Early in ministry, faced with trying to figure out pastoring, I came up with a typology of Christians. There were, I thought, a few different kinds: Bible Christians, Prayer Christians, Service Christians, Calling Christians, Singing Christians, Stewardship Christians.
Okay, there are probably more kinds of Christians and more practices that people use to center their faith lives around, but those were the six competing interests I recognized at Living Hope, the first congregation I served. Each one was typified by a strong individual who found their spiritual grounding in their own focused practice of the faith. And those six witnesses… well, sometimes it felt like they were competing to claim for their practice the programmatic center of our church life.
Abbie was a Bible Christian. She believed that one needed not just to study the Bible, but know it, best if by heart. Her reading of Scripture was more conservative than the rest of ours, but she allowed some diversity of interpretation, even if she’d often chide me, “It’s not all about love, like you say sometimes, pastor: there’s law too!”
Quintina was a Prayer Christian. She woke up every day and sat in her easy chair silently for 45 minutes with her hands open on her lap meditating before saying her prayers. She talked about all the things she learned in that silence, and she was always quick to grab someone and pray for them.
George was a Service Christian. He was sort of dogmatic about it actually — he acknowledged the place of Bible and Prayer and Worship and Generosity (and he was our biggest giver), but he felt they were only used correctly when they translated into some service project or charitable undertakings.
Octavia was a Calling Christian. She loved to do pastoral visits, in homes or hospitals or other institutions. If she couldn’t make a visit, she’d make a call. Or send a card. She’d also be one to head off visiting other congregations, usually with her sidekick Mary Edith for those trips; they were like inter-church ambassadors.
Carolyn was a Singing Christian: she relied on the songs of the church not only to keep her going, but to keep going in the right direction. When times were tough, Carolyn would always be humming and more likely actually singing her way through troubles.
Bill was a Stewardship Christian. Actually, he was a tithing Christian. He didn’t have a lot, but he was absolutely convinced that his blessing would come in offering his 10% off the top, his first fruits, back to God in thanksgiving.
Truth be told, all of these Christians partook in all of each other’s spiritual disciplines, but each had her or his specialty if you will. The WAY they thought got them closest to God.
While as a pastor, I have had to figure out how the church can honor or indulge and support the various ways people work out their faith lives, I have always taken it for granted there are different ways to God. I mean both various spiritual practices within Christianity as well as different faiths for knowing God.
But this week, I was called on by the Midday Meeting to help them think about how to pray… more easily, more often, with greater consistency and deeper. I enjoyed the exercise; they helped me to think about some things that have not been at the forefront of my awareness lately.
First, I remembered what a Professor of Practical Christianity said to us preparing for ministry: “if we could just get our people to pray first and foremost, then everything else would take care of itself.” (Another person later in ministry had almost the same formula: “If we could just get church to be intentional about what it’s doing, anything it’s doing, everything else would take care of itself.” Hmm, “everything else self-caring” is a big claim I don’t trust, but that’s another issue!)
At the time, I was startled. There in Seminary, there was so much to learn in ministry; I had hardly thought about prayer. (And I am not sure I prayed all that often back then either — pastoring led or drove me to prayer!)
Now I’d probably say that Professor was a Prayer Christian! I think any spiritual practice taken seriously and followed heartfully can be a vehicle for getting closer to God. And a way of strengthening the church.
But prayer is certainly as good as the next one. It’s one of the disciplines that promises a personal approach to God anytime, anywhere, nobody and nothing else needed. In prayer, you get to know God from your own encounter, and not someone else’s experience. And we all need to pray, at least a little. So I came up with some reminders for the Midday Meeting;
1. Just do it! Stop worrying that you aren’t good at it, or that you are doing it wrong. We all pray differently (like we live our lives differently). So there are enough different ways to pray for all us us. Our tradition offers a host of possibilities — written prayers or praying spontaneously. Silent or out loud. Contemplative, centering. Lectio divina, liturgical prayers, breath prayers… Abraham Heschel said he was praying with his feet when he was with Dr. King in the Civil Rights Marches.
Just get started, and trust that the Spirit will be there to help.
2. Pray as you can (not as you can’t). Some of us approach this with some great expectation of what prayer is. Maybe we have known someone who had an impressive prayer life that was influential on us. Or we figure, remembering what Jesus said, we should be able to pray a mountain to move.
