Teach us to Pray
Knowing how to pray isn’t natural or obvious. Jesus’ closest friends didn’t know how to talk to God, they had to ask him to teach them about prayer (Luke 11:1). This guide introduces us to a breadth of spiritual disciplines that may change how you experience prayer; and how you experience God’s transforming presence. Many of these new ways are ancient, some are more recent. All will give you permission to pray outside the box of a to-do list.
Oh how marvelous it is to break out of the limits of interacting with God as if God were a candy store: available to supply our every desire! Does God answer prayers? Sure. But God is primarily interested in being with us. God wants us; and wants us to know God fully and deeply in all mystery and love.
Prayer is about relationship, give and take, speaking but also listening, seeking but also submitting. There’s not really right or wrong ways to pray. But its important to realize how our style of prayer limits our relationship with God; similar to how your view is limited by your proximity to a window.
And so whatever our prayer style might be, we’re invited to bring our full selves before God (see the back for more on this) and share openly with God what is so for us. But let’s also keep the goal of the disciplines in mind as we pray: being transformed into people who naturally love.
These disciplines are here as a reference only. The beauty of prayer is not in what follows, but in our openness to listen to what the Spirit may be speaking to us. Like in all friendships, you’ve got to spend time together. And prayer, like kissing, is better done than talked about. So don’t worry about the right way to do one of these exercises. Like a kid with finger paints, there is no wrong way to talk to God! Explore and find what feels natural for you.
Along with these spiritual disciplines, you might also consider Sabbath, tithing, fasting, silence, eucharist, retreat, study, and intercession.
If you want to dig deeper see the back for more resources. Or consider exploring April Yamasaki’s Sacred Spaces, Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, or Chris Webb’s The Fire of the Word.
Whatever you do and however it goes, you are not a failure! You are a child of God who is deeply loved. So come, practice a spirituality that empowers you to see and live God’s kingdom.
1. Praise: Ascribing Worth to God’s kingdom
Worthy is the lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing. Revelation 5:12
The practice of prayer reminds us of a fundamental truth we all resist: we’re not the main character in our own story. It’s about God; what God has done and is doing in human history, seen most clearly in the person and life of Jesus from Nazareth.
In the face of the staggering boredom that is our own story, we must, we simply must, become people of praise. How else will we orient ourselves, our hearts, our passions, our desires, our calendars and debit cards to be part of Jesus story? Without praise, your life’s “default mode” will be stuck on selfishness, boredom, and consumerism. An endless rampage of me me me. But Jesus, on the other hand, unashamedly reveals God’s redeeming justice that brings peace with God, absolutely everyone, ourselves and all of creation.
Praising God, as the early church did, is like taking one giant leap into reality to see God, the world and God’s dreams for the world, and ourselves clearly. As Paul says in Colossians, we’re to let the word of Christ dwell in us by singing Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. To that list I’d add journaling, meditation, art, study, and anything that captures our imagination with the gospel of God. This is how we reset our default mode so that we do everything in Jesus’ name, and not our own.
I mentioned in the introduction that spiritual disciplines help us to see God, ourselves, and the world God is creating more clearly. Praise then, is our ascent to those truths, it is our way of seeing God’s gospel clearly and ascribing worth to it above all else!
Walter Wink says we must “believe the future into being.” Through prayer, he says we “infuse the air of a time yet to be into the suffocating atmosphere of the present.” I love this image, as it connects my prayers less to the need to find “answers” and more to my own allegiance to Jesus and to the closeness of my following him. “The future belongs to whoever can envision a new and desirable possibility, which faith then fixes upon as inevitable.”
You can perform praise in an unlimited number of ways, alone or with others, both inside and outside a sanctuary. Any of the other prayer practices in this book can be helpful in your personal and social life.
2. Lectio Divina: Praying Scripture
Father, strengthen your people. Fill their souls with the power of Your Spirit. So that they will have the power to understand that the love of Jesus is infinitely long, wide, high and deep, surpassing everything anyone previously experienced. Ephesians 3:16,18
Scripture is the bedrock of all disciplines. It’s the place where “the boundary between heaven and earth has been worn through” (Chris Webb) allowing us to see God’s kingdom coming on earth and in our lives. In engaging Our Text with our mind and heart we are captured by “a way of living that is joyfully creative and soul-expanding (Richard Foster).”
