Mark D. Roberts, pastor of the Irvine Presbyterian Church in Irvine, California has written a fine book on prayer entitled No Holds Barred. This book invites the reader to the practice of passionate and honest prayer. The title, which advocates setting aside conventional rules of politeness in prayer, attracted me to the book because recent conversations had suggested to me that those same traditional rules had become barriers to prayer for some of my parishioners.
Working with the different types of prayer exemplified in the Psalms, Roberts illustrates the kind of openness that is possible and necessary in a lively and personal relationship with God. For example, statements of doubt may seem out of place in the faith community, but Roberts interprets Psalm 77 to show that God welcomes prayers of doubt and desperation:
I am a well-worn doubter, so I know all too well the contours of this darkness. I know how tempting it is to stop praying. After all, what am I supposed to say to God when I question whether he exists or whether he cares for me? Am I supposed to pray, Lord, I don't even know if you're there to hear this prayer. And if you are, I'm not sure you care enough to pay attention? If we take Psalm 77 seriously, then the answer is "Yes, exactly. Pray your doubts! Yes, question God's existence or his goodness!" (p. 85)Prayers of anger and vengeance violate all the conventional ideas about how one should pray to the God who forgives and who commands us to be forgiving. Roberts explains the imprecatory psalms such as Psalms 3, 58, 69, 137 to show that such prayers are appropriate.
As I read the book, I found that it stimulated an ongoing personal reflection on what is happening when I lead public prayers. Although Roberts did not explicitly ask these questions, I am giving some long thoughts to the possibility and likelihood that the style(s) of praying I model in public prayer might contribute to inhibitions in private prayer among my parishioners. Knowing full well that the rules of politeness are out of place in private prayer, I wonder how far I can go in public prayer.
This book would be very useful for individual reading and spiritual growth. Each chapter closes with suggested prayer exercises the reader might try. The book also includes a discussion guide which would be very useful if a study group used the book together.