I stink at praying (Listening to the Saints)

I stink at praying.  When I was a kid I was told that if you want to be a good Christian you need to pray, read the Bible and be involved in church.  The latter two were never really a problem for me.  But praying?  I knew I was supposed to pray so I would try, but my mind would wander to what went on at work the previous night or what was happening in the latest Star Wars novel I was reading (I used to read lots of Star Wars novels…I was a nerd, but I could probably tell you a lot about the Star Wars universe up to what was written in 2001).  Nevertheless, when I was in college, or teaching Sunday school at my home church, or working at summer camp, I passed on the same tips: good Christians pray, read the Bible and get involved in a church community (or on campus, a Christian ministry).

By the time I was in college, when I prayed my mind would wander to different things (Did that girl I liked like me in return?  How come Penn State was so bad at football during my time on campus?).  At the same time, I was starting to realize the beauty of grace in all things in life.  I think when I was younger my desire to pray or read scripture was more fear based: if I did not pray today and something bad happened it was God getting me!  With maturity I realized God did not work in this way (and in my religious studies class I learned that this was called karma and though many Christians act as if they believe it, it is definitely NOT a Christian belief).

Over the years I have realized that prayer is not about quantity (5 minutes a day…20 minutes a day…wow, that guy prays for 2 hours each morning!).  It is about quality.  I’d rather really connect with God one day a week than go through the motions out of fear or necessity every day.  Also, prayer is not something you do for a bit to start your day and then stop.  Rather, we are to pray continually which I take to mean being in constant communion with God.

Yet, while all of this is true, there is still a danger such things could become an excuse for not praying (I pray continually…well, I occasionally remember Jesus died for me…I tend not to forget God exists…ok, I never pray).  We have plenty of examples from scripture of people setting aside a time in their day to intentionally commune with God.

Another challenge for me is that prayer often seems so inactive, like you just sit there and talk to your imaginary friend.  Yes, some of my more “spiritual” Christian friends report experiences with God that I wish I had.  For me, it seems like I just sit there.  If I am sitting there, I might as well read something!

Over the years I have realized how faulty the whole “pray, read the Bible, go to church” formula is.  It is too individualistic.  It also leaves out serving others (do we ever live the Bible or do we just read it?).  It is also too “one-size-fits-all”.  I have come to recognize that some people feel close to God sitting in a room and quietly meditating, some people connect with God hiking in the woods or playing guitar in their room.  Others feel closest to God while volunteering at a Food Bank or serving in some other way.

But with all that said, I still believe Christians ought to spend time with God in prayer.  Having a family, I spend time each day with my wife praying for our daughter after we put her in her crib for the night.  Before our daughter was born my wife and I often read a bit of scripture and prayed while eating breakfast.  Why should this be less valued than praying to God alone…the emphasis on aloneness again seems to reek of individualism again.

I think part of the reason I have had such trouble praying is that I have been taught to pray as a sort of free-flowing talking to God.  Perhaps this is a symptom of the charismatic side of evangelicalism that focuses (explicitly or implicitly) on emotions.  The impression is that true worship and true prayer are spontaneous.

Of course, try treating your wife this way.  Don’t plan a romantic date, just do whatever comes spontaneously!  For me, this is usually when I say dumb things and get in trouble.

Anyway, so I have been working my way through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  Calvin, as you probably know, is one of the great Reformers of the 1500s.  At this time the Roman Catholic Church was quite corrupt and many, such as Calvin, saw it was beyond hope.  New churches formed, with a renewed vitality and emphasis on Scripture and grace.

Calvin’s Institutes is THE theology text of this era, systematizing the beliefs of the Protestant Reformers.  Going in, I expected a lot of theology.  So I was pleasantly surprised with what I found to be the most moving section in the Institutes: when Calvin talks about prayer.  He spends a lot of time on this and says some great things, focusing on the Lord’s Prayer as our model:

For he prescribed a form for us in which he set forth as in a tablet all that he allows us to seek of him, all that is of benefit to us, all that we need ask.  From this kindness of his we receive great fruit of consolation: that we know we are requesting nothing absurd, nothing strange or unseemly – in short, nothing unacceptable to him – since we are asking almost in his own words (Institutes 3.20.34)

I have also been reading The Way of Perfection by Teresa of Avila.  She lived at the same time as Calvin, but in Spain, and she remained firmly in the Catholic Church.  Teresa sent The Way of Perfection to those above her in the church hierarchy to make sure it was in line with the teaching of the Church.  Contrast that with Calvin who was only concerned that it was faithful to the Bible.

Teresa and Calvin have very little in common. So where they agree, they are probably right.  Well, Teresa also sees the Lord’s Prayer as the model for our prayers:

Do you suppose that, because we cannot hear Him, He is silent? He speaks clearly to the heart when we beg Him from our hearts to do so. It would be a good idea for us to imagine that He has taught this prayer to each one of us individually, and that He is continually expounding it to us. The Master is never so far away that the disciple needs to raise his voice in order to be heard; He is always right at his side. I want you to understand that, if you are to recite the Paternoster (the Lord’s Prayer) well, one thing is needful: you must not leave the side of the Master Who has taught you” (Way of Perfection chapter 24).

I stink at praying.  That said, when I take the advice of Calvin and Teresa (and pretty much anyone else who has written on prayer since Jesus) and pray the Lord’s Prayer, I do better.  If you meditate on the words, the very words Jesus gave to you, you pray in the language of Scripture.

In the end, maybe stinking at praying is a symptom of too quickly separating prayer from Scripture.  The Bible is filled with prayers, primarily the Lord’s Prayer but also the Psalms and many others.  Reading slowly, meditating on these words, praying them back to God…that helps me pray.

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