Lectio divina is a way of praying the scriptures that doesn’t focus on getting information or reading the Bible all the way through. Lectio is a way to read with new vision that brings transformation and hope. The nature of water is soft, that of stone is hard. But if a bottle is hung above a stone allowing the water to fall drop by drop, it wears away the stone. So it is with the word of God; it is soft and our heart is hard, but the person who hears the word of God often, opens his or her heart to the fear of God. This is lectio.
Always begin by asking God to open the Scriptures to you through the Holy Spirit. “Come seeking the experience of the presence of the living God, to be with God and to allow God to be with us in whatever way God chooses. This is a time to sway to God, ‘speak Lord, for your servant is listening’ (1 Samuel 3:10)” (Basil Pennington). Choose a short text, parable, or story that you will consciously give yourself to in prayer. Again, the purpose is not studying to learn, but praying to be open to God. You may want to open your journal if you want to write down your encounter.
- When you feel ready to listen, slowly read your text onetime through. Listen for a word or phrase that stands out to you above the rest. It might be a word like “grace” or a phrase such as “love your enemies.” Grab on to the word or phrase and keep it in your conscious mind, focusing just on those words. Meditate on the word like a cow chews its cud. Take the text in and swallow it down. Then bring it back up and chew it 40-60 times. Swallow it down again and digest it, letting its meaning sink in.
- When you’ve “chewed’ on the word, getting everything out of it, read the entire text a second time. The difference in the second reading is that you ask yourself, “What is this passage saying to me today?” Spend another period meditating and “chewing” on the text, allowing its meaning to digest into your life.
- Now, actively read the text for a third time. Meditate for a period and challenge yourself with the question, “What is God inviting me to do or be in the next couple days, months or year?” Close in a time of prayer and thanksgiving.
Remember that lectio is a prayer practice, not a Bible study for your mind. Bathe your experience in prayer, before, during and after. Take what you learned with you throughout your day and let God transform even the normal stuff of life. Let your spirituality reflect how you stand in line at McDonald’s, your homework and the way you talk in the office lunchroom. “The Word of Scripture should never stop sounding in your ears and working in you all day long, just like the words of someone you love.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Texts you may want to start with might include anything from Reading the Bible Jesus Taught, or perhaps the following: Psalm 1 or 23, Proverbs 3:5-8, Isaiah 11:6-9 or 61:1-3, Matthew 6:25-33 or 16:13-18, Romans 6:11 or 8:38-39, Ephesians 3:16-19, Philippians 2:4-8, Revelation 5:12.
3. JOURNALING: A Conversation with yourself
Journaling is a classic tool for spiritual growth. People have been writing down their thoughts about God for centuries. Think of it as a lab where feelings, relationships and thoughts can be safely explored and then returned to later for reflection. It’s our change to let God teach us using the curriculum of our lives. There’s no wrong way to journal, but here are some specific ways to start you off.
v Write down your insights from lectio. Perhaps you want to answer the three lectio questions in your journal.
v Journal your Openings and Blocks.
v Write out a dialogue with God in first person.
v Record your prayers to God, or prayer requests. That gives you a place to look back to later record God’s answers.
Situation. Describe a current situation you are dealing with.
Attitude. What is your attitude about that situation.
Learning. What have you learned about yourself, God or the world through your situation.
Thanks. Find something to be thankful for about it. Any or all of these methods are effective ways of encountering Christ. Try them all out and find what suits you best!
4. CENTERING PRAYER: Being with God
“Let us fix our eyes on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2) is one of the many ways Scripture calls us to center ourselves on God. Christians believe God is at the center of our lives; this prayer helps us practice that truth. “Centering prayer is a simple method of prayer that sets up the ideal conditions to rest in quiet awareness of God’s presence” (Basil Pennington). The goal is to set aside busy thoughts and center your attention on God alone and nothing else, allowing God to come to the forefront of your mind and to rest in his presence. Here are three fun and creative ways to center. But don’t allow the method to confuse the goal: being present with God.
v Elevator prayer. Imagine you are in an elevator in the basement of a skyscraper. Your journey is to the top floor where God awaits. Center your thoughts there. What does it look like where God is? What would it be like to be with God? Each floor represents a thought, event or feeling into your mind, but once they are there, acknowledge them and let them go. As you become more and more centered, you approach God. If/when you arrive, relax in God’s presence! Give yourself ample time to reach and enjoy the top.
