Spiritual practices for the year: prayer
by Marion Van Driel
There is probably no other Christian practice that’s been more widely studied, discussed and written about than the topic of prayer. After all, prayer is conversing with God – deepening our relationship with Him. If someone came to you for advice on building a close relationship, what would you say? Perhaps, “Spend time together; enjoy each other’s company; get to know one another, pay attention to each other’s hopes, dreams, and desires…”
“To pray is to change,” writes Richard Foster in Celebration of Discipline. “In prayer, real prayer, we begin to think God’s thoughts after him: to desire the things he desires, to love the things he loves, to will the things he wills.” And these desires change our thoughts, attitudes and actions. We begin to catch the vision God has for this wounded world.
A fundamental practice
“Prayer is the soul’s sincere desire, unuttered or expressed, the motion of a hidden fire, that trembles in the breast. Prayer is the burden of a sigh, the falling of a tear, the upward glancing of an eye when none but God is near.” (James Montgomery, 1818)
Prayer is complex and simple at the same time. In prayer we’re acknowledging the sovereignty of God; that the things out of our control are actually in His. We struggle with the way our world is. We question. We desire inner peace. Prayer is fundamental to our existence; as human beings, our greatest desire is to be truly and deeply known. For the Christian, God’s ability to fulfill this need is unquestionable.
Anyone can pray – even the most innocent child who knows only that to pray is to trust. But even the disciples, in close proximity with Jesus on a daily basis, realized they were missing something, when they asked Him, “Lord, teach us to pray” (Luke 11:1). How, then, shall we go about such a simple yet daunting task?
Foster suggests learning to pray well is like learning to run a marathon. We can’t expect to have the prayer life of a “spiritual giant” or run a marathon without training. “Occasional joggers do not suddenly enter an Olympic marathon. They prepare and train themselves over a period of time, and so should we. When such a progression is followed, we can expect to pray a year from now with greater authority and spiritual success than at present.”
Cultivating the habit
There’s a host of reasons we shy away from the habit of personal prayer. Our minds wander, we fidget, we’re too busy to practice stillness. Perhaps most of all, we want immediate results. And if we don’t get them, we feel like failures. We took a risk that didn’t pan out. How do we overcome these obstacles?
Cultivating familiar habits perpetuates a desire to continue. And finding the very thing that works best for us can make a world of difference in our success. So some experimentation is in order.
The ‘spiritual giants’ throughout history and today have each cultivated their own unique habit. We should too. Whether our personal prayer time takes place morning, evening, during a stroll, in a sacred space, in our vehicle, sitting, standing, lying down, kneeling, silently or aloud, the goal is to deepen our friendship with Christ; get to know God’s heart and pray it back to Him. Because prayer is discovering God’s character and will, scripture holds a central focus in our life of prayer and meditation. Without it, we are tempted to make prayer all about ourselves.
Up until about 10 years ago, Nick Loenen’s personal prayer life was more haphazard than it is today. The former BC politician has a daily habit of ending his day with prayer. “I sit in my easy chair, make myself comfortable, think about the day, and pray. For me, it’s very important to be consistent about that – with a time and a place where it’s quiet, where I can just be myself. That has helped me deepen my prayer life. I make it a point – I seldom miss a day.” For Loenen, the reason for prayer is to be in touch with God – to seek communion with Him.
Loenen always begins his prayer time in praise, considering God’s character; God’s creative power, the intricate way He’s fashioned the universe, “but also awe at the fact that we are a concern to God; that God cares for us, each individual … He made us in His image, and He sent His Son for us … and took on all our sufferings.” Loenen says that our horizons are often limited to what is tangible. In our materialistic culture, we speak very little about the soul. “Every prayer is a confession that we don’t belong to ourselves. We’re part of a bigger journey than just this life. It’s an attempt to feed our spiritual needs – to be in touch with the Divine,” he explains. “The thing that we all fear is to be alone. The Bible is full of commands to pray. God invites us into communion with Him. We do that through prayer more than anything else.” Loenen uses the acronym ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) as a useful tool to stay on track.
Loenen’s prayer ends with petitions for others because “what it means to follow Jesus is to be more concerned for others than ourselves. When we think of all the … suffering in the world, when it’s painful to us, it’s really painful to God to see His beautiful creation distorted and hurting. I draw God’s attention to that. I’m putting myself into God’s mind, as I understand it.”
The result of an intentional prayer habit for Loenen is living more attentively throughout the day. He has an awareness of God’s presence as he thinks, speaks, acts and interacts with people. At the end of the day, Loenen considers those events, evaluating his sensitivity to others. “I’ve learned to appreciate prayer very much,” he concludes, “and I’m sorry I didn’t do more of it through most of my life. It’s very rewarding.”
Join the discussion on the Spiritual Disciplines at: Attentivesoul.blogspot.ca.