Thursday, February 18, 2010

Praying Attentively

Author: Conrade Yap
Date: 18 Feb 2010

MAIN IDEA – True and honest prayer is giving attention to God.

Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (Ps 43:5)

Attention is a limited resource. Wives love it. Children need it. School teachers demand it. Professors request it. Marketers entice people to give it. Advertisers everywhere take it under our noses. In the online world, thousands of Internet websites deceive people into giving their very attention through cheap flicks and expensive clicks. Using a formidable arsenal of ‘weapons of mass distraction’ (WMD), this very precious but limited supply of attention is siphoned away from many unsuspecting people. In April 2009, BBC mentions a Microsoft security report that states that 97% of the world’s emails delivered are ‘unwanted ones.

For many of us, we can be easily miffed by unsolicited email requests or hoaxes. Web advertisers are partly to blame. Using a clever cash-for-clicks model, they encourage web users to click at various links as often as possible. If an ad on a website exceeds a certain number of clicks per month, the owner gets paid. If the user goes on to purchase the product, the owner gets paid even more. This simple formula has been creatively and most profitably used by Google. In doing so, they make money and at the same time receive a disproportionate amount of attention on the Internet. Their astronomical success has made Google a household name. Even children in school learn to use the term ‘Google it’ as a 2-word way to replace the common: ‘Search for it on the Internet.’ What made Google an Internet superstar is the way it quietly garners attention for itself. In such a way, how can we not become easily distracted? How can we not succumb to surrendering our precious attention to less worthy causes? How can we avoid letting our prayer lives crumble under the weight of distractions?

Praying Inattentively
Prayer is already a challenge for some of us. Living in an Internet age has made it harder. Much harder. This is most evident when we repeat our commonly used prayer occasions. For me personally, one of the most obvious cases of inattentive praying is saying grace before meals. In my family, we observe a brief moment of silence in order to pray. All of us take turns to say grace at different days of the week. After a day of hush and rush, sitting still and going slow is a challenge. We just want to get on with it, and go to the main dish.

If there is an Olympic medal to be given out for the speed in giving thanks, I believe one of us could have easily won it. The words: “Thank you God for dinner. In Jesus’ name, Amen,” Can be made in mere seconds, some say micro-seconds. The problem with such praying is that we want to hurry through the motions in order to get to the main thing: the food. The hungrier one is, the faster the prayer. Perhaps, dinner is one of the most inappropriate times to be practicing contemplative prayer. Yet, I cannot but feel a sense of dishonesty when we try to do the ‘Christian’ thing of saying the right words, regardless of where the heart is. If giving thanks over meals is the ‘only’ time that we pray, sadly, it will make our prayer life, a life of praying inattentively.

Another example is the way that we rush through our Sunday rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. Most of the adults and elderly among us have memorized this prayer. When the service is rushed due to a late start, we tend to zoom through the prepared order of service so that we can finish on-time for after service refreshments and coffee. Such intense ‘wanting-to-get-on-with-it’ feelings make traditional rituals even more ‘ritualistic.’ After going through the motions, some people will then start to complain even more, how boring and meaningless the church service has been. I will be quick to add: “Excuse me? In the first place, aren’t you a part of the ‘boring and meaningless’ church service?” Indeed, the trouble with many of our prayers and worship is due to a preoccupation with the self rather than with God. When this happens, our attention gets focused on the self, and in doing so we get distracted from the God and people we say we love.

Tim Dearborn describes it well.

“It is a strange tragedy that western spirituality and worship are often held captive by a preoccupation with the human rather than the divine. Instead of awakening us to perceive the gracious presence of God, our worship services too often begin and end with ourselves: what we do, hear and experience. We evaluate worship in terms of what we get out of it, what we like, what we feel and what we receive.” (Tim Dearborn, Taste and See, Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1996, 31)

Indeed, it is the preoccupation with self that leads to the accumulation of attention to self that affects true praying. If everything is about I, Me, Myself, we will be giving leftovers to God. Is this how we treat the One who generously gives His Only Son to die for us? No!

The key to attentive praying is crucially to recognize that it is not about us. It is not about meeting our needs. It is definitely not about breaking the speed record in praying. No one should ever boast of any ability to pray for 1000 people in less than 1 second. Let me put it this way: Inattentive praying is dishonesty before God. In prayer, it is about entering into God's presence with attention.

Praying Attentively
Attentive prayer is one that is done with an attitude of worship. You may find this strange. Isn’t worship about singing songs and giving God glory? Isn’t worship about following a set of Sunday rituals laid out in our Order of Service in Churches? No. Prayer is the glue of worship. Prayer is the full and total attention given to God. It is the honest plea of our heart to ask God to listen to our deepest desires for Him. It is the deepest delight of our heart IN the LORD that God joyfully grants us the desires of our heart FOR God. A good prayer is attentive prayer. Once, Martin Luther wrote a simple prayer guide for his friend and barber. At the heart of this simple guide is the need to cultivate attentiveness to God. In A Simple Way to Pray, Luther writes:

“Thus if anything is to be done well, it requires the full attention of all one’s senses and members, as the proverb says, ‘Pluribus intentus, minor est ad singula sensus’ – ‘He who thinks of many things, thinks of nothing and does nothing right.’ How much more does prayer call for concentration and singleness of heart if it is to be a good prayer!”
(Martin Luther, A Simple Way to Pray, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000, p33)

If we are saying grace over meals, I recommend using fewer words, but more attention to God. Simply say with earnest and honesty, “Father, thank you,” with meaning is far more significant than pages of wordy prayers without much understanding or meaningfulness. The key of prayer is not in terms of quantity of words but the quality of attention. This is one reason why I like short prayers. They are easier to remember or memorize. They can be taught without much theological jargon. It does not drain our limited pool of attention span.

One more thing. One way to start cultivating attentive praying is to pray with the Psalms. I have been meditating through the Psalms at my other website ( It is an attempt to help cultivate attentive praying. Published daily at midnight, it is intentionally short, and allows the reader to meditate on the Psalms. You are welcome to subscribe there with your email address.

Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.” (Ps 51:10)

Thought: Prayer is not a matter of being worried about whether God answers it or not. Prayer is learning to trust that God will take care of us and people we love, regardless of our needs.


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