I have begun reading Harry Emerson Fosdick’s classic book, The Meaning of Prayer, which was written during World War I. He agrees that prayer is a natural impulse of human beings everywhere, so we see virtually everyone resort to prayer in times of personal or national crisis. But Fosdick contends that if our only prayers are these sporadic, impulsive pleas for supernatural help, our understanding of prayer and of the God to whom we pray is merely selfish superstition.

Fosdick offers a fresh telling of Jesus’ parable of the prodigal to contrast this impulsive, desperate prayer to genuine prayer, rooted in a mature relationship with God:

Suppose a man has two sons. One has a capricious, self-centered relationship with his father. He comes to his father only to ask favors, to get things for his own comfort, and to implore his father’s aid in desperate circumstances. Other than that, he scarcely acknowledges his father’s existence. The son has his own life to live, so why talk with his father–that doddering old anachronism–unless the old fellow can help him through a rough patch?

The other son has a much more intimate relationship with his father. He converses with him every day. He wants to learn what his father knows of life, to be sure. More important, this son so  loves and respects his father that he wants to become like him. So he listens to his father. He observes his father at work. He asks his father to comment on what he’s doing, not because the father owes his offspring an explanation of his actions, but because his son is precisely that–the father’s offspring, made in his image, growing into a new expression of the father’s life in this world.

Does the second son have needs? Of course. Does he ever petition his father for help? Undoubtedly. But such conversations are not the sum of his relationship with his father.