Faith Works 9-7-13
Teach Us To Pray
"Lord, teach us pray" asked the disciples in Luke 11.
The model outline of prayer that Jesus teaches is also found in Matthew's gospel, in the sixth chapter, but it's in Luke's account that we hear the request as a question: "Lord, teach us to pray."
It is something that most of us have to learn, and practice to make more comfortably a regular part of our personal routine. There's a level of prayer that comes naturally ("Oh Lord, don't let me mess up"), but if we never grow and mature spiritually past that sort of reflexive prayer, we'll lose out on a real blessing and gift that can help us live calmly, boldly, joyfully, even in the middle of chaos and brokenness.
Anne Lamott argues that there are three essential prayers: Help, Thanks, and Wow! I like that summary, and think she has a good descriptive point. What I'd push past is the idea that those three categories are the sustaining *practice* of prayer, as Paul was pointing us towards with the idea of "pray without ceasing" (I Thessalonians 5:17).
If someone comes to me whether as a fellow Christian, or specifically as a pastor, and says "help me out with this, padre; prayer – how do you do it, or at least do it right?" . . . well, there's a few steps I usually start with.
First, go to church. Oddly enough, this gets left out in many discussions of prayer, especially personal prayer. I think this is because often teachers of spirituality warn against letting praying in church be the only time we pray, and that's absolutely correct. Preachers especially need to be warned against this lazy habit!
But in general, if you are trying to deepen your prayer life, I think you benefit from starting in public worship, and listening, listening closely, to the prayers lifted up there. In most sanctuaries on a Sunday there's an invocation of some sort, prayers of the people at some point (often called a pastoral prayer), prayers in and around the offering and communion, and not infrequently a closing prayer either of the sermon or of the service itself. That's four to six examples for you to consider and elaborate on for yourself, to start each week. If you hear a prayer that doesn't work for you at all, fine: why? What was it about that prayer that sounded off? Did the person praying stop addressing God and start making a speech to the audience? Were they getting caught up in a point that didn't quite make it into clarity? (We've all been there.) Or did it push some buttons for you, and if so, what were they?
You also can find strong models of prayerful address in the hymns. Many hymns are, quite intentionally, prayers in full. Think about what "Amazing Grace" says: it's a prayer of sorts. "How Great Thou Art" is unambiguously addressed directly to God, and is undoubtedly a prayer. That's a start!
As you go into the week, if you actually "get into" those prayers from Sunday service, spoken and sung, you've given yourself some outlines, some images, a framework on which to start to offer up your own prayers. Lamott's three are a good sorting tool, but most of us would like to ask for "Help" with a little more detail, but in a spirit appropriate to the endeavor.
Which is where our "help" prayers, I would always suggest, are best served by making sure that we keep them in balance with what are called "intercessory prayers," or "help" prayers we are lifting up for others. If our calls for "help" are only for ourselves, we're quickly going to find ourselves going in circles, and feeling like we're not going anywhere. The spiritual work of bending our heart's focus away from our own concerns to those of others always has a way of putting our needs, our fears, into context, where they usually recede in proportion as we are reflecting on the needs and trials of those around us.
And we get a broader sense of what it means to ask for God's intervention, and a healthier sense of when we're getting a response, even when it isn't what we started out asking for.
So two first steps, the prayers in weekly worship, and praying for others. If you're still curious, I'll take us a little further into this journey into prayer next week.
Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in central Ohio; tell him how prayer has blessed you at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.