A culture of prayer

March 5th, 2015

The place of prayer

“I’ll pray for you.” It rolls off our tongues so easily when someone shares a struggle he is having or her worries about a loved one. As we say it, perhaps we think to ourselves, It’s the least I can do. But what if we believed that prayer is more than the least we can do? What if prayer is powerful and prophetic? What if it can lead us to a more vital faith and more vital congregations?

In this Lenten season and in the week of the World Day of Prayer, churches are lifting up the practice of prayer. What would it mean to cultivate a culture of prayer in our lives and in our congregations? How can we deepen and enhance our practice of prayer?

Prayer as a prophetic act

Perhaps we have forgotten what a countercultural act prayer is and thus have downplayed its importance. When we pray to the God of Israel and Jesus Christ, the very act is a statement about who is Lord. And if this God is Lord, then all other pretenders to that title are reduced in their capacity to have claim on our lives. Prayer, it turns out, is an unsettling act for the status quo, as the biblical story of Daniel reveals. When Daniel “knelt down, prayed, and praised his God three times” (Daniel 6:10b), he was enough of a threat to those in power to be thrown to the lions.

Young Jin Cho, the United Methodist bishop of the Virginia Conference, has had a focus on prayer as the source of church renewal during his tenure. As he prepared for his episcopal duties, he often said, “I want to spread a culture of prayer to clergy and laity. I strongly believe that if we rediscover our praying knees, if we humbly rely on our Lord, the UMC will be changed.” The reference to relying on the Lord is not a pious platitude; for Cho, it is a statement of belief that when Jesus Christ is our Lord, no other power can be.

Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor who has done faith-based organizing around the country, has great faith in the prophetic power of prayer. In her new book, “Faith-Rooted Organizing,” cowritten with Peter Heltzel, she shares the story of one group of Christians in San Diego who were advocating for living-wage legislation before a seemingly unsympathetic city council. After weeks of presenting their case at public commentary sessions of council meetings, they determined to use all of their one-to-three-minute slots at a council meeting to pray publicly at the podium “for the poor, for the community and for the city council.”

The legislation passed. One of the city council members who had been opposed to the legislation was asked why he had changed his vote. “He responded that he could not take being prayed for one more week. He had armed himself against the talking points, but he had no armor against the prayer. The prayer reached his heart.”

Prayer for change

Reclaiming a practice of prayer cannot only be a powerful prophetic statement in confronting the powers of the world, but it can also change us. John Wesley, one of the early founders of Methodism, referred to prayer as a means of grace, one of “the ordinary channels of conveying [God’s] grace to the souls of [human beings].” By waiting for God’s grace in prayer, we open up the opportunity for change.

The recent movie “Wild,” based on a book by the same name written by Cheryl Strayed, tells the story of Strayed’s journey to healing through walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Recovering from heroin addiction, a divorce to which her own infidelity had contributed, and grief over the death of her mother, Strayed sets out on this 1,100-mile hike alone because of something her mother had said to her. “Put yourself in the way of beauty” was her mother’s refrain, and Strayed followed this into the wilderness. It was a statement of confidence that beauty could find her if she went toward it.

Similarly, prayer puts us in the way of God so that we can experience healing and change. By thinking of prayer as putting ourselves in the way of beauty or in the way of God, we are getting closer to a biblical notion best expressed by Paul in Romans when he says, “We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans” (Romans 8:26). In this way, prayer happens through us when we open ourselves to God.

When we understand prayer as our act, prayer can express our aspirations and best intentions, but we don’t really see it as dialogue between God and us. Prayer can easily become telling God what we’re going to do or asking God to do what we want or to give us what we want. A real relationship based in prayer means that we will be transformed, that we will need to listen, and that we will need to be open to having some new thing done in us.

A biblical model

The Bible tells us many things about prayer. It’s there from the beginning of the Scriptures. In the Old Testament, men and women pray for children, for salvation and for relief from their enemies. We find David praying for forgiveness of his sins, Solomon praying for wisdom and Jonah praying for deliverance from the belly of a great fish.

In the New Testament, Jesus regularly goes away to a quiet place to pray. In the Book of Acts, the disciples pray, and the Holy Spirit comes and shakes the whole place and fills them so that they can speak with boldness. Later, Paul tells his churches to pray without ceasing. James tells the Christians to pray for healing for those who are ill. Prayer is all over the Christian story.

In the Gospels, we are given a model prayer. The disciples see Jesus praying, and after he finishes, they ask him to teach them how to pray. So Jesus teaches them a prayer that has come down to us as the Lord’s Prayer. As a prayer, it is very brief. In Luke’s version, it only takes three verses. Take a minute and read the prayer from Luke 11:2-4. Jesus seems to be giving us a model for prayer that keeps us straight. We praise God, recognizing that God is holy and wholly other than anything we can imagine. We pray that God’s kingdom will come. Matthew adds, “Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:10, NRSV). This is a reminder to us that our prayers will be answered, not when we get our way, but when God gets God’s way. There is a plea for our daily bread, which is just a way of saying, “Give us the basic necessities of life — no more than we need, but no less.” The request for forgiveness is tied to how we are forgiving to others. Finally, the prayer asks that we be spared the time of trial — that we have our minds focused on good so that no temptation to evil will lead us astray.

Nurturing a relationship with God

The Lord’s Prayer lifts up our basic needs, but it happens within larger networks. We are always already embedded in the life of God to whom we pray as children. We are always already connected to others whom we are called to love and forgive. What is not in this prayer is also interesting. This is not a prayer that tries to straighten God out or that presents a laundry list of desires. It is simple and open to what God is going to do.

We are invited and charged to pray as Christians, not because it is a ticket to prosperity or because there is a direct correlation between the quality of our earthly lives and the frequency of our prayer. We are invited to prayer because when we pray, things change. We change. The world changes. And the most important relationship we have grows and deepens––the relationship with the one who creates, calls, and claims us.

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