The analogy of a paper clip certainly need not be confined to the discipline of prayer alone. The paper clip (oh small and unimportant paper clip!) could represent any number of spiritual disciplines that an individual incorporates into his or her life. Still, the bent posture of prayer and the openness, expectancy, and trusting implicit in the act of prayer are valuable pictures of how we might rightly approach any discipline we undertake—not for the value innate to any discipline, but for the infinite worth of the one for whom we undertake them.
It is an easy conclusion to draw that practicing spiritual disciplines like prayer makes us spiritual people or that doing so will bring us closer to God or make us holier or more righteous. Those things are possibilities, but not inevitabilities.
Mike’s “Paper Clip 2” post reminded me of an insight that revealed to me that I’d believed this falsehood. I trace it to Richard Foster’s book, Celebration of Discipline. Actually, I’m not sure if it was his book at all, although my memory recalls it as such. Do you ever have that experience? Where you try to recount your memory through a book or a place only to find that it was nothing like you remembered, in other words, not nearly as good?
No matter, I found the passage that captures that informed my thinking about the purpose of spiritual disciplines: “By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done…. The Disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God so that he can transform us.”
Think of it in terms of the paper clip. Laid out straight and proud, the piece of wire might masquerade as a key or suffice as a toothpick, but it was not made for that, and those other things do it better. Bent as it was meant to be, it is ready to be used for any two or more papers. Does its form ensure that it will be used immediately? No. But it is available and prepared for use when that purpose might arise. In the same way, spiritual disciplines like prayer prepare us. They make us ready to be used by God, in his time, at his disposal. But if we are not bent, we will not be ready. Certainly we could do other things, but we were not made to. John the Baptist knew what it meant to be bent.
He is a voice shouting in the wilderness, “Prepare the way for the Lord’s coming!”