v Boat prayer. Like the prayer above, this is a prayer using the imagination. See yourself sitting along the banks of a river. You desire to be alone with Jesus, in nature by this river. However, boats constantly float past you, distracting you from Jesus. Each wandering thought or emotion you have is a boat, which you name, and allow to glide past you. Your aim here is to empty your thoughts and rest in the presence, so don’t focus on the boats or go looking for any. Try to center yourself Jesus, himself by the river.
v Focus prayer. Pick a short phrase to meditate on, using this phrase to bring your attention back to God’s presence as your thoughts begin to wander. “Even now, come Lord Jesus;” or “The Lord is my shepherd,” are two possibilities. As you breathe in, say, “The Lord is,” and as you breath out say, “my shepherd.” Thoughts can be acknowledged and let go, by again saying the phrase. Remember, the point is to focus your attention on God, so the shortness of the phrase usually helps you to evacuate all other thoughts. This prayer works great before you move on to lectio or journaling, or you can spend 15 minutes just with this.
5. OPENINGS AND BLOCKS: The Prayer of Examen
O Lord, you have examined my heart and know everything about me. You know when I sit or stand. You know my every thought when far away… Search me, O God and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you and lead me along the path of everlasting life. Psalm 139:1-2, 23, 24
In capturing God’s vision, we’re also captured by it. The gospel and God’s kingdom begins to read us, challenge and affirm our level of alignment with the beautiful new world God is creating out of the old. Through the prayer of examen, we honestly reflect on where our lives are saying Yes, and saying No, to God’s work in our lives and world. Are we fully awake and being transformed?
Remember the purpose of the disciplines is to do what we can in order to receive from God the power to do what we cannot: be transformed so much we are Jesus-like! In this prayer, we look at the things that make this happen and the things that hold this transformation down. You could have a perfectly good week and still not experience any growth. On the other hand, Scripture tells us time and again that “trials and problems” are how we are formed. So look for God and personal growth, not what feels nice.
The prayer itself consist of two different phases, both of which are a close look at the life you live and the faith you have on your journey. First, are Openings. Openings are times we “discover how God has been present to us throughout the day and how we have responded to his loving presence” (Richard Foster). Run through the events of your life over the last 1-7 days looking for times you encountered God, times God was present or helped you, ways you were blessed or areas of growth. Ask yourself: What did I do this week that brought me closer to God? What happened around me that increased my vision of God and God’s kingdom? What did I learn about myself or God that brought me new life? Once you’ve located what brings you closer to God, center your life on that! Keep in mind; openings are usually not events or things that “happen to us,” they are what we heard from God or things that we have done personally.
Blocks are equally important as we see what holds us back from loving God and others like Jesus did. Now we ask to “see what is truly in us.” Psalm 1:6 says, “God desires honesty from the heart, so you can teach me to be wise in my innermost being.” We can either cover up our blocks or we can grow up, but we can’t do both. Hiding secrets from ourselves and God will drag us down in life. Ask yourself: What held me back from loving others? What attitudes need changing? Why do I sometimes not obey Jesus? What are my areas of habitual disobedience that I need to repent of? Did I ascribe any worth to God this week through praise or action? What am I afraid of? What tempted me this week? What do I have a need to confess? If you made it through an entire week with no openings, this is a sure sign that you have blocks in your life you need to examine. Maybe this is a good time to look at how you spend your time. Acknowledge anything that stops you from encountering Christ and loving others. You may be surprised at the petty things that block you from loving and being loved!
6. ART PRAYER: Beyond words
The Holy Spirit helps when we don’t know what knows what to pray for or how to pray. In our distress, the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. Romans 8:16
God is Lord of creation, beauty, pleasure and imagination. Art prayer celebrates that we are created in God’s image, full of creativity and delight! We too can create beautiful responses to God. Perhaps more than any other form of prayer, this method has endless possibilities: paint, pencil, song, poetry, drama, chalk, wood, clay. Whatever medium you enjoy you can use.
There are two basic styles of art prayer. First is asking prayer. Instead of using words, create your petition to God. Art is a wonderful way to communicate feelings to God, feelings maybe you don’t even have a question for. Allow your spirit to roam and create whatever comes. Second, is listening prayer. Create what you hear God saying to you though Scripture or your openings, etc… This gives you a visual reminder of God’s grace you can come back to time and again to “remember me.”
As in all prayer, this is less art and more prayer! Who cares what it looks like as long as it communicates freely your intent. Anybody can paint a prayer to God, it doesn’t have to be perfect.