How to pray

May 2nd, 2023

One of a pastor’s responsibilities is to teach the laity to pray, but most pastoral instruction on prayer is implicit, assuming the “do as I do” model of imitating the prayers offered on Sunday mornings. Desiring to do something more intentional, I put together a four-session class called “How to Pray” and offered it on successive Wednesday evenings for my congregation.

The guiding metaphor was a “balanced diet” of prayer. Just as one cannot eat a seven-course meal every day, the breadth of the Christian tradition provides far too many kinds of prayers to offer daily. But like with food, you can have a healthy prayer life by drawing from a variety of forms over time. The first three weeks of the course offered various samples from history, and in the final session we prayed together as a class using a liturgy of those compiled forms.

Session 1: Prayers that Remember

The first session focused on the nature of prayer as conversation. In the history of salvation, God always has the first word, so our prayers are necessarily a response to what God has already spoken. Prayer is therefore tethered to the scriptures, our primary means of God’s revelation.

To help us create scripture-infused prayers, we looked at the collect form. Using Lawrence Stookey’s book Let the Whole Church Say Amen (pp.15-21) and The United Methodist Book of Worship (#446), we investigated prayers that remember God’s works of salvation. We especially looked at the first two components of the collect: the address to God, and naming an attribute of God. Both are rooted in the scriptural witness of what God has done. Consider these opening lines from a collect found in the Book of Common Prayer (p.232):

Almighty God, (address)
You have given your only Son to be for us a sacrifice for sin, and also an example of godly life (attribute)

Not all prayers are formed as collects, of course, but the remembrance of God’s work should inform all kinds of praying. The search for appropriate attributes drives us to the scriptures, which is a key aspect of praying. What is a better source text for the words of our prayers than the Bible that reminds us of who God is?

Session 2: Prayers that Confess, Lament, and Intercede

In session two we confronted conditions that are not as they should be. In prayers of confession, for example, we acknowledge our sins that stand in stark contrast to God’s plans. We looked at how Stookey breaks down a prayer of confession into five components: address to God, confession of sins, request for pardon, intention to change, and closing (p.60). The traditional prayer of confession in The United Methodist Hymnal (#891, “Almighty and most merciful God, we have erred and strayed from thy ways like lost sheep…”) follows this general format. We especially looked at how this form prompts us to name our specific sins to God. While doing so is not appropriate in public, it is quite important during moments of private prayer.

Lament also confronts the wrongs of the world. While confession is reserved for those things we have done, we lament what others have done against God’s will. We confess for the sake of our own salvation; we lament to ask for God’s justice. Prayers of lament in the Psalms are our best companions in these moments, with Psalm 22 serving as one of the most notable examples. These words (“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”) became Jesus’s own cry of dereliction. The complaints of the psalmist—feeling as if bones are out of joint, the heart is melted like wax, and the parched tongue is stuck to the jaws (vv.14-15)—resonate even with contemporary believers who are at the end of their resources. Such verses serve as helpful scripts for us to pray word for word in moments when our own words fail us.

Intercessory prayers ask God to heal, restore, and reconcile that which is broken. This kind of praying is difficult, and words often fall short when praying for specific needs. We therefore take great comfort from the promise that the Holy Spirit prays for us when “we do not know how to pray as we ought” (Romans 8:26). Indeed, our intercessions may often consist of listing out our concerns—that is, lifting the names of persons and places that need God’s intervention, whether or not we know any specifics to pray for.

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Session 3: Prayers that Give Thanks

We frequently suffer from an impoverished imagination when it comes to gratitude. When asked what we are thankful for, we might only name events that happened in recent memory—claiming a good parking spot, or receiving a raise at work. The third session of “How to Pray” aimed to enrich our vocabulary of thanksgiving by focusing on two traditional prayers: the General Thanksgiving from page 101 of The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, and the standard form of the Great Thanksgiving found in the Service of Word and Table in the UMH, page 9. 

Both prayers cover a broad spectrum of God’s work. For instance, the General Thanksgiving gives thanks for: “your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ.” Likewise, the Great Thanksgiving is a compilation of God’s “greatest hits” in the work of salvation: creation; redemption; institution of the sacraments; Christ’s own suffering and death; the gift of the Holy Spirit. It also reminds us of the interactive work of the Trinity (e.g., “by your Spirit make us one with Christ”) and a full scope of salvation history, stretching from creation until the final consummation of all things. There is certainly nothing wrong with being grateful for small things, but our gratitude should be rooted in the entire work of God’s creation, redemption, and promised final reconciliation.

Session 4: Putting it All Together

During the final session of our class we prayed together using a liturgy that assembled some of the pieces from the previous three weeks. We took 45 minutes to work through this “feast” of prayer. The overall form of this liturgy was inspired by Brian Zahnd, the pastor of Word of Life church in St. Joseph, Missouri. His Prayer School sessions are structured similarly, using several prayers that can be prayed alone or in a group. Zahnd’s liturgy borrows much from the Morning Prayer rites in The 1979 Book of Common Prayer, along other additional prayers.

Our closing liturgy of prayer also used elements found in the BCP. We began with components that were heavy with scripture so that we could begin by remembering God’s attributes and actions: scripture readings from various sections of the Bible (Psalm, Old Testament, New Testament, Gospel), the Apostles Creed, the Gloria Patri, a collect, and other scripture-based canticles such as the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:29-32). The second half of the liturgy used prayers that responded to God’s works: the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, the standard form of confession from session 3, the General Thanksgiving, and a litany of intercession for the church and the world (borrowed from the Prayers of the People found on UMH 877).

At the end of the final session we debriefed the experience of learning how to pray. One participant said, “I pray every day, but before this class I had not thought of the power that comes from formally crafting my prayers.” My hope is that this class enriched the banquet table from which my parishioners dine on a daily basis when they go to God in prayer.

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