Musings on Prayer and Tradition

I will return to the resurrection evidence topic I’ve been writing about. I simply haven’t prepared to write the next part yet: resurrection views in the Judaism of Yeshua’s time.

So, instead, I offer today a musing on prayer. I’m working on some ideas for teaching about prayer at my congregation in Atlanta.

Like me, many of the members of my congregation have come out of Protestant evangelical backgrounds. We have a few Jewish members who spent no time in Protestant evangelicalism before coming into Messianic Judaism, but for the most part, our homes were evangelical at some part of our journey.

I am not at all anti-evangelical. I hope the rest of my musings won’t come across that way. It is just easier to criticize what you know. I enjoyed the value on truth, salvation, and the Bible I found in the evangelical world. I still consider myself organically connected to that world. Yet I also agree with evangelicalism’s critics — many of whom are evangelicals. Evangelicalism, sadly, is known for lack of depth — intellectual, spiritual, or otherwise. This is ironic, since you would think that an emphasis on the Bible and truth should lead to depth.

Yet, evangelicalism tends to be anti-intellectual (with some glorious exceptions). It also tends to be anti-spiritual because of a tendency to be suspicious of any kind of man-made tradition. Well, guess what: there is no such thing as religion without tradition. There is no pure biblical religion. All the God-followers of the Bible were part of traditions and movements. They embraced tradition and offered it to God as a sweet-smelling fragrance.

Nowhere is the dearth of tradition felt more in evangelicalism than in prayer. I was part of numerous prayer groups and experiences in my evangelical past. I am not saying those prayer times were worthless. But they lacked depth.

I remember thinking it would be inconceivable to spend an hour in prayer. Sometimes we were challenged to do just that. I could only make it by spending a lot of my hour reading scripture back to God. I felt guilty for praying Psalms in order to fill up my hour. Actually, I was praying far better when reading Psalms than trying to simply converse with God for an hour.

I read a quote in an obscure evangelical book on prayer today. I won’t even mention the author. But he said: “I expect that they [Jesus and Paul] communicated with God much as they communicated with earthly friends.” He makes much of the fact that we should not use flowery language or reverential tones in addressing God. He doesn’t mean it, but he makes prayer sound like hangin’ with your homie!

That is exactly what I learned in evangelical prayer. No need to be too reverent. God is your friend. Just converse with him.

Well, I wouldn’t talk to the president that way, much less God. I was always troubled by the image of God on his throne in the Revelation throne visions and me talking to God like he was my high school buddy.

And I was against liturgy as an evangelical. I remember it was one of only a handful of disagreements I had with C.S. Lewis’s writing. As an Anglican, he was in favor of prayer books and reading pre-written prayers to God. I thought he was blinded by his tradition and could not see that Biblical prayer was merely conversation (there we are again — suspicious of traditions and imagining I was above them in the make-believe land of pure biblical religion).

I was surprised when I read Richard Foster’s book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home and discovered that there are dozens of prayer traditions in Christendom and most of them were deeper by far than my prayer life! If you are an evangelical, get Foster’s book and read Dallas Willard too. You probably need deliverance, as I did at that time, from a lot of shallow thinking about God-is-my-buddy prayer.

So, as my paradigm shifted into the Jewish world (retaining faith in Yeshua), I resisted the Siddur (Jewish prayer book) all the way. I had a hard time selling it to those in my congregation. “Why can’t we just pray like we used to?” people asked.

Here are some thoughts about Jewish prayer and Messianic Judaism. I hope some of them speak to you. If you are not Messianic Jewish, maybe you can find some things to apply here.

1. The Lord’s Prayer is liturgical (though in several sermons I heard that is wasn’t — after all, Jesus wouldn’t be liturgical since that would be too Catholic or liberal). Yeshua prayed in synagogue using liturgical prayers. The Amidah, in the part called the Kedushah, has a line that says, “May they sanctify his name on earth as it is in heaven.” Sound familiar? Or how about the first line of the Kaddish: “May his name be exalted and hallowed”? If you don’t pray the Lord’s prayer every day, why not? It is what he taught us.

2. Jewish prayer is mostly praise with petitions brought in briefly and broadly. In the conversational prayer style I learned as an evangelical, we mostly strung petitions together and added praises to give the prayer validity. We also spent a lot of time telling God how to do things: “Please let his MRI be normal and guide the hands of the surgeons and let his white blood count replenish and . . . ” It is interesting to read the Bible’s prayers (Psalms, prayers in the mouths of characters) and see how they do not tell God what to do and how to do it.

3. Jewish prayer is communal prayer. I notice that Yeshua thought so too. His famous prayer begins “Our Father.” There is something about praying in unison with a large community. There is something about using ancient prayers.

4. Jewish prayer is liturgical — reading pre-written prayers. They become familiar over time. This is allegedly bad. After all, how can you mean them when you say the same prayers again and again? Well, guess what — your mind is active in prayer and you see new dimensions and add new praises and petitions to your words each time. Also, I am in the habit of telling my wife often that I love her. I say it again and again and somehow manage to mean it each time.

Let me just close with some lines from the Siddur. Maybe you would like to pray them:

We gratefully thank you, for you are HaShem our God and the God of our fathers for ever and ever; you are the Rock of our lives, the Shield of our salvation through every generation. We will give thanks to you and declare your praise for our lives which are committed unto your hand, and for our souls which are in your charge, and for your miracles, which are daily with us, and for your wonders and benefits, which are wrought at all times, evening, morn and noon. You who are all-good, whose mercies never fail; you, merciful Being, whose lovingkindnesses never cease, we have ever hoped in you.


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Messianic Jewish, Messianic Prayer, Prayer. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Musings on Prayer and Tradition

  1. Bryan says:

    I think you bring forth a very important, and often missed part of prayer, that being the corporate prayer and the liturgical prayers.

    I would also note there is a time for specific requests, but I think we should acknowledge that G-d knows our needs better than we do, as well as knowing His perfect will for our lives better than we do, as so we should be willing when we ask for specific things to yield those requests to the Will of G-d (for example like where Yeshua prayed if it be the will of the Father that the cup might be taken away from Him).

    Another part of prayer I find interesting is in not even knowing the needs of those I pray for. At my congregation we have a service where we pray for the children of all the congregational members. Each name is lifted up in prayer. It was a real joy to know that I could pray for someone without knowing specific needs, that I could just read a name and know that G-d knows every hair of that person and is in control. To me there was a great power and a freedom in this. I could stand in the gap for these people (children in this case), and trust that G-d better knows their needs than I do (and probably better than they do).

    There is also an interesting balance between humbly coming before the Creator and boldly coming to the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16) To me this is knowing, like you mentioned, that we are not talking with someone who is just a friend, but the King of Kings. So I come humble in manner, but I know with boldness that G-d is faithful to hear and answer my prayers.

    It is a great honor to be able to speak with G-d regularly, whether through my own words or the words of a corporate prayer time, or through the words that I hear each week or each day in the liturgy. Praise G-d for hearing and answering our prayers.

  2. Daniel says:

    I have come to love my prayers from the siddur. It is true, however, that these prayers serve as tutors for us to learn the most important way of communication with G-d – hitbodedut, as it is called.

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