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God's Palette ~ Painting in Different Colors

    Is there a "right" way to pray? Johann Christoph Arnold doesn't think so. People from every walk of life seek to connect with God. Poets remind us that anything we do can be a prayer, if we intend it to be. And Christ himself pointed to the divine spark that glows within every human heart, whether or not a person chooses to fan it into flames. Through his quiet certainty in God's power to touch every life, Arnold shows us that prayer is not a commodity to lay claim to, but a gift in which all can share.

    In all of us there is the need to relate to something or someone greater than ourselves, a striving to elevate our human condition above the daily struggle for survival. There is a yearning for a power that can impart vision, meaning, and purpose to life, provide comfort in times of need, and promise life after death.

    Prayer is not the exclusive domain of Christianity. Many Christians think that prayer to anyone other than "their" God is idolatry. This attitude is typical of the arrogance with which many American and European Christians regard the rest of the world. But surely God listens to the longings of all those on earth. We cannot be so narrow-minded that we fail to appreciate his work in other religions and movements. He does not work by one method only; he does not paint in just one color, or play in one key alone. "In my Father's house are many rooms."

    There is something of the divine in every culture, every religion, and each one has something to teach us. Rabbi Kenneth L. Cohen writes that, "when religion causes us to forget that other people are created in the divine image, when we are prepared to sacrifice others on the altar of our beliefs, we become fanatics. When we use religion to make God small like ourselves...we are fanatics."

    Ever since the beginning of the world, people have believed that turning to a superhuman being would bring blessing and even redemption from their present condition. There was a distinct element of expectancy and acknowledgment of the Supreme Being in the religions of Sumer and Babylon, as well as ancient Egypt. Zoroaster was a Persian prophet who in the sixth century B.C. founded a religion characterized by the worship of an "absolute" God who was engaged in a cosmic fight against evil. The Greek and Roman civilizations, too, as pagan as they may seem today, acknowledged a supreme God. In aboriginal or polytheistic religions such as Hinduism, or pantheistic expressions of spirituality such as those found among Native American tribes, there is usually a supreme God, and petition closely parallels our notion of prayer.

    The believing Jew prays both when he or she is alone, and in the community: in personal prayer he or she is one with the people; the prayers spoken in communion with others are as much personal as they are communal. The Israelites of old were surrounded by a pagan society with its idol worship. Therefore, the important prayer said at the dawn of each new day, the Shemah, proclaims the sovereignty of God and the oneness of everything in his creation: "Hear, O Israel: the Lord is our god; the Lord is the only one."

    Joe, a doctor I know, finds spiritual renewal in the culture and religion of native tribes of the American Southwest. He has a unique view of our communication with God:

    Above the earth is a great circle of prayer into which everyone from every faith - and those without faith - can contribute, and from which each can draw strength as well as answers. The beautiful thing is that when you pray, you are connecting with this tremendous power that comes from all corners of the earth.

    In Buddhism there is the eightfold path, reminiscent of the Ten Commandments. The goal of detachment from worldly desire is attained through discipline of the senses and devotion to Buddha, who is the manifestation of wisdom and compassion. Silent meditation is valuable, as is "mindfulness," an inner wakefulness to the present moment. Thich Nhat Hanh, a widely respected Zen teacher, writes:

    In a real prayer, you ask only for the things you really need, things that are necessary for your well-being, such as peace, solidity, and freedom - freedom from anger, fear, and craving...You also touch the wholesome seeds in your consciousness and water them. These are seeds of compassion, love, understanding, forgiveness, and joy.

    I have many friends in the Muslim community. They have tremendous conviction and depth of faith. My wife and I have also been in the Middle East several times, simply in an attempt to have some small share in the distress of the people there. Warfare and sanctions have already caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children, due to starvation and lack of medical supplies. My heart aches for them. I found it challenging how, in their suffering, many Iraqis are becoming more spiritually attuned and are turning more to prayer. For them and for others the world over, prayer is the only recourse, for it gives them hope and strength to carry on in the face of extreme, unbelievable odds.

    A friend who has traveled to Iraq numerous times, recently told me the following story. On one of his visits he had asked an Iraqi what he could do to help the country and its people, and received a most unexpected answer. The man told him to pray for those who have caused the suffering, to pray that when they die, their souls would go to heaven. "Why?" my friend asked. "So they will be comforted for all eternity by the poor children of my country who died by their hands."

    "What a pity, that so hard on the heels of Christ came the Christians," writes Annie Dillard. Not only have we forgotten Jesus' prayer in John 17, that his disciples may be one even as he and the Father are one; we have divided up his Word and his Body and founded churches instead of being one family of his disciples. In the course of centuries, Christianity has spawned a multitude of divisions, whose outrageous treatment of each other and of different faiths is an insult to his name. More unbelievers have been scared away than converted to the faith.

    Whatever our affiliation, each one of us will one day stand alone before God. Then he will not ask: Were you Catholic, Protestant, Muslim or Jew? but: Did you love your neighbor and feed the hungry? Did you clothe the naked and visit those in prison? So many of us who call ourselves Christians tend to be self-assured and self-righteous; yet all too often our words are not matched by our deeds.

    The one overwhelming message that stands at the center of the New Testament is love in action. And we have examples among his followers who, despite human failings, spread the gospel of love. The apostle Paul, who had earlier persecuted the Christians, became one of Christianity's most powerful figures. In his prayers he rarely asks God for those things we most often pray for: safety, physical healing, material blessings. He is more concerned with strength of character, wisdom and discernment, love and sacrifice, personal knowledge of God and spiritual power, courage in spreading the gospel, endurance, and salvation. And unlike many modern Christians, his prayers are not selfish wishes uttered merely on behalf of himself or those dear to him. They are said for the whole earth.

    How should we pray? Jesus gives us clear advice: he warns us against false piety and public show, and encourages us to pray privately and simply:

      Our Father, who art in heaven,
      hallowed be thy name.
      Thy kingdom come.
      Thy will be done on earth
      as it is in heaven.
      Give us this day our daily bread.
      Forgive us our debts
      as we forgive our debtors,
      and lead us not into temptation,
      but deliver us from evil:
      For thine is the kingdom,
      the power, and the glory, for ever.

    Brief as they are, these twelve lines cover every aspect of human life! Nothing is left out. People recite it many times a day all over the world, mostly heedless of the power and blessing in the words. Through this prayer we enter God's presence, as when Moses approached the burning bush and God said, "Take off your shoes, you are on holy ground."

    Thousands of pages have been written about the Lord's Prayer. I believe much of its power lies in its brevity and simplicity. When we have acted in haste or offended the spirit of love, we need to ask for forgiveness. In hours of temptation, we need to ask to be led safely, and we need to be provided for and protected day by day. Above and beyond that, we need the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts and change us from our very foundations. For this to happen we must ask, "Thy will be done." And we must mean it.

    Johann Christoph Arnold

    Excerpted from Cries from the Heart, available FREE in e-book format. Click through and download from this page.

    Reprinted from www.bruderhof.com.