This will be a little long, and very preachy, I confess…. I promise to give you exit points, for those of you who pray wonderfully. But I don’t, and many I know don’t.
I grew up Catholic and became truly and fully aware of God and responded to His grace outside the Catholic Church in my Junior year of High School. One of the first things that I learned was not to use any written prayers or any man-made forms of prayer but to only pray extemporaneously to God. Anything else was “vain repetition and evil”.
What a lie.
Here’s what happens. I set aside a time for prayer, and sit down and start praying… with my own words. You want to talk about vain. Tell me you don’t do this, you who have embraced, as I have, “making it up as you go along”. My words were always the same. And what does that sound like? You guessed it. Vain repetition… and by the way… pretty selfish vain repetition, treating God like the cosmic vending machine like we Evangelicals are so good at.. Exit point 1. Maybe you’re not like this. Go ahead, close the window, move on to the next thing in your day, whatever. You don’t need to keep reading. But maybe you do, because you will be like this someday, maybe soon. But I’ll be honest… those of you who think this is working? I’ve heard some of you pray… Some of you are as bad at this as I am. You would, I promise, benefit from what I’m talking about. I promise.
Here is some really great news for people who can’t pray right.
People have apparently known of this problem for thousands of years. There is evidence, I think overwhelming evidence, that the ancient Israelites, the Jews, Jesus, and the early Christians all have practiced fixed hour prayer, using set prayers, for thousands of years (not to mention the non Judeo-Christian faith communities). But the Reformation threw all of this out in the trash in the 16th century, and then the Great Awakenings shut the lid on that trash can really tight, even though the actual reformers, many of them, continued these practices, and even wrote new prayer books (such as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer) so that people could continue these practices, no matter their station in life. This isn’t a replacement for using your own words with God by any stretch, but is most certainly a better jumping off point than having nothing, or, in my case (tell me this isn’t you) just my selfish man-centered grocery list for God. Exit point 2. You are afraid of prayer books… don’t be. There are some that are easy and even free online! And, as I point out in a moment, you have other alternatives that are really great.
I am really bad at prayer, aren’t you?
Lately I’ve read a lot on prayer, and many people (these are Evangelicals, for the most part, by the way, not Catholics) are returning to fixed hour, fixed prayer. I am one of them, and over the past year, especially, have found that my prayer life is more vigorous, more of a connection to God, and more life-changing than otherwise. It also takes both less time, and more time… Less time at my “prayer station” in the morning, as I do morning prayer from this book, which, despite its being of Catholic origin is totally ecumenical in nature (no Hail Marys to be found, guys) is an amazing and easy tool to use for this. I have to say, also, that my own personal petitions are informed by this, and are getting less selfish all the time. I like that. I’m a very selfish person by nature, more so than a lot of people that I know. I might be the most selfish person I know, as a matter of fact, so anything to make me less Peter-centered and more Jesus-centered is a good… no… a great thing.. Exit point 3. You hate Catholics or at least fear them, for some reasons. Get over it, we’re all going to be singing in the same throne room in heaven. I promise you.
It only takes me about 10 minutes a day to do this…
Let me make sure you understand something. My morning prayers, when I used someone else’s words (basically the Psalms and prayers based on them) take less time and bring me more into communion with God than when I just “wing it”.
I have heard it said (by people I love and respect) that even the Lord’s Prayer (the “Our Father”) was not meant to be prayed word for word at all… ever… Is that even possible in a world where Jesus, when asked what is the greatest commandment, answered with the Shema (plus his addition to the Shema – see below) which was repeated by observant Jews at their fixed-hour prayers every single day, multiple times? In a world where the largest book, by far, in our sacred texts is a book of worship songs, meant to be sung, spoken, or prayed, or even memorized, by ordinary people. We evangelicals have romanticized something called “quiet time”, which isn’t actually celebrated in Scripture as much as fixed hour prayer is (The early Christians even continued the practice of going to the Synagogue for fixed hour prayer… it’s there in Acts. Jesus seems to have done this, too). Quiet time is GREAT! I just offer to you that it can be better when combined with words that were already prepared for the purpose… Back to the Lord’s Prayer… We have overwhelming evidence that the early Christians recited the Lord’s Prayer whenever they met together, and churches don’t seem to have discontinued this practice until the past 200 years.
So… I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.
The Lord’s Prayer a great start to prayer, but also it’s a great prayer. It’s the great prayer.So you want a great easy start on this? Perhaps you can do what Scot McKnight recommends in this excellent book. 3 times a day, morning, noon, and evening, repeat the Our Father, if not out loud at least moving your lips as you breathe so that you actually “get the full benefit” (like chewing food), perhaps the 10 commandments (if you don’t know them by heart, you should) and the “Jesus Creed”, which is the Shema and the second great commandment combined by Jesus. This will only take you a few minutes, and you’ll be praying with people all over the world at the same times! You want to put that prayer into turbo mode? Try making the Lord’s Prayer your own… Once a day, maybe in the morning, say it one line at a time… meditate on that point and in your own thoughts, put it in your own words. Exit point 4. You hate this idea and you have no idea why you’ve read this far. Or, you think your prayer life stinks, and you think that this might be a good idea. Trust me. It is. Here’s a couple of great books on this subject. One from a Vineyard Pastor (I find that one to be the most practical and best book on prayer that I’ve ever read) and one from an Episcopalian. They are better than me at explaining this.
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread,
and forgive us our trespasses,
as we also have forgiven those
who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
For yours is the kingdom
and the power
and the glory
“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Prayer is the most important thing that Christians do. I’m going to say that again in case you didn’t hear me. Prayer is the most important thing that Christians do. I need help with it. I think you do, too. And there is help to be had.
*This closing passage to the Lord’s Prayer is deemed by virtually every Bible translator and scholar to be absent from the original manuscripts, and yet many of them feel it is still a great addition to the prayer. I concur.