The Problem of Prayer
On becoming a person of prayer
Growing up in a non-denominational Bible church, I was taught one form of prayer: intercessory prayer. Asking God for the things we need. “Dear God, thank you for this day. Please help… Amen.”
Every prayer was a dual in the Wild West, shooting requests from the hip, hoping they’d get to God before he shot something back that you didn’t want to happen. Every prayer had to come from the heart. It had to be spontaneous and authentic. “Tell God whatever is on your heart.” Add in an overdose of Calvinism, and there didn’t even seem to be a reason to shoot your prayer to God in the first place when he knew what you were going to ask before you ever said it. What you have here is a recipe for a prayerless life. All you have are requests to a God who already knows your needs before you ask.
So a prayerless life I lived for most of my life. As much as I tried, it simply didn’t make sense to me. All my life, I was told that this was a core practice for Christians and yet I couldn’t wrap my mind around how it made sense or really even how to do it. You would think it would be easy enough—just telling God what’s on your heart—but I’ve always been one to overcomplicate the easy things and prayer is no different.
A Neophyte For Far Too Long
It was reading Ronald Rolheiser that flipped a light on in a room I had never been in before. Like most other things in my faith, I discovered as new what Christians have known for centuries. Of course, I felt dumb for having missed it for so long but I was just glad to have finally found it.
Rolheiser writes about praying liturgically, praying the prayers of others who have gone before us, and establishing a ritual that can sustain a life of prayer. There are many quotes I could pull on this, but here is perhaps the most concise:
“The neophyte's mistake is to think that they can be sustained simply through good feelings and good intentions, without the help of a ritual-container and a sustaining rhythm. That's naive, however sincere. Love and prayer can only be sustained through ritual, routine, and rhythm.”
I was a neophyte for far too long. I was the one who thought I could sustain a life of prayer—really, an entire life of faith—on good feelings and good intentions. I never had a “ritual-container and sustaining rhythm.” I had grown up around the idea of a morning “Quiet Time” where you read the Bible and pray. And while I appreciate that this was a concept that was emphasized, it suffered from the same problems as I described above. There was no plan. It had to be “authentic.” It was individualistic because it was your quiet time, your time with God, and it was for you. And it really just consisted of whatever you wanted, which leaves you with nothing but the paralysis of choice. The quiet time gets closer, but it’s still too broad to be a sustaining rhythm.
Shifts For Praying More
Over the past two years, three shifts happened that have started to change things for me. Two of them are more philosophical (#1 and #3) and one of them is more practical (#2).
1. From Personal to Collective
One of the major problems with the Quiet Time model is the focus on the individual. The measure of a spiritual life is in the consistency of your quiet time. If you end up missing a streak of time in your personal quiet time, it’s a sign that your walk with God is faltering. That means it’s on you to sustain your walk with God with all the willpower you can muster. All this does is create a new treadmill of trying harder that creates shame when you fail. It’s better just to not try then to try and constantly fail.
Last Fall, my pastor preached a sermon in a series called Rhythms of Abiding, where he played the reverse card on this way of thinking. He talked about how our weekly church attendance is not what supplements our more “real” daily private devotions, but it’s actually the other way around. Our weekly corporate worship spills into and supports our daily private devotions. Weekly corporate worship sustains daily private devotion. As simple as it sounds, that changed everything for me. Because now the pressure wasn’t on me, alone, with the Bible and mustered up prayers. It was on us, the church, and the best thing I could do was show up week in and week out and open myself to that weekly rhythm to make its way into my daily practice.
This mentality really only works as well as it should in a church that has a thick liturgy. Every week when I show up to church, no matter what, we will have a call to worship, worship through song, responsive Psalm readings, a Gospel reading, confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness, passing the peace, a sermon from scripture, the Lord’s supper, a benediction, and the doxology. That’s a far cry from four songs and a motivational talk. If I miss some personal times with God, I know there will be plenty of opportunities for the Lord to minister to me—to us—through our liturgy on Sunday. The pressure is off. The most important thing I can do every week is show up to church. Everything else in my life as an individual flows from my life as part of the church, not as an individual showing up to church for my personal bespoke faith journey.
2. From Extemporaneous to Written
There is nothing wrong at all with praying to God what is on your heart. In fact, it’s good. But unless you’re just incredibly in touch with your inner life beyond what most people are, I’ve come to believe—like Rolheiser said—it’s simply not sustainable. We need rituals to sustain a life of devotion.
My introduction to prayer books was through the recently released Be Thou My Vision. Using this for several months unlocked something for me I had never experienced before. Praying prayers with the saints before me, allowing their words to be my words. Having a mini-church service every day by going through the same rhythms personally that we do corporately: a call to worship, confession and assurance, readings, prayers, creeds, and more. It all just made sense.
