WHAT IS PRAYER?
Prayer is, at its heart, the communication that is the fabric of the human being's (and human species') relationship with their Father. When a Jew, Muslim, or Christian prays to God, the very act itself assumes these to be true at the very least:
- that there's One beyond each and all of us, beyond all that is around us;
- that this One cares enough to bother with you;
- that this One cares enough to want your response;
- that this One cares enough to respond to you;
- that this One is effective enough for that response to make a difference.
"When I go aside in order to pray, I find my heart unwilling to approach God; and when I tarry in prayer my heart is unwilling to abide in Him. Therefore I am compelled first to pray to God to move my heart into Himself, and when I am in Him, I pray that my heart remain in Him."
A Christian has an even more intimate picture than that. In most of the other faiths, the believer must get prepared to pray. Muslims, for example, have an elaborate ritual of washing themselves before their prayers, symbolic of repentance and thus cleanness/holiness before God. But Christians see it differently. God as Christ came to us as we are, to remake our relationship with the Divine. We understand that even our best holiness is rags, but Jesus' holiness in us means everything, when we come in prayer we come as we are. Unwashed. Messy and icky inside. Sometimes scared. Sometimes needy. Sometimes empty. Sometimes bored. Sometimes furious. Or screaming for revenge. But we come. We come because God has already called out to us, through the good news of Jesus the Christ. We come trusting that through prayer God can change us, and can change the things that happen in life. We come trusting that God is with us and builds us up, that the Holy Spirit prays with us and for us. We trust that the Lord will lead us to lose our anger, lead us to repentance, lead us to being open to the Spirit's voice, lead us to love of God and of each other.
How To Start Praying
That is, when Christians bother to pray at all. A rather large part of the Christian church rarely prays. They are not much different from the typical agnostic. Both doubt that prayer matters, or doubt that God loves them, or doubt that they are clean enough, or doubt that God is able to make good things happen in this world. If that's the way you think, I challenge you to just do it.
- Don't worry about your doubts.
- Don't worry about how much time you spend at prayer.
- Don't worry about using the right words.
- Don't worry that you might think something really bad and God will get mad.
- Don't worry about whether you're 'ready' to pray.
- Don't worry about whether you have the right theology for it.
- Don't worry about thinking of something to say.
- Don't worry about how to do it.
Just pray, offering whatever you're thinking and feeling to the Lord. Whatever you bring, it's a start. As you pray more regularly or more often, the usual experience is that a strange thing starts happening to you. You start being more truthful, you start turning away from what you did wrong, your attitude becomes more confident, you start taking the time to listen, you start looking for the signs of divine dialogue in your daily life, you start hungering to read the Scriptures, you start wanting to pray with others, you think less and less about yourself. You'll find things to do and ways to prepare that help you be more open to God in prayer -- you don't have to do them, but they can help. You begin to let the Holy Spirit change you. And this is the beating heart of a relationship with Someone you can't see or touch. Strange? But it's true. True love.
"One should offer not what one has, but what one is."
When you read books or hear speakers or take courses on prayer, it's very easy to get intimidated. It can sound so deep, so all-encompassing, so blissful, so difficult that it seems to be out of reach. But God isn't asking you to pray like Francis of Assisi or Jeanne Guyon or St. Anthony, though you can learn from them. God is asking you to pray like you. The Lord doesn't really care if you ever do it at morning's first light (though it is a great time for it). God doesn't care if you ever went on a retreat, or walked a prayerwalk, or kept a journal -- good things all, but that's not the point. Instead of asking how to start a prayer, just start one. God is reaching out to your consciousness, your mind, your soul. God wants to win your love.
So when you begin, it's a good idea to start small. Or, to re-start small, if you're coming back to God or if you've been badly broken. Small means little I-love-yous and thank-yous and have-mercy-on-mes. They're short, like post-its or glances. But if they're heartfelt, God takes them for what they are: real communication - a real beginning. It's small, but sometimes that's all we can manage to do. As confidence or love grows, you'll want to share more. That will come. But first do what you can. Keep at it and grow it bit by bit: "Help me learn to pray", or "Lead my friend to believe in You", or "get me through the day". Hopefully, you'll be able to grow it into a part of your daily life, dotting it throughout your day. All great things start somewhere.
