Prayer 101

This is one of a couple of forthcoming posts inspired by the conversations at the candidacy retreat last weekend — it’s been a good week of rumination and contemplation.  One comment that particularly sparked my interest was about prayer — the speaker (I think it was Bishop Maas) said that he’d never really been taught how to pray.  It made me pause and consider my own prayer life, how I learned to pray.  I remember reading prayers in the bulletin growing up and memorizing table and bedtime prayers and the Lord’s Prayer, and struggling to master the Apostle’s Creed.  But I don’t remember anyone sitting down with me and saying, “Okay, this is how you pray.”  It was just words.

It’s a question my confirmation students have been raising a lot in the past few weeks as we’ve been exploring the Lord’s Prayer: “How do you pray?”  It’s a good question to ask.  We always end our confirmation lessons with a prayer; however, aside from one very vocal student who, sadly, no longer attends confirmation, none of the students has ever voluntarily (and barely involuntarily) prayed at the end of class.  I asked them one day how they could be so outspoken with questions and discussion during class, but then instantly clam up when it came time to pray.  They replied honestly, “we don’t know how to pray.”

Well, how do you pray?  How do you know if you’re doing it “right”?  What are you supposed to say?  And why do we pray, for that matter?  And furthermore, how on earth do you explain it to someone else?  (I’m actually very open to suggestions on this.)  These are the things I’ve started doing:

Today, in an effort to make prayer more accessible, I shamelessly ripped off an idea from a really great recent Living Lutheran article, and we talked about prayer being like GPS.  We were discussing the “your will be done” line of the Lord’s Prayer, and about how trying to discern the will of God is less like following a specific set of instructions and more like trying to go in a certain direction with a goal in mind (the kingdom of God).  Prayer is our way of checking in with our GPS, letting it recalculate to get ourselves reoriented with God’s perspective.  Also, it’s important to bear in mind that prayer is a conversation, not a monologue.  Although I think that there are times that call for hurried prayers — quick moments of crying out to God to check in and ask for strength or guidance — I think that a vital component of prayer is time and silence for listening for God.  When I really take the time, I often start out praying about one thing, only to find my thoughts are being subtly drawn toward something else — whatever is on God’s heart (and, to be completely honest, occasionally whatever is on the menu for dinner, haha).

We’ve also talked about the language of prayer.  I often wonder if this is one of the places we get hung up when thinking we don’t know how to pray — the “thee”s and “thou”s and all the flowery language of praise — feeling like our everyday, conversational manner of speaking isn’t good enough for prayer.  For example, though rich in meaning, the words of the Lord’s Prayer are a little stiff and formal and take some time to unpack when talking to 13-year-olds in the 21st century.  Instead, we’ve been focusing more on the kinds of things it’s good to take to God in prayer.  With that end in mind, we’ve been ending every class with what I think of as “Prayer 101.”  It’s a prayer in the round, and it goes something like this:

  • Round 1, thank God for something you’re thankful for;
  • Round 2, pray for someone you know;
  • Round 3, pray for someone you don’t know;
  • Round 4, say a silent prayer for yourself.

It’s actually been a big hit with my students — last Sunday was the first time we tried it, and after the “Amen,” one of the girls actually exclaimed, “I liked that!  Can we do that every week?”  I want to start incorporating more time for intentional silence and listening — “obedience” as the Benedictines understand it:  the sincere listening and response to what is truly being said.

One other thing that I was struck by today was a podcast I was listening to from the “other” Things That Matter group.  I was browsing their archives and ended up listening to an interview with some UNL students who had gone to the Taize community in France, and it was very interesting to hear them talk about the effect that praying together three times a day had on the community.  They talked about how closely it knit them together and how much it helped make them a real community.  This is something I hope my confirmands will come to realize as we start this practice of praying aloud together — that the more we focus on others’ prayer concerns and take up the needs of each individual as a collective, the closer we grow in community and the stronger we become together, the stronger our faith becomes.  It’s one of the reasons that coming to church is so vital!  I hope my students will grow to see this.  I think it’s important to include them now, and to start including youth even earlier,  in that part of the life of the church — not just the fun, youth group-y stuff, but the real serious, spiritual heart of worship stuff.  That, however, is a topic for another post and another day…

So tell me in the comments: how do you pray?  How would you teach someone else to pray?

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