Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dimensions of Prayer

The slender paperback "Dimensions of Prayer" by Douglas Steere sat dusty and mostly unread on my shelf since I purchased it in August 2009 at Duke Seminary. Douglas Steere writes with powerful prose, and the wisdom of a life lived with Christ causes truth to pour from each page. The book was well organized and divided into four chapters and numerous subsections. The way Steere regales the reader with stories and wisdom from giants of the Christian tradition made the concepts easy to understand and a joy to read. Once you have set your mind to reading "Dimensions of Prayer" you could finish it in a flash. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to develop a more powerful inner life.

The reason the book sat "mostly unread" was because of my own cowardice. Sometimes truth is difficult to stomach or irritates the status quo. Douglas Steere explains, "To come near to God is to change", if we draw near to God we cannot expect to stay the same. Steere invokes an image familiar to fans of Screwtape Letters when he writes:

"Is it not the dread of this self-awareness and this change that causes each of us to resist the call to continued prayer? . . . It can be put almost as bluntly as this: we do not pray, or we give up prayer, because a strategist within us knows all about what takes place in this prayer chamber, knows that a drastic change is involved, and senses the threat."

The rest of the review will follow the sequence of his chapters: Prayer and the Human Situation, To Pray is to Change, The Power of Prayer, and The Dialogue Between Prayer and Action.

1. Prayer and the Human Situation

Prayer sometimes seems boring and tiresome. But consider how bold the following statement is: "Francois de Sales expressed this [importance o prayer] very simply by telling those who pray to begin by remembering Whose Presence they were to come". How bold! When we kneel to pray and surrender our hearts we are making a declaration that we wish to have communion with the Creator of the Universe!

Moreover, He wants intimacy and relationship with us. Steere reminds us, "We do not project or generate grace. Nor do we initiate the redemptive order or process which, when we let it, sweeps into its course our scarred lives, our prayers, and our concerns for others. The redemptive process is already going on. It sprang out of the heart of the Creator of nature; it is a second kind of creation." He wants intimacy and worship because our proximity to Him will make us beautiful people.

He reaches out for us like in Luke 15; but, sometimes his outreach looks different (He also invented hide-and-seek). Steere relays the following story that illustrates this point,

"There is a Jewish Hasidic story of a rabbi's son who came in drenched with tears from a game of hide-and-seek with some neighborhood playmates. When his father asked him what was the matter, his son told him that he had hidden as was expected but that no one had bothered to seek him. The rabbi drew his son to himself and tenderly told him that now, perhaps, he could for the first time know how the dear Lord felt who also hid himself in order to be sought, and was still waiting in vain for his people to seek him."

God never leaves or forsakes us, but, sometimes He hides to help cultivate an attitude of intentionality and desire. No matter whether we feel God reaching for us, or whether He has withdrawn to cultivate this intentionality, we must place God at the center of our lives. And, He will sustain and grow us.But, more than bustling overtures of God's grand love Steere invites readers into the practical part of prayer.

What do we do when we pray? Steere comments, "The scaffolding of prayer is a human matter," and "In order to pray, you have to stop being 'too elsewhere'" The details such as kneeling, suppine, sitting, whatever ---these are humanly devised. The importance of prayer, Steere says, is to be receptive to the Divine. You have to want to pray. Quoting John Wesley, "Whether you  like it or no, read and pray daily. It is for your life; there is no other way: else you will be a trifler all of your days . . . Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer."

Devotional reading is important, but, Steere warns that devotions should not replace prayer. If we substitute reading for prayer we have been tempted to evade direct communion with God. Prayer may take a lot of conscious effort; however, these willful and deliberate acts give rise to communion. Finally, when you pray Steere writes, "Real prayer is focused upon God and God's redemptive love . . . Real prayer is capable of rising to another level."   

The wisdom culled from Steere in this section is too much to write in this blog post. But, to close this section: What about distraction? Our minds race in prayer. Teresa of Avila confessed, "My mind wandered about like an insane person from room to room . . . [yet] we are bound to pray with attention and may God grant that . . . we may succeed . . . without wandering thoughts. I sometimes suffer from them and I find the best remedy is to keep my mind fixed on Him to whom my words are addressed." Steere advises us to accept and acknowledge distractions and His grace will cover even some of our most feeble attempts.

2. To Pray is to Change

TO COME NEAR TO GOD IS TO CHANGE. God is the Potter and we are the clay. He is always molding us, and, in prayer we will undergo a continual conversion. The cost of this renewal though is nothing less than our whole lives. We must have hearts that do not hold back.  In this section Steere invites adventure and heroics like a brilliant pre-battle speech.

The pearl of greatest price was not purchased for a trifling sum. Someone found it so gorgeous and worthwhile they were willing to give up everything. Likewise we should not hold back with God. Steere advises that our prayer lives will soar when we stop holding back.

Prayer must not ignore adoration. Steere writes, "There are many people in our time who simply have no conception of what adoration is or what part it must take in the practice of prayer . . . The adoration of God in prayer is a mixture of gratitude and reverance and awe." The side effects of adoration are peace and blessing. When we spend time in God's presence, adoring, thanking, praising we will be changed people.

. . . uh, I may need to write a Part II Review, because this book was so thick with wisdom I'm finding in nearly impossible to winnow down observations. In short, prayer removes the dross of the world from our hearts and awakens our identities as sons and daughters of the Living God.  We are invited to become people that live from the inside out rather than outside-in (which is the way I have done so many things in the past).
Steere is a highly qualified guide to help navigate the terrain of prayer. This book is highly recommended.

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