(RNS) Theologian James Mulholland has written a book cuttingagainst the cultural grain. In a time of plenty when it's fashionable toimplore God for what we want, Mulholland urges a more selfless approachto prayer.
He contends prayer's true meaning is not about what we want, butabout what God wants and his new book, "Praying Like Jesus: The Lord'sPrayer in a Culture of Prosperity" (HarperSanFrancisco, $14.95) is atimely meditation on his view of prayer and discipleship.
Muholland, an ordained American Baptist minister, challenges theoverwhelmingly popular prayer pattern exemplified by the so-calledprayer of Jabez, which has become something of a sacred cow in the worldof popular American spirituality.
"The Prayer of Jabez: Breaking Through to the Blessed Life"(Multinomah Publishers, $9.99) by Bruce Wilkinson, is a small book thathas topped The New York Times bestseller list and become wildly popular.The book, which had sold more than 4 million copies as of late spring,is a slim volume, one infinitely more successful than might be expected.
It repeats a short prayer included in a section of biblicalgenealogies. Uttered by an obscure Old Testament figure named Jabez, the32-word petition asks: "Oh, that you (God) would bless me indeed, andenlarge my territory, that your hand would be with me, and that youwould keep me from evil, that I may not cause pain!"
The prayer's popularity feeds a rampant element in American societythat seeks personal success and material gain, not God's purpose, arguesMulholland. An Indianapolis resident, he has worked for years in prisonministry, assistance to the homeless and youth community serviceprograms. He worries that prayer's self-correcting nature is beingdistorted in a culture of prosperity.
"Across America, hundreds of pastors are being pulled aside byexcited church members, who are saying, `You have to pray this prayer.It's changed my life.' Such a testimony is hard to dispute, especiallywhen it is a prayer that includes the requests `bless me, enlarge myterritory, keep your hand on me, and keep me from pain,' he writes. "Ina materialistic, self-centered culture, such a prayer will always beattractive."
If pastors embrace this prayer wholeheartedly, Mulholland says, theywill ignore warnings from the book's author that his book is notintended to justify selfishness. "Unfortunately, they won't reflect onthe dangers of teaching self-centered people to begin each day with thechant, `Bless me!' They won't worry about the compromises inherent in amarriage of prayer and prosperity."
Instead, Mulholland urges Christians embrace the Lord's Prayer astaught by Jesus to the disciples in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
"I invite you to reconsider the `Prayer of Jesus.' I cannot assureyou of material blessing. I cannot promise you expanded prosperity,power, and influence. I cannot guarantee you a life free from struggleand pain," Mulholland says. "Of course, to expect such results is morelike magic than prayer. If you are only interested in getting what youwant, I have nothing to offer you."
Actually he does. But his lessons are not easy.
Exploring his own life, his self-righteousness and his need forapproval, Mulholland teaches a countercultural lesson. First, one mustget beyond basic stumbling blocks, he says, including prayers ofself-righteousness and self-interest. He goes on to explore how the nameused to address God may be less significant than how one prays, urgingthat prayer be approached with an understanding of the importance ofsuch values as responsibility and community.
In a wide-ranging meditation that takes readers from the late 1980sfall from grace of televangelist Jim Bakker to the benefits ofconfession, Mulholland articulates a powerful argument for the Lord'sPrayer.
"The point of prayer is not to tell God what you want, but to hearwhat you need," he stresses. "It is not approaching God with ourdemands, but listening for God's commands. It is not about seeking ourwill, but learning to discern God's will. This is so important tounderstand in a culture that caters to our every whim. Prayer isn'tabout me. It is about God."