My grandmother passed away this week (December 12, 2010). She was 103. Back in 2000, when she was a young 93, I dedicated my second book on prayer, Bring Back the Glory, to her and to my other two grandmas who, by then, had already gone to their rest. The dedication read, “To my three grandmothers—Pearl ‘Mama’ Jacobs, 1902–1998; Reva Bernice Owens, 1916–1996; and Gertrude ‘Little Mother’ Williams, 1907– ?” Today, I can write in 2010 on the other side of the hyphen to signify a close to the earthly chapter of Little Mother’s life. Each of these dear women reflected God’s glory in their own lives and left an enduring legacy of faith to their families.
Part of the legacy that Little Mother leaves to her family and friends is prayer—not formulaic or ritual prayers, but intimate conversations with God, as if she were speaking with a friend. Little Mother wasn’t so much a prayer warrior as she was God’s friend, who maintained a lifelong connection with Him through prayer. Thus, it would have been as strange for her to consult a book on how to pray as it would be for you to pull up a You Tube video on how to breathe. To Little Mother, prayer just came naturally.
I recall some of our phone conversations. She lived in Los Angeles and I live in Nampa, Idaho, so we didn’t get to see each other that often. And after age 99 or so, her hearing wasn’t the best, so our phone calls were brief. She was always happy to hear from me and my kids, and she was never lacking in gratitude to God for her longevity and pride for her family.
Prayer is a relationship
Funny, whenever we talked, I never Googled “five ways to call your 100-year-old grandma.” I never worried about whether I was sitting or standing or whether I was holding the phone in my hand or had it wedged between my shoulder and my ear. I just talked to her. A connection was made. A relationship maintained.
And that’s why I pray—to maintain a relationship.
Prayer is foremost a relational experience with God. That’s why the opening of the Lord’s Prayer— the model prayer for citizens of the kingdom of heaven—is such a joyful surprise and such a scandal.
After showing the disciples what prayer isn’t (Matthew 6:5– 8), Jesus revealed the essence of prayer by teaching them to say, “Our Father . . .” Those two words define both the power of prayer and the nature of the kingdom of heaven—the fatherhood of God! Understand this: The power of prayer is not in formulas or techniques. It’s in the relationship between God and the pray-er.
We’re so accustomed to talking about having a personal relationship with God that we can’t appreciate how Jesus’ words exploded into the ears of those who heard them for the first time. Of all the things the disciples had ever learned about prayer, this was certainly not one of them. They were not even permitted to say the name of God aloud, let alone refer to Him as “our Father.”
This is the Almighty we’re talking about. Being so familiar—so family oriented—with Deity was unheard of. How does one address God?
I did a quick Google search on how to greet royalty and came up with the following etiquette tips:
- Approach the monarch from the right. Members of a royal family stand in a receiving line when you meet them. After your name is announced, men may bow and ladies curtsey. Shake the monarch’s hand only when it’s offered.
- Address a queen as “Your Majesty” upon meeting her. Call her “ma’am” for the remainder of the conversation, but use “Your Majesty” again at the end of the exchange. A king should likewise be addressed as “Your Majesty,” followed by “sir.” Royals that are not heads of state should be addressed as “Your Royal Highness.”
- Follow the royal’s lead in any conversation. Be polite and charming when at a loss for a conversation. Bring up an interesting news item of the day.
This is how you greet an earthly king. But the King of all creation? Jesus shocks the disciples and us by explaining that we are to approach the Almighty, not as subjects, but as children. We’re to call Him “Father.” And this is another reason why I pray—to reaffirm my standing and enjoy the blessings and privileges of being a child of the King.
A king has many subjects, but only a few share his bloodline, making them royals. The king’s children don’t just live in the kingdom. They occupy the palace. They live with and have direct access to the king himself. By teaching us to address God as “Father,” Jesus is letting us know that just having a personal relationship with God is not enough. In the kingdom of heaven, God desires kinship. And maybe that’s why we struggle in prayer and have trouble walking in kingdom power. We’re approaching God as King rather than as Kin.
The implications of this are staggering. Consider this: If God is our Father, then Jesus is our Brother! In teaching His disciples to address God the same way He did, Jesus puts us on equal standing with Himself!
Note His words carefully: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you. . . . If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:20, 23).
When I pray, I’m at home with God. God is not a guest in my home. I’m in His “home.” We’re kin. We live together, and prayer is the love language spoken in the family.
Prayer is asking
Here’s another thought: If God is our Father, we don’t have to babble and beg. All we have to do is ask. Matthew 7:7 says, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Why? Because you belong to the royal Family. Your key opens every door in His palace. “If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (verse 11).
When you pray, you don’t have to babble and beg like the pagans, as if repetition would get God’s attention, for “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8). You can commune with God and present your requests simply, clearly, and succinctly. Why? Because you already have His attention. You are family.
Prayer shouldn’t be encumbered with rules about how, when, what posture, what words, etc. It’s a conversation. I share my life with God, and I receive life from God.
When my stomach is in knots as I pull out another credit card at the gas pump because my other card is over the limit and rejected; when I’m worried about whether the sermon I’m preparing is going to minister to the hurting hearts of my congregation; when I wait anxiously for the results of blood tests; or when I hold my sobbing 18-year-old daughter after breaking the news to her that Little Mother passed away, I don’t consult a textbook or walk through any sequenced “steps.” I just tell God about it, and the release and comfort of His presence that I feel afterwards is another reason why I pray.
Prayer is informal
To be honest, as I write this, I haven’t formally prayed since hearing the news about my grandmother. I will later, but not now. Why? Because a formal prayer isn’t always necessary in the same way that spoken words aren’t always necessary. If you’ve spent time in a hospital waiting room, you know what I mean. Moist eyes, arched eyebrows, pursed lips, or a lengthy embrace all speak volumes without anyone ever uttering a word.
If you really know a person, you understand their silence as well as their laughter. No one knows me better than God. David wrote a song about how completely he was known to God: “You know when I leave and when I get back; I’m never out of your sight. You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence” (Psalm 139:2–4, The Message).*
Whether I’m uttering words or not, my Father is always with me. He knows the prayers of my heart before I can create the sentences. Unlike my cell phone that occasionally drops calls when I lose the signal in a dead zone, I’m never out of range with God through prayer.
Prayer isn’t just methods, postures, and asking for things. It’s much more. My grandmother knew that. To her, God was both King and Kin. They walked and talked together as friends for the better part of a century, and because she was already at home with Him, she will “dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Psalm 23:6).
Eternity is just perfect for forever friends.