Somebody recently unearthed Flannery O’Connor’s prayer journal and published it. O’Connor, if you haven’t read any of her stories, is a mid-20th century writer. Some try and stuff her into a Southern Writer box, others into a Catholic Writer box, while others focus on genres of gothic or short story. As with most great artists they really stand alone. They may come from somewhere, but the vision speaks universally. She died of lupus at the age of 39, and the prayer book published is from her time at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop in her 20s. I’d hate to imagine something I wrote in my early 20’s in a personal journal being published, but that is why I’m me and she Flannery O’Connor. The New Yorker takes a look at the book here, and one sentence of the review struck me as incredibly insightful, especially as our elders have been wrestling with prayer. Quoting the article, “learning to avoid cliché and speak authentically is a predicament of both prayer and literature, and solving the problem in her prayer life allowed O’Connor to solve the same problem in her fiction.”
I’m also just going to blatantly rip off one of the best bible studies I’ve ever had the chance to attend. Pastor Rob Foote from Trinity in Ithaca led it on 1 Tim 2:1. “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” Notice those four words that Paul is urging. It might just be every word for prayer that Paul can think up, and in the context of a letter to young Timothy that could be the intent. “Timothy, my boy, stop writing to me and start praying.” But what I’m going to argue is that Paul’s sequence helps us who are learning to pray like it helped Flannery. Paying attention to the differences of the words and the order helps us to speak authentically to God. And in speaking authentically we grow in faith and understanding.
To accomplish this will require a little deconstruction first. Let me describe something and you tell me if it resonates. Piety is not a highly valued trait in our culture. You are more likely to get chided for being one of those Jesus Freaks than you are for being clueless coming before the throne of God, so our prayer life is rather haphazard and unstructured. At the same time we’ve all heard and remember bits and pieces of sermons or bible studies or confirmation classes on prayer. And in high pious form they all tended to urge giving thanks to God first, right? So a moment comes in our life when we feel the need to pray. And let’s be blunt, this is usually right after we have royally messed something up and right before what we have messed up becomes public knowledge. You could also reduce that to it is usually a moment of stark terror. And all you want to scream is “God, fix this!” And then you remember, oh, I’m supposed to give thanks first. Give thanks for what? I need this fixed, now! But if I don’t give thanks, then God won’t hear my scream of terror. And it snowballs into fight between “Pious-BS” and “I need this!”. And do you know what never actually happens? Prayer. We collapse in a fetal position, spiritually and sometimes literally, of guilt over not praying right and more guilt over messing up and terror at the hell to come. If any of that sounds familiar, I think Paul’s words might help.
The methodology I’m going to use is relatively simple. I’m going to let scripture interpret scripture, and I’m going to do this by letting the Psalms, the prayerbook of the bible define each of Paul’s request words. Now if you are a stickler you could be screaming right now how are you letting Hebrew poems define Greek words we are talking about in English? I’ll give a very simplistic reply. The same guy, the Holy Spirit, wrote it all. I could limit myself to the New Testament, or Paul’s letters, or just the book of 1 Timothy, but my intuition is that if you are talking about prayers go to how the prayer-book of the bible uses the words. If the Holy Spirit can’t work in different languages, or if you have a problem with verbal inspiration, your problem is not prayer, which is part of the life of faith. You have a problem at a much more fundamental level – God’s description of how he has worked and continues to work in this world. In Paul’s framework some intercession is required.
So, on to the first word, supplications. Such a pious sounding word, right? Slightly archaic, check. More than 3 syllables, check. Give a hint of control or at least educated vocabulary, check. And all of those checks I believe work against the true intent of this word. A bloodless way of saying this word might be our true felt needs. Paul is urging taking to God our true felt needs. But let us look at how the translators of the Psalms used this word or where they applied it. In all the bible the word is used in 71 verses. It is used 27 times in the psalms. The first appearance is Psalm 5:2 – “Give attention to the sound of my cry…” Supplication is the word “cry”. This sounds an awful lot like that stark moment of Terror. “Oh God, listen up if you are there…” Psalm 6:9 is the next place. Psalm 6 gets labeled as a prayer for recovery from illness or in my ESV – Deliver my life. I’d encourage you to read the entire Psalm, it is short, but this is stark existential terror. At the end of which the psalmist says, “The Lord has heard my plea.” The supplication is plea, which in the context is that deep anxious cry, “Oh God, just get me through this surgery…” So, just to save some words, I’m going to give you the rest of the verses in an attached file, Prayer Verse Reference File. But, I’m going to point out one other use, Psalm 142:2. “I pour out my complaint before him; I tell my trouble before him.” The psalm is for delivery from persecution. The translators chose to translate this “complaint”. The rest of the uses are similar – plea, cry, sometimes generic prayer, complaint, one time affliction. The picture in the psalms of this word is that existential prayer in that moment of terror.
Contrary to the pious-BS memory, God does not despise our cries of terror. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I don’t want to move on to how God answers our cries, at least not yet. For now I just want to let it stand that Paul urges us first to such “supplications”. We don’t need to clean these things up first. The ultimate example of this might actually be from the life of Christ, both in the Garden of Gethsemane (“take this cup from me”) and on the cross (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?). Finding our authentic prayer usually starts from the authentic moment of terror.
We’ll continue this tomorrow…