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The Jesus Prayer

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(This is part of an ongoing series about prayer in Whole Life Worship)

I love to pray. And fortunately for me, prayer is essential for Whole Life Worship, as the concept is predicated on the foundation of being in a relationship with God. One cannot be in a relationship with God without prayer.

To me, prayer is more than conversation or communication; prayer is “communion with God.” This certainly involves talking and listening to God, but it is more than that. It is being present with God. And in the process of being present with God, we also discover our own souls. In the next several blogs, I’ll be sharing about the ways I commune with God in prayer.

As a Western, evangelical, non-liturgical Christian, the method of prayer I was taught (and prefer) involves using words that are spontaneous, free-flowing and conversational. Whether I pray with people or by myself, I talk to God like I would talk with a human being. I don’t use flowery language or histrionics. Since I’m talking with God there’s no use in trying to impress or pretend. Prayer always originates from my heart and translated, as best as I can, into human language. I liken this style of prayer to the way Tevye from the musical, “Fiddler on the Roof” prays; open, free, two-way, and honest.

However, there are times when I find that words to my prayers are elusive. Maybe it’s because I can’t quite “name” what I want to express to God. Sometimes I find myself in a “quandary of the soul” that I can’t even begin to describe with words (have you ever experienced that?) I do have a prayer language that I use on occasion during private moments; and sometimes that helps. But recently I’ve re-discovered some simple prayers, based on Scripture and practiced by Christians throughout the centuries, that have helped me commune with God when my spontaneous prayers of conversation and spiritual language fail me.

One of them is called the “Jesus Prayer.” It is an amalgam of two simple prayers: 1) a poignant request made by a blind man named Bartimeus to Jesus on the road to Jericho (Mark 10:47-48) and 2) an equally poignant petition of a repentant tax collector in one of Jesus’ parables (Luke 18:13). Blind Bart shouted to Jesus, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” The tax collector cried out, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Over the years, the church combined these two prayers: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” This is a prayer recited primarily by those in the Orthodox and Roman Catholic traditions.

Without delving too deeply into Church history (and controversies), I have found this very simple prayer to be helpful for me. First of all, it is short and to the point: I need help and I’m asking Jesus to help me. Secondly, it puts everything in its proper place: Jesus is Lord, Christ and God’s Son, while I am an undeserving sinner in desperate need. Oh, there is so much freedom in this humble realization! Thirdly, it is easy to memorize, which makes it easy to access during those times when I can’t even think straight.

I don’t use the prayer as a magical formula or incantation. I don’t use it as a way to earn some sort of merit from God or to get what I want. God cannot be manipulated. Rather, it is a way to state a very honest and crucial truth of who I am, who Jesus is, and my most fundamental need for mercy.

I also want to make clear that identifying myself as a “sinner” does not deny the fact that God’s grace through Christ has made me a redeemed child of God who has already been forgiven of all my sins. Rather, it defines my struggle and predicament as one who is “limited” and has no hope, in my own, power to overcome sin’s affects on me. It rightly places the onus of the power over sin on my King who responds – in His mercy – to my cry.

There are times when my heart gets overwhelmed with anxiety over a situation. Or I am preoccupied with whether something will get done. Or I feel paralyzed over what I should do next. Or I get discombobulated by a relationship that is going south quick. So I pray the Jesus prayer (usually several times so that the meaning of it sinks in: “Lord”, “Christ,” “mercy”, “me, a sinner”, etc.) Saying the prayer is almost like taking deep breaths in an oxygen mask. The mercy of Jesus comes as I “cocoon” myself in His presence. In my helplessness, He holds me in His strong arms. I also relinquish control, self-concern, fear, and responsibility into His care. He becomes greater than whatever issue I face, for I know in my heart that He is Lord – and I’ve asked Him to step in that role for me.

I also find that when I get a little too prideful or too much in control or get too “big for my britches” (which happens all too frequently in the world of ministry), the Spirit reminds me to pray the Jesus Prayer: I’m just a sinner who needs mercy, whether I realize it or not. And Jesus is One who is Lord and King! It helps me to dethrone myself and put the right One back on the throne of my heart.

This little prayer has become so important to me that I use it all the time. It actually becomes the prayer that opens the door for other prayers. The Jesus Prayer helps me land firmly on the “rock of reality,” of what really is and how things really operate. It is one of those prayers that creates a solid starting point whereby I can commune with God.

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