It didn’t take long before I wanted the original: The Book of Common Prayer. So I got one and it’d be an understatement to say that it changed my life. The beauty of the prayers, the daily Psalms, the consistency of the morning and evening offices. It made sense, but even more so because it was so saturated in Scripture and it made sense with beauty. Both books make space for extemporaneous prayer which combines these two practices into one. It’s a both/and, not an either/or. But what I love about the Book of Common Prayer is that it has so many more prayers than just those in the daily offices.
What should I pray for my family? Thankfully, there are prayers on page 828 and 829 of the Book of Common Prayer that pray for my family better than anything I could make up on my own. The desires of those prayers are my desires. It’s so helpful to have those to pray daily for my family, especially when there is nothing pressing or particular going on. Those prayers sustain me when I don’t know what else to pray.
The one modification I’ve made recently is exchanging the daily lectionary in the back of the BCP for my church's Bible reading plan. After all, the rhythm should flow from my church, and, despite the liturgy, I’m not Anglican. There is something special about reading scripture with my church but praying the prayers of the Church. It also makes it easier to change things up for a season if I want to. Like right now, I’m going through The Life of Jesus in 30 Days instead of the BCP for Advent and Christmas, but my Bible reading plan doesn’t change, and I can simply pick the BCP back up in January.
3. From Emotion to Imagination
This one is slightly more nuanced, but let me explain. I used to think that the point of a quiet time was to maintain a sort of spiritual high, to stoke your feelings for God. And I don’t deny that is certainly part of it. But I’ve shifted from primarily focusing on my feelings to focusing on my imagination. What do I mean by that?
I believe that our feelings are downstream from our imagination. Our feelings will align with however we imagine God, the world, and our life in it to be. While our feelings drive much of our action, our imagination drives our emotions. So we need to allow God to reshape our imagination of reality to align with how he has revealed it to be. He’s revealed reality to us through scripture, and scripture is activated in us through prayer. This is why we need to spend time in scripture and prayer, not to stoke our feelings or earn God’s favor, but to submit our imaginations to God and allow him to shape them into his image.
The point of prayer isn’t simply my own personal growth. That would reduce it back down to being purely individualistic and expressive. It’s an encounter with God himself. What’s changed is my expectations for what an “encounter” looks like. It looks more like the still small voice than than the earthquake and whirlwind of strong emotions and spiritual highs. And encounters with God never leave you the same. But I’ve also changed my expectations of what transformation looks like. Instead of one sweeping transformation in a moment like Paul on the road to Damascus (though, obviously, that can happen), it looks more like the disciples on the road to Emmaeus, walking with God for a long time and realizing they had been transformed after the encounter had ended.
The ritual isn’t the goal, the ritual facilitates the goal. As Augustine confessed, “You were with me, but I was not with you.” God is always with us. But the ritual is a way to devote ourselves to regularly being with God, attending to his presence, submitting to his will, and inviting the transformation of our hearts.
This completely changes the motivation for reading scripture and prayer. I’m no longer looking for a feeling. I’m looking for a change in my character through “the renewing of my mind” by daily submitting it to God. That includes offering intercessory petitions to God and asking him to move in specific situations, but even that is an expression of submission shaped by a changed imagination.
Three Categories of Prayer
I now think about prayer in three categories that can all happen in the same sitting:
I usually start with contemplative prayer. You might also just call it silence or meditation. Sitting in silence and allowing my mind to clear to hear from God. Meditating on that day’s Call to Worship or a phrase from Scripture like, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me, a sinner.” The goal is to let go of what is worrying or distracting me and sit quietly in the presence of God.
Then the liturgical prayer I described in #2. Going through the morning or evening office, reading the Psalms, and praying the prayers.
And somewhere in the middle of liturgical is space for specific intercessions. Praying for needs and hopes, sufferings and desires, strength and sustenance, myself and others. I don’t feel the need to pray for everything all at once anymore. If I make a habit of showing up every morning, there will be enough time to pray for the things that need to be prayed for.
Back to the Quiet Time
We’ve circled all the way back around to the Quiet Time but with entirely different foundations, motivations, and rituals. Instead of it being “my time with God,” it’s the overflow of “our time with God” as the church. Instead of it being to stoke feelings for God, it’s allowing God to shape our imaginations, which drives every part of us. Instead of being extemporaneous and individualistic, it’s praying the prayers of the church and reading scripture with the church.
We finally have a ritual container and a sustaining rhythm, a trellis for the vine of spiritual life to grow on.
Last year, I felt the weight of a prayerless life. The times I had prayed before, I saw God move. Truly. He has answered prayers of small comfort and prayers that have quite literally altered the course of my life. But I always felt the emptiness of not being able to sustain a life of prayer. I knew I couldn’t go my life being a prayerless Christian. So, I asked God to make me a person of prayer. And unsurprisingly, he has been answering that prayer too.
But it took changing the way I view things and showing me tools that The Church has always used even when my churches that I have been a part of didn’t. I’m at the beginning of a journey, but it’s cool to see God work to change a heart when it genuinely desires to be changed.
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