Prayer is a discipline.
My experiences with prayer have varied. When I was a young child I was instructed how to pray, both in form and posture. Folding my hands, closing my eyes, bowing my head, I addressed God as Father, or spoke to Jesus, and acknowledged the goodness which I had experienced in my life. I may have addressed the Holy Spirit, but that aspect of Trinitarian language was not central. I would thank God for my family, my friends, the blue sky, the green grass. I’ll never forget how my brother used to thank God for apple juice at the dinner table. I would ask God to heal those I knew were sick, or be with those people whom I loved. Prayer was described as a conversation with God, part listening, part speaking. Along with Bible study and church attendance, prayer completed the tri-fecta of disciplines which made up the Christian life during my earliest years.
As I have grown older the number of disciplines with which I am familiar has expanded. This is largely in part to Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard’s The Spirit of the Disciplines. Even with this expanded set of practices, I cannot help but recognize the primacy of prayer. This is largely because in a significant way I find it difficult to do–that is, to pray. There are times when I just can’t find words to pray. So I don’t. Or I sit, and I listen.
Prayer has always been easier for me in community. Why this is so I cannot say, but when I pray alongside other Christian people I am able to experience the presence of God. I am also able to invoke the words of Scripture and words from song and liturgy, weaving together wonderful speech which I have been taught. Thank God for both the words of Scripture and the words of poets, song writers, and liturgists who have provided truthful speech which I can employ in prayer.
I have engaged myself in much theological conversation, much reading, much Bible study, and much Christian service. These are the things that keep us busy. I confess that I have not been engaged enough in the practice of prayer. Such a practice is important for many reasons. Prayer is the place where we connect with God, are provided with vision, and deepen the nature of our understanding. We are able to reflect on God as Trinity, on the church, and the state of our own souls. We are able to engage in intercession, praying for others’ well-being, and that the conditions here would be “on earth as it is in heaven.” Through prayer, it is hoped that we might also widen our ability to love in a manner consistent with the person of Jesus Christ.
This week I read Karl Barth’s Prayer. Following Barth’s treatment of the Lord’s Prayer, the book includes a small sampling of pastoral prayers written by this great theologian. Barth prays:
O Sovereign God, through Jesus Christ your Son you have humbled yourself in order to exalt us. You became poor to make us rich. You suffered and died, and in so doing gave us freedom and life. And this eternal mercy and good news displays your might and majesty as our Creator and Lord, the glory in which we praise you and in the light of which we may live all the days you give us. For this we thank you.
And in thanking you, we can come to you aright. We are able to spread out before you all that to our understanding seems hard and perplexing and in need of your care. In your mercy remember us all and be merciful to us, now and forever, for without you we can do nothing.
Have mercy on our church on earth in its division and dispersion, its weakness and its error.
Have mercy on the old and the young, on unbelievers far and near, on the godless and idolators who have not, or have not yet, heard your name in truth. Have mercy on the governments and the peoples of this earth, on their perplexity as they search for peace and righteousness, and also on the confusion in our human endeavors in science, nurture, and education, and on all the difficulties in so many marriages and families.
Have mercy on the countless persons who today suffer starvation, the many who are persecuted and homeless, the sick in body and soul here and in other places, the lonely, prisoners, and all those who suffer punishment at the hands of others.
Have mercy on us all in the hour of trial and the hour of death. Lord, because we believe with certainty that you have overcome, and that with you we too have already overcome, we call upon you now. Show us but the first step of the road to freedom, won at such cost. Amen. (69-70)
What great words. Reading such words remind me that the work of the theologian must be immersed in prayer. Because it is not only the scholar but also the laity and the clergy who are engaged in the practice of theology, Barth serves as a great example. From the greatest to the least of us, we are all called to pray. And through prayer we might come to think God-honoring thoughts and express them in ways that are truthful to God’s story. Prayer also makes us aware of God’s reality as revealed through Jesus Christ and the practices of the church, as “Prayer takes place in liturgical time and thereby challenges the presumption that there exists no other time but the time of historical succession. To pray means that there is another time known through liturgical repetition that is made possible and necessary by the reality of the Kingdom of God”(Hauerwas, The State of the University, 183).
It is my hope that Christians of all stripes, from laity, to pastors, to theologians, would engage regularly in the practice of prayer. By doing so our witness is strengthened, the church is built up, and our vision is clarified. Instead of declaring that the future of the church is bleak, remember that prayer is one of the many abundant resources which God has provided for us across time to nourish, equip, and strengthen us as the people of God who only need enough space in the world to witness to the fact that God so loved the world he gave his Son for it.