Monday, September 9, 2013

How Not to Pray to Santa Claus

The members of my congregation have heard me preach about how our prayers sometimes seem to be directed to the "great Santa Claus in the sky" - a God who seems to exist to give us stuff when we ask for it.  When I make that comment in a sermon, it is largely directed at myself, as I have prayed that way many times.  Of course, Jesus told the disciples that we can ask God for what we need ("give us this day our daily bread"), but that does not mean we should tell God to give us whatever we want.

How do we avoid falling into the trap of praying to the "great Santa Claus in the sky"?  One way is to remember that a few simple words will do the job.  Prayers need not be lengthy petitions or sermons to God. A simple cry to the Lord for mercy will oftentimes suffice, as it seeks union with the very heart of God:

"[T]he prayer for mercy is not a prayer for certain gifts of grace from God, nor a prayer for forgiveness, for strength, for help in the changing fortunes of life, nor a prayer for any particular gift from God, but a cry to God himself, a prayer to his heart, implying: the man who is enfolded in the heart of God needs nothing more.... It is an additional advantage and benefit to pray for everything needful, but praying for contact with the  heart of God includes all kinds of prayer: confession of sin, thanksgiving, intercession, praise, petition."  (From the book "The Jesus Prayer" by Per-Olof Sjogren).

Also, when we simply pray for mercy, our prayers are joined with the saints of various eras.  Each one of the verses of Psalm 136 includes the phrase "for his mercy endures forever." In Luke 18:13, Jesus extolled the virtue of the prayer of the tax collector, which was simply "God, be merciful to me, a sinner."  The tax collector's prayer is echoed in the ancient "Jesus Prayer" which has been used for centuries in the Eastern Church: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."  The liturgies of both the Eastern and Western Churches include the prayer "Kyrie Eleison" - "Lord, have mercy."

So, the next time we get the urge to make our prayers look like a laundry list directed toward God, remember that the simple request for mercy encompasses a request for what we really need - union with God.

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