Americans and Europeans tend to think of prayer as a solitary thing -- locking yourself into a closet, or maybe heading off into the desert or in a retreat. Private prayers really are important to our relationship with Christ. Yet before it is anything else, prayer is something done with others: the Body of Christ (that is, the church as the fellowship of believers in Christ). This is the fellowship as it is found around you, wherever you are -- the small group gathering, the people laying hands on someone in need, the great crowds in auditoriums or tents or arenas, in concerts of prayer, at home, at campus bible studies, in convents, at campgrounds, at prayerwalks, at anti-hunger fundraising events, and more than anywhere else, at a church building during worship.
Praying together was one of the hallmarks of the church from its start. In Acts, they gathered to pray in the days after Christ's death -- this is even before the big event in Acts 2 that started the church as such! Then right after that first event, they devoted themselves to prayer. They thanked God with praise when Peter and John were released, and then had what amounts to a group vigil praying for Peter's release from a later imprisonment. When Paul and Barnabas went off on a missionary journey, their host congregation in Antioch sent them away with prayers and fasting. And, as Paul left Ephesus for Jerusalem, the Ephesian elders prayed with him for God's leading during that harrowing journey. The early believers wanted to align their steps with God's path, whatever lay ahead.
When you pray in worship, someone else is saying, "Let us pray...". You're not doing your own thing, you're choosing to join others. You-all are not doing it according to some pattern cooked up the night before, but according to a pattern developed over thousands of years, in a direct line from the public prayers of the people we read about in the Bible. (This was also true of the ancient Hebrews -- their greatest prayers are in their worship writings, the Psalms.)
And how did all those people over all those years develop it? They gathered to hear the Word and to do the acts that the Lord had set down for them. They heard, felt, saw, smelled, tasted, and sang God's love. The Spirit knit them together, as in a quilt or tapestry. And they responded in prayer. Their public prayers taught them a lot about what private prayers were about. In public :
- they prayed when they didn't feel like it;
- they prayed when they didn't want to;
- they prayed when they'd really rather do something else;
- they prayed when they had trouble concentrating on it;
- they prayed when they weren't ready to do it;
- they prayed the Bible by basing their liturgies and readings on the Scriptures;
- they prayed for and with those they were in conflict with;
- they prayed about people and matters that they wouldn't have otherwise thought of or would have forgotten to pray for.
(Well... at least much of the time they did.)
Sounds like they needed a lot of discipline to pull it off. Right! They learned the basic disciplines of prayer in worship services. They learned that others are praying with them about the concerns they shared. And they discovered that there is great spiritual power when Christ's followers pray together with unity of purpose (or 'in agreement'). Done together, they learned that it was something far grander than the prayers of any one person. In prayer on their own, they learned that it can be as small as two -- you and God -- and that prayers fail to be truly yours when you aren't intimately involved. The lessons of community prayer feed back into private life, and the lessons of private prayers feed back into the community. That way, prayer lives as a whole, much as it was in the Psalms.
Starter Lessons in Prayer
More on prayer and the art of praying:
A 'YES' TO GOD
Real prayer comes not from gritting our teeth, but from falling in love.
No matter how good the devotional method or strategy is, if it
does not rely on God, it will fail. Prayer is meant to be a 'yes' to a God who has already said 'yes' to us. If you pray with the core of your being and surrender to the Lord, you will get the power to carry out what God wants of you, because you will be doing what God wants you to do, and God has promised to help. You yearn for what is spiritual because God loves you. The Spirit opens you to that love so you hear the Word's call for a response of love. The response is that we yield our selves to the One calling to us. Prayer, spiritual devotions, service and worship are sides or facets of that response. The most important thing to remember is that it's not about you, nor prayers or worship or learning or bearing witness or 'spirituality'. It's about God.