Tuesday, October 09, 2012

What is prayer?

I'm kind of obsessed with prayer. I fully endorse it, practice it daily, but really have no idea what it is. There are tons of legitimate questions around prayer. What does it do? Does it change just me, or also God? Why do some prayers go unanswered? Why pray at all? What counts as prayer? How should I pray?

I think an entire systematic theology could be written on prayer, because it encompasses everything we are likely to say about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and our life in that divine and human Trinitarian complexity.

But a blog is not a fully worked out systematics. It's just some notes, some pointers. So here are my top five suggestions for how to pray or think about prayer:

1. Pray the daily prayer office. I link to a dynamic web-based version from a Lutheran church in Hawaii because they make it super easy to pray the offices daily. Don't know what the daily prayer offices are, or how to pray them? Just go to the page, click on the service you want to pray, and everything is set up for you to pray through an entire daily prayer service on the spot. The page also has a brief explanation of the daily prayer offices and their history. The daily prayer offices are far-and-away the most common way I center my prayer life.

2. Think of prayer using this list:

You're awesome.
I'm sorry.
Thank you.

If you have children, these five phrases are easy to teach even the youngest children, and in total they encompass every kind of prayer you can imagine. Sometimes this form of prayer has been called ACTS--Acclamation, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication--but those are fancy words, and hard to memorize. It's not at all hard to remember You're awesome. I'm sorry. Thank you. Please? Why, God?

3. Prayer is Christ's appeal to the Father, and we join Christ in his prayer. This way of thinking about prayer helps us pray all kinds of prayers (especially the psalms) that we would feel inadequate praying on our own, but if they are the prayers of Christ, and we are joining him in that prayer, suddenly we can pray with confidence, hope, even audacity.

4. Poetry is a worthwhile way to approach prayer. I took a stab at this last year in a post on what we are doing when we pray. This is why so many prayers are written down. For example, in her recent (and incredible) anthropological inquiry into understanding the American Evangelical Relationship with God (When God Talks Back), T. M. Luhrmann attends prayer training classes in a Vineyard congregation in Chicago, and later in California. She writes, "People told me that when you are learning to hear God, it really helps to write down your prayers" (54). Keeping a prayer journal is a great idea. Although I don't keep one myself, I do keep a prayer "list," and as a worship leader I write the prayers of the church and other prayers for worship. Writing prayers out is a very different experience from simply praying at will, and helps focus prayer and make it more real.

5. Memorize some prayers. You don't have to make stuff up. Besides the Lord's Prayer, my mainstays for prayer are the meal prayer from Luther's Small Catechism, the Nunc Dimittis, which I sing before bed every night, and the Jesus Prayer. I also find myself periodically praying the Rosary. On my short list is to memorize more Psalms, because I find them to be of help and consolation in all sorts of situations.

6. In a way, everything is prayer. Sometimes we may have the image of prayer as that which is done while kneeling, hands folded, with an especially large space of time available and with the correct disposition in our hearts. But consider the possibility that a recent conversation you had was prayer; that a specific desire you felt was prayer; that a frustration currently burdening you is prayer; that the joy you recently experienced was prayer; that even your last big sigh was a prayer. Prayer is much more than we often realize or trust. All that is necessary is perhaps a larger awakening/mindfulness, to the full extent of our participation in Christ's prayer to the Father in the power of the Spirit.


  1. '(P)rayer is the most optimistic act a creature can perform.' - Robert W. Jenson, The Christian Century, April, 2006.

    The moment when God is silent, when God is absent - that is the beginning of prayer. - Archibishop Anthony Bloom, 'Beginning to Pray.'

  2. I've been using "Common Prayer - A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals" each day for about 9 months. It uses the daily office and includes a story of some of those ordinary followers of Jesus who stumbled upon extraordinary. I love it but wish I had others to sing the songs with!

  3. Love love love this post. I did a series on Prayer last Lent ... check it out: http://www.soulmunchies.com/lent-where-do-i-start/

    We all want to know how to pray, when in reality, all it is is simply talking (and listening) to God...like we would any other friend. But it seems so much harder!!!