After the horrific mass shooting in a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, most people responded to those under the heavy weight of grief by saying they would keep them in their “thoughts and prayers.” This led to furious rebuttals from those who accused leaders of using those words instead of curbing gun ownership which has been at odds with first amendment rights for decades. This argument was further complicated when the public learned that a gun owner stopped the shooter from causing more deaths.
In our increasingly pluralistic society, many try not to offend those who do not believe in the Judeo Christian monotheistic One. And in recent years, Atheists have succeeded in removing prayer from school and sporting events. Yet most national events such as the inauguration of the President of the United States begin with prayer. Since this shooting happened in a church, many believed “thoughts and prayers” was a more appropriate response. Yet, those very words created a firestorm.
This same week I received an email from a Christian who gives ongoing training and encouragement to pastors. She spoke about “meditative prayer” but never referred to God. This was a new term to me. The leader seem to mean “meditative prayer” is positive self talk. Did she decide to leave God out of a conversation with pastors on purpose? She responded to my inquiry: “Perhaps not all meditation is prayer. Not all prayer is meditation. Christian meditation is both.” Perhaps?
So I dug little deeper. Meditation is used by Eastern religions such as Buddhism which is a secular philosophy. The writings of Buddhism speak of a noble path but never about God. As a Christian, I must decide if I should buy a statue of Buddha to decorate my homes or practice Yoga. I also must decide if I should practice “meditative prayer.”
According to the definition on Google, Meditation is “a practice whereby I train my mind to induce a mode of consciousness where I am aware of content without being a part of that content.” According to Merriam-Webster, Meditate is “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness.”
Here is why the term is confusing. Meditate also means “contemplation.” Contemplation is “when a person concentrates on spiritual things as a form of private devotion or a state of mystical awareness of God’s being.” Perhaps “contemplative prayer” is a more accurate description of prayer.
The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). Why would they ask Jesus to teach them to pray given that they were Jews who had memorized the prayers of the Psalms as well as the prayers of Moses and Hannah?
Jesus did not quote any of those prayers that he knew they knew. Instead he said, “This, then, is how you should pray:
‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.’
Then Jesus added, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:9-15).
In the last prayers of Jesus before his death in the Garden of Gethsemane, he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39). After finding his disciples asleep, Jesus prayed a different prayer the next two times, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done” (Matthew 26:42, 44). In his human form, Jesus never practiced positive self talk. Jesus practiced praying to his Father and commanded others to do the same. Jesus also taught his disciples to pray for others, “pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 6:6) and to ask God for specifics for themselves, “pray that your flight will not take place in the winter or on the Sabbath” (Matthew 24:20).
Jesus not only told his disciples what to pray but how to pray: “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you. And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:6-8). Jesus taught that God knows every thought, so all our thoughts should be of God.
Jesus often took off by himself to pray through the night (Luke 6:12). Sometimes he took others with him (Luke 9:28). Twice the disciples heard the Father respond in a voice from heaven. At Jesus’ baptism, the voice of the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; of whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). After the transfiguration of Jesus, the voice said, “This is my Son whom I have chosen; listen to him” (Luke 9:35).
Prayer is “an invocation that seeks to activate rapport with an object of worship through deliberate communication.” Catholics pray directly to their saints but do not consider them an object of worship. The point is that “meditation” is self imposed thought while “prayer” is ongoing active communication with my Father God. The Apostle Paul advised the church to pray continually (Ephesians 6:18; Colossians 1:9; I Thessalonians 3:10; 5:17; 2 Thessalonians 1:11; I Timothy 5:5). He also explained how through our prayers the Holy Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accord with God’s will (Romans 8:26-27).
Paul’s last prayer was the following, “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen (Ephesians 3:14-21)
The New International Version. (2011). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.