I was slow to pray, but I did eventually get started … and you can too!
I came to Christ at age 19, early in my adult life. I came to prayer later in life. Sure, I prayed as a new believer, but only in fits and starts. People stressed the importance of a regular “quiet time.” It was code for a daily routine of Bible reading and prayer. I tried to have a quiet time but couldn’t get past the notion that this exercise seemed way too quiet! I wanted action. I wanted to do something for God, build something for God, leap tall buildings in a single bound for God. Yet the thought of simply being with God, did not interest me enough to do anything about it.
I joined a campus ministry with my wife Chris to reach students for Christ. I did a credible job as an evangelist but couldn’t take them very far in following Jesus. I didn’t know beans about the Bible, and I wasn’t very good at prayer. I went to seminary to become Biblically literate and earn my religious credentials. I was well-suited to seminary—pursuing the life of the mind invigorated me. After graduation, I was called to serve a church in metro DC. About ten years into ministry, I hit the wall. It wasn’t one of those obvious crash and burn scenarios that happen to people in midlife. My burnout was the subtle variety. I was empty inside, feeling like a fake, extolling virtues of living the spiritual life without practicing them. Every attempt on my side to get ministry going again wasn’t working. I knew I wasn’t going to make it for the long haul in my present state. Something inside me said, “Go deeper.” I didn’t actually hear God’s voice. Lord knows if God spoke to me in the middle of the night, I would likely freak. It was more like a still, quiet whisper, the kind Elijah experienced.
So, I made three changes.
First, I began reading the Bible for things other than sermon preparation. This new practice came easily to me since I like to read. Yet I had to learn how to read slowly and reflectively. Meditative reading doesn’t correlate to reading beach novels. I discovered in the process of reading the Bible that it was reading me. This became uncomfortable, at times. No doubt, it was one reason why I put it off so long. I didn’t want the Bible to bring my flaws to light.
Second, I started to pray regularly. This was the harder discipline for me. I’m not a contemplative person by nature, or so I reasoned to myself. Let other people do the praying. I’ll do the preaching. It doesn’t work this way. There’s no way to do God’s work apart from being with God. The Psalms saved my bacon. Someone suggested I read a Psalm a day by substituting my name in the subject line. The Psalms became my tutorial on how to pray. I discovered that the Psalms pray about everything—enemies, nasty people, retaliatory strategies, you name it. I prayed about nice things and what I wanted. The Psalms taught me to bring my whole self to God in prayer.
Third, I let people into my life. Chris and I joined a small group of couples who started a practice of praying for our kids. We were weary from stressing about our emerging teens as we sat on metal bleachers at baseball games. Why don’t we pray for them? What a novel idea! I signed on to two small groups of pastoral colleagues. I learned how to get past surface chatter to talk about my real life. Praying with other people was another way God drew me in.
I still longed to build a dynamic ministry, the kind I read about in Christian periodicals. Yet a titanic shift was already underway. I was moving, to borrow Eugene Peterson’s words, from being a competitive pastor to becoming a contemplative one.
Still, after all these years, prayer doesn’t come easily to me. I am still a novice when it comes to prayer. There are days when I rattle off my prayer list of concerns to God in rapid succession. My mind wanders and I stare at the ceiling. Why am I not more effusive and thankful? Thomas Merton was a monk whose life was marked by regular, disciplined prayer. I am encouraged by something he wrote, “We do not want to be beginners [at prayer] but let us be convinced that we will never be anything but beginners, all our lives.”
I am an avid reader of history. It’s the best way I know how to escape the characteristic illusions of our age. In recent times, I have incorporated the practice of reading old prayers. When I retired, I sorted through my books. I was raised in a time when building your library was a tool of the trade. I came upon a book I had never read, 2000 Years of Prayer. I opened it and read a few prayers from the distant past. I was hooked. Early Christians know how to pray. I can draft off these prayers. And so, I did.
I started this prayer exercise for a cousin who had back surgery and was quarantined for possible COVID. She texted me in ICU that she felt all alone. My pastoral proclivities went into high alert. “You’re never alone,” I reminded her, “God is with you.” She was an active churchgoer who knew this message in her bones. But the extremis of her predicament caused her to lose sight of this fundamental reality. I had started copying old prayers from the book just mentioned, so I offered to send her some of my favorites. She accepted. I kept the prayers going for a few weeks until she felt better, and I ran out of material. She wrote to tell me that she missed the prayers. Do you have any more?
So, here we are, one year later. I’m still sending them. I’m like a miner, digging into the forgotten past, in places where I’ve never been before. I’ve never heard of most of these people I’ve uncovered in this prayer dig. Their stories of privation and hardship stir something deep in me. Some of the people in this “great cloud of witnesses” had it bad. Real bad. Remind me never, ever to complain again. These prayers are not merely for my dear cousin. They are for me. It’s me, Lord, standing in the need of prayer.
No wonder the disciples ask Jesus to teach them how to pray. They don’t ask him to teach them how to preach. They need to be taught how to pray. One way we learn to pray is by praying. Praying other peoples’ prayers rubs off on us.
I commend this daily practice for your consideration.