I’d like to sit still and silent for 45 minutes every morning like Quintina. I have tried. But I can’t. Well, not for very long. My own prayers are either “on the fly” when I ask God “help me” or “give me patience” or “help me to hear what this person is trying to tell me or what you want me to say” — some need right in the middle of whatever I am doing. But they really are prayers. I REALLY am making an earnest request to God. I also regularly pray a list of prayer and people I remember right before bed. But you have other ways. Over time, you have probably had different prayer traditions.
You wouldn’t ask your toddler or grandchild to pray like an adult; why do you hold yourself up to some standard. Pray like you pray…
3. Look for all the possibilities; there’s a big back of prayer traditions to choose from. Ask others how they pray. Research and try different traditions. Remember there are different prayers — thanksgivings and intercessions for others and petitions for yourself.
I know one person who buys annually a book of daily prayers, and prays one each day. He says it’s amazing how often an appointed prayer fits and leads places he could not have gotten on his own.
Mark S. told us about how when he was a pastor, sometimes someone’s name would just pop into his consciousness as someone he needed to visit, and that often when he got there, there was good reason he’d been sent. For him, that too was prayer — that he was open to hearing something he couldn’t explain, know or understand, but just receive and trust.
If you are stuck or can’t find a tradition that seems to work, please, let’s talk.
4. Try and keep it lively. Sometimes a certain prayer style or tradition was rich and deep for us, but over time, it lost its zest. Okay, then look for something else. Sometimes, it feels like our prayers don’t work. Okay, maybe that’s a sign that it’s time to move on and pray differently.
One of the best parts of this past Midday Meeting was hearing people’s various prayer stories. Stories of passionate prayer life, and stories of struggle or weird prayer situations. We all have them, but probably don’t share them often enough.
5. Prayer as blessing rather than duty. A friend of mine says she was taught as a child that she must pray. On her knees bedside every night and before every meal time. And she always has.
But she is absolutely clear that her prayer life didn’t come alive until she re-understood prayer. It wasn’t a duty for her, but a blessing she could know for herself and share with others. She says now she never goes to her knees! But she loves to pray; it feels like a privilege.
Each time you get distracted and lose the train of your prayer, rather than a failure, count it as a blessing because you get to return to God in love.
6. Even the saints of the church have struggled to pray. “Dark Nights” and “Dry Spells” are part of life, even a prayer life. Remember, just because God seems distant does not mean that God has abandoned you or is absent. Maybe God is working with you in a new way, or pushing you to try a new path?
7. Prayer is a hard habit to earn that is easy to lose. I have always heard it’s like taming a wild bird, teaching it to live in a cage in your home. No easy task, and as soon as you leave the cage door open, your bird will fly off.
We should intentionally work at creating a prayer habit for ourselves. When I realized that I sometimes called on God with a silent request in a pastoral counseling session or at a hospital bedside or in a meeting, I decided to try and do it more often!
We really can and do learn to pray…
Could prayer become one of your Rules of Life? Something you live by? What gives your complicated life some shape and discipline and meaning and support?
8. Pray with others. We talked about how many people don’t like to pray in public. But there’s something about having a prayer partner or a prayer group. Or taken each others’ hands and praying for one another. And there’s some accountability in someone waiting on you, expecting your to pray with them. I get to the gym regularly because Floyd, Richard, Mark, Desiree and Alice expect me. It’s the same thing with prayer.
At the end of our Midday Meeting session, I asked the group to actually pray. As a help, I used the form we used for our Prayer Meeting at Living Hope: it was a 4-part meeting.
We each shared something we are experiencing as a burden (because none of us is so perfect we don’t need to ask for help).
We each shared something we want to pray for someone else (because prayer can do that too).
We each shared something we are thankful for (because no matter how bad things are, there is always something to be thankful for).
We each shared something we can do in the next day or so to make our lives better (because God gives us more power than we often realize).
I was late for my next meeting by then, so I told them to simply taking in all that we had just shared, and taking one another’s hands, they should feel the Spirit among them and pray over it all. As I left, they looked pretty intense in their prayer circle.
But before I left them, I said one more thing: Before they started praying, I asked if anyone wanted to, we could set up a weekly time and a conference call for prayer. So we could help one another pray. Support one another in prayer. Pray together. Maybe we’d even try different prayer disciplines as we walked with one another and God’s world in prayer. If you are interested, let me know…
See you in church,