Beloved in Christ,
As we continue to discuss what it means to grow in our personal life of prayer, it is helpful to consider Jesus’ own teaching. Luke tell us this: “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught this disciples.’ And Jesus said to them, ‘When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name….’” (Luke 11:1-2).
Notice the first thing Jesus does when his disciples ask him to teach them to pray—he simply gives them words to speak to God. According to Jesus, the main way we learn how to pray is not by developing a complex theology of prayer. Instead, we learn to pray by praying. There are no short-cuts to a mature life of prayer. In the end, the only way to learn how to pray is to pray—day after day, week after week, year after year. Just like any other important skill in life, prayer is something we learn only by doing it. With that in mind, here are some practical suggestions to guide your practices of prayer:
1) Pray every day. We may feel as though we do not have time to pray. But our time is spent like every other resource we possess—on whatever we value most highly. If we value prayer as a means of grace that will allow us to grow in our love and relationship with our heavenly Father, than we will learn to invest time in prayer. In any case, it is much better to pray a little than to not pray at all. If the idea of praying every day is daunting, begin with just five minutes. The Lord is gracious, and he will bless even our small efforts.
2) Prioritize the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus gave his disciples a prayer not just to teach them principles about prayer, but to actually teach them what to pray! Every Christian, from the oldest to the youngest, can memorize and pray the Lord’s Prayer at least once or twice a day. This is where Christian prayer should begin—with the prayer Jesus taught us.
3) Prioritize the Psalms. Along with the Lord’s Prayer, the Psalms are inspired prayers given to us by God. The primary reason the Psalter is given to us is so the Holy Spirit himself might teach us to pray. Unfortunately, outside of a few familiar exceptions, much of the Psalter is rarely used in prayer by modern Evangelicals (indeed, most Christians through history would be baffled by the emphasis American Christians typically place on praying extemporaneously while largely ignoring the Psalms). Happily, praying the Psalms is not a difficult skill to learn! Indeed, simply possessing the Psalms in our vernacular language is a huge blessing compared to the experience of many Christians of the past. To pray the Psalms simply means to speak them out loud to God. The best way to pray the Psalter if you are just beginning is to choose one each day to pray and work your way through all 150 (and then start again). Our church publishes a “Psalm of the day” in our daily scripture readings, so that’s a good place to begin.
4) Consider using historical forms of prayer. One of the richest parts of Christian history is the vast store of written prayers developed by men and women over the years. Often we can grow in our life of prayer by taking these words on our own lips. A resource that has been very helpful to me is the Book of Common Prayer, originally written by the English reformer Thomas Cranmer in 1549. The BCP has been revised many times since the 16th century (I use the 1979 edition) and contains morning and evening prayer services that can be easily used by an individual or family. These short prayer services include ancient Christian prayers as well as many phrases from the Psalms and other parts of the scriptures, and include time for extemporaneous prayer as well. If this is a resource that interests you, I’d be happy to help you learn how to use it. There are also other historic forms of prayer I would be happy to recommend.
5) Pray out loud (even if you’re alone!). The practice of praying “in our heads” is a largely modern innovation, and has the disadvantage of leaving us extremely vulnerable to the whims of our wandering thoughts. However, speaking our prayers out loud to God can have the effect of forcing us to focus on what it is we are actually saying and helping us remain centered on the work of prayer. Even if it feels awkward, it’s worth trying.
6) Consider your posture. When we pray to God, we do so as embodied men and women, not spirits. What we do with our body matters! I have found that kneeling for prayers of petition and standing for prayers of adoration and thanksgiving can give my prayers new focus and expression.
7) Don’t be afraid to be silent. There are times when it is good for us to be quiet in our Father’s presence, times when we can be still and simply know that he is God and we are his beloved sons and daughters.
In closing, remember what Jesus says in Luke 11:5-13 after he gives the Lord’s Prayer. He tells us that in order to grow in prayer, we must, above all things, be persistent. We must not be discouraged if we sense silence from our heavenly Father. Instead, we must continue to ask, and seek, and knock, until the door is finally opened. Friends, let us listen to the words of Jesus and remember: there are no masters in the school of prayer—only students who are learning, more and more, to persevere. All of us are learning what it means to pray. And Jesus, our teacher, has given us his prayer, his instruction, and above all, his example. Remember how Luke 11:1 begins: “Now Jesus was praying in a certain place…” Again and again in the gospels, Jesus goes away to a quiet place to pray to his Father because he knew that his life of prayer was the beating heart of their eternal bond, a means by which he experienced afresh the communion and love which he and his Father shared from all eternity.
Let’s follow him together.
In the Peace of the Risen Christ,