would be curious to know your thought after reading the book. Let me know.

    Thanks again for your great post. It was my morning devotional. Thank you.

  2. mm Clint Baldwin says:

    Bill,
    Thank you for your response.
    I have just looked up Nerburn. It looks like I have a lot of new books to read. Looking forward to this. Thanks! 🙂
    I just read his bio page on Wikipedia (of course a disservice in how much it necessarily leaves out, but it’s a nice quick overview of his life) and reviewed his texts on Amazon. At the outset, it seems there will be considerable resonance with Nerburn for me.
    His name sounds familiar, but I don’t remember reading any of his books. I think I have heard it in relation to his book on Chief Joseph. Having read other books about Chief Joseph and the Nez Pierce…this would make sense.

    Anyhow, I am so thankful that my post was meaningful. The week was very full and I wasn’t able to get to it until right near the end, but I was hoping my reflection might still be meaningful to someone. Apparently, you’re that someone. 🙂 Blessings my friend.

  3. Hey Clint,

    Great thoughts here. Love, absolutely love, the story of the three hermits. I will certainly be using that over and over. Thank you.

    I feel that your concluding words are quite profound. (I could reflect on this phrase, but at the moment that seems to rather defeat the point…) As academics it seems we are always asked to comment on this or that, to take the simple and some how make it intelligent. In this we often lose the profoundness that comes only from the simplicity.

    And the tax collector beat his chest and said, “have mercy on me a sinner.” Profound.

    Thanks Clint.

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