Friday, October 23, 2009

Learning How to Pray

After one more silent moment listening to a public prayer, it occurs to me that for all the talk about, books on, and practical practice, we still do not know how to pray... or at least pray well. It occurs to me that we learn how to pray by praying the prayers of others first. Now to those outside a liturgical tradition that might be a heretical statement. It is my contention that the liturgy teaches us to pray, that our lives of prayer flow out of and lead us back into the prayers of the liturgy (from the collect to the intercessions of the people to the final concluding collect).

My own prayer life is learned daily through such devotional resources as the Treasury, Doberstein's Prayer Book, For All the Saints, and the little Lutheran Book of Prayer I received when I was confirmed. I went through that phase when the prayers of others were rejected as unauthentic and contrived but noticed that without the voice of great pray-ers (people who pray) to instruct me, my own words became trivial, trite, and rather predictable, even mundane. I can hardly pray without the phrases drawing from the great prayers of the Church (the collects) and the classic prayers of Christians (Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open...).

We have all been there when someone began to pray and instead of a prayer we got an update on some one's medical condition or a justification for why we were asking this of God or a series of rather pedestrian statements usually beginning with the words "we just..." We have all been there when prayers took on the character of long speeches -- especially prayers following the sermon that are used to review the salient points of the sermon, one more time, this time in the guise of prayer. We have all been there when paragraphs of prayer waxed eloquent but in the end we were not quite sure what it was that we were saying our "Amen" to. The problem is that these are often held up as model prayers that we should aspire to -- when the model prayer is, of course, the Our Father, an economy of words that directs our hearts to voice spiritual needs when we are generally focused upon physical ones.

Spontaneous praying is assisted when we have learned to pray the prayers of others first. Then we learn how to give voice to our own hearts. I have some personal favorites. One in particular is a prayer by the sainted W. Harry Krieger. I keep it close to me and its words have helped give voice to my own weaknesses and have shaped my cry for the help of the God of the ages who has made Himself known to me through God man Jesus Christ.

Teach me, O Lord, not to hold on to life too tightly. Teach me to hold it lightly; not carelessly, but lightly, easily. Teach me to take it as a gift, to enjoy and cherish while I have it, and to let go gracefully and thankfully when the time comes. For the gift is great, but the Giver greater still. You are the Giver, O Lord, and in You is the life that never dies; through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen

Prayer is not a debate with God to win Him over to our side. Just the opposite. Prayer is the recitation of God's good and gracious will so that we will have confidence in that will, and no matter what the desire of our hearts, be content with that will... And that the desire of our hearts will be nothing more or less that what God wills...

In the liturgy we pray this way. The collect with its succinct statement of the themes of the lessons in prayer form. The intercessions with their straightforward requests for God's blessing upon His Church, the work of His kingdom, the workers of that Kingdom, the nations and their peoples, the sick and suffering, the poor and needy, our own gracious use of God's gracious gifts, and, finally, our worthy communion at His table. These biddings invite us to pray not with an abundance of words but with words that call us to trust in Him who has shown us His heart through His Son. These intercessions do not pray to convince or convert God's heart to our cause but that our hearts may be content in His good and gracious will. Behind these is the simple, but most profound prayer of Scripture. "Thy will be done."

It seems to me that this is the point of prayer. No conversation among equals but the creature kneeling in confidence before the Creator, surrounded by His mercies, trusting in His grace, asking for that which God has promised to give to us in Jesus' name... to which the Holy Spirit grants us the courage to and teaches us the confidence to say "Amen..."

When people ask me about prayer, I suggest buying a good prayer book (the Hymnal is a great place to start), and praying the words of others until we learn from these prayers to give voice to our own hearts...


Sue said...

Thank you for writing this. I don't feel I'm a great pray-er, and it's only in the last 8 months that I've finally developed, with the help of the Spirit, a regular prayer time in my life. I'm using my Treasury of Daily Prayer and the Lutheran Book of Prayer. Those who have prayed before me have great words that touch my heart - what better way to learn to pray than to use these as a foundation. And the day does not start or end properly for me without Luther's morning and evening prayers. It was good to read what you have to say about prayer - I find it great encouragement on my journey.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your edifying words, Pastor Peters. In praying those beloved texts the link between us and those who have gone before becomes so tangible and we are given time-tested models of prayer that teach us how to pray well.

I've always loved The Lutheran Book of Prayer in all its incarnations and the current edition is one of the first things I acquired when I came back to my Lutheran roots.

Like Sue, my day doesn't begin or end properly without Luther's morning and evening prayers.


Chris said...

My priest has always said: Make prayer your own. The Holy Fathers are a lot smarter than we are and I think that their words, at least this was the case for me, were what I had been trying to say for a long time in my own heart, but couldn't do it on my own. Whenever I pray a prayer of St. John of Damascus, St. Basil the Great, St. John Chrysostom, St. Augustine, etc., their words become mine. It's far better than merely stumbling and bumbling around like Evangelicals who seem to only pray about "we are thankful to be in your presence and, uh, uh, we ask that you make your presence known to us, and uh, uh, uhm that you are present" etc.

There is often the objection that unless the prayer is spontaneous, it's not sincere and not useful (at least according to Evangelicals) which is faulty because even those prayers of Chrysostom were once uttered spontaneously! We need to get past the idea that the fathers are no longer models of prayer. If we held prayers to the criteria of spontaneity, then why do we pray so often the Lord's prayer?

Janis Williams said...

Yes, Chris, we need to get past the idea that the fathers are no longer models of prayer. The problem is the evangelicals almost completely discount the fathers.

As a former evangelical, it has been a great gift to begin to read and pray the prayers of the pray-ers.

Of course, since most evangelicals (at least in the South) are Dispensational, Israel and her habit of praying "pre-written" prayers (the Psalms) also gets tossed. Had the fathers not learned from the Hebrews...

Praise God for His grace!

Reformation said...


I rather regularly read your blog to my edification.

I am a Calvinist, old school, Anglican, so we have some differences...yet, as one with respect for the Formula of Concord...with, as you may imagine, some places of disagreement.

Those issues to the side.

Big picture: spot-on about liturgy.

Am hiking to my friends this great post.