And in the morning, a great while before day, he rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed. (Mark 1:35)
As Jesus went alone to the mountain to pray, we know that prayer is a very important spiritual practice that allows us to quiet ourselves and listen to God in these sacred moments. Deep prayer and spiritual contemplation changes us and helps us to know the heart of God better.
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And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours. (1John 5:14 The Message)
In the Luke, the disciples come to Jesus with a request we can relate to, “Teach us how to pray.” Most of us feel like we don’t know how to pray or that our prayers are not quite good enough. As a pastor, I am often asked to provide resources for prayer. Though there are many books and resources, I am convinced that learning to pray is a lot like learning to ride a bike. The only way to learn is to get on the bike and make those first few halting attempts and then to stay with it until
you have the feel of it in your bones. Prayer works in a similar way. It is helpful to have some basic understanding of how it works, and maybe someone nearby to steady you, pick you up when you fall and cheer you on, but the only way to learn to pray is to hop on the prayer bike, start pushing on the pedals and stay with it until you feel the wind in your face and the balance in your being.
A Conversation with God
My Renovaré Spiritual Formation Bible defines prayer simply as “Interactive conversation with God about what we and God are thinking and doing together.” This prayer conversation is an essential element of living life with God at the center. God makes this life with God and prayer possible. This relationship is not our doing but God’s. Jesus came as Immanuel, the title meaning “God with us.” Jesus is our savior, our redeemer, making known and making real God’s intent for humans—that we would be with God, that God would dwell with and in us. WOW!
If prayer is at its most basic communication with God, it stands to reason that we may communicate with God in at least as many ways as we communicate with each other, which is limitless. We can celebrate the latest happenings, lament the state of the world, whine about our latest injury (physical, emotional or social), rage at injustice (or at God), remember past glories or look forward to coming days, ask for what we need, express appreciation, or simply sit in companionable silence. A necessary component of good conversation is active listening—leaning in, listening for what is said and what remains unsaid. The same is true in prayer. In the quiet, what is God saying to you? For many, learning to listen is the most difficult part of the conversation.
The Model for Prayer: The Lord's Prayer
There are many examples of prayer in scripture, notably the Book of Psalms and Jesus’s teaching on prayer in Matthew 6:5-15. Jesus says prayers aren’t supposed to be impressive or full of unnecessary words because God already knows what we need. He gives them a model for prayer which we know as The Lord’s Prayer. Our familiarity with that prayer can keep us from plumbing the depths of its simple phrases. He says, pray in this way:
Our father who is in heaven,
uphold the holiness of your name.
Bring your kingdom
so that your will is done
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us the bread we need for today;
And forgive us the things we owe,
as we too have forgiven what was owed to us.
And don’t lead us into temptation,
but rescue us from the evil one. (Mt. 9-13, CEB)
This prayer is a model for how we should pray. First, it is a communal prayer. We always pray with and for others, even when we are alone. Life with God is never a solitary endeavor; it is always between God and you and others. When we ask for God’s name to be holy, we are asking that our actions be in line with God’s holiness, to maintain that set-apartness of doing right in the world. We ask that our actions might begin to make our world a little more in line with the heaven way of doing things. We don’t ask for abundance but simply what we need for today, enough for us and enough for others, but not so much that we forget to rely on God.
Right on the heels of asking that our basic human necessities be provided, Jesus models asking for forgiveness, contingent on forgiving others. Whew! This may be putting the petition “as above, so below” into action. Though difficult to do, it is at the heart of living as Jesus models and requires. Knowing the demand of doing these things, the last request of the prayer is that we be utterly transformed, being led away from that which is evil and toward the changed way of living that comes in following Jesus.
Listen to What God is Saying
If you want to learn to pray, this prayer is a great place to start. Begin by praying it phrase by phrase. Let it wash over you. Listen for what God might say to you. Breathe, be still, pay attention.
Then you might find other scriptures to pray. Simply read a line and let it be your prayer. You can turn to the prayerbook of the bible and find a psalm that speaks to you. Slowly pray those lines, letting them work on you, listening for what God may say to you through them.
You may be wondering, if God already knows what we need, why pray? Like any relationship, it’s important to keep the lines of communication open, to say what we need, to express gratitude and love. These conversations change us, change our relationship with God and have power beyond our imagining to change the world.
And Pray Often
Really, it doesn’t matter as much how you pray as that you pray. Pray often. Put yourself in God’s presence even if you don’t feel like praying. Let the Spirit pray with and for you. Pray with your eyes open, contemplating the beauty of creation or pray with your eyes closed. Pray with others or pray alone. Doodle a prayer or scream one. Write a poem, a letter, a journal entry. Just take a moment to say “hello” to our creator.
In one salutation to thee, my God,
let all my senses spread out and touch this world at thy feet.
Like a rain—cloud of July
hung low with its burden of unshed showers
let all my mind bend down at thy door in one salutation to thee.
Let all my songs gather together their diverse strains into a single current
and flow to a sea of silence in one salutation to thee.
Like a flock of homesick cranes flying night and day
back to their mountain nests
let all my life take its voyage to its eternal home
in one salutation to thee.
by Rabindranath Tagore
photography by Jim Newsom