Over the last several weeks, I’ve been talking about prayer with two different Bible study groups. Here, in this post, I’m going to share what I taught and learned. I admit, all of what I share here has already been posted on my parish’s blog. But I’m sharing it here as well:
We start with the question “What is Prayer?”
The definition that can be found with a quick online search:
Prayer (noun) =
1. a solemn request for help or expression of thanks addressed to God or an object of worship.
2. an earnest hope or wish.
3. an act that seeks to activate a rapport with a deity, an object of worship, or a spiritual entity through deliberate communication
Prayer is, quite simply, talking to/with God. We talk to God. We share our cares, our concerns, our thoughts. But we ideally talk with God. This means that not only do we talk, but we also leave space for a response.
There are no right or wrong words to speak when we pray. In fact, some of the best prayers are those times when we lack words. Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans that the Spirit prays for us with sighs too deep for words to express (8:26).
Think of your reaction when you see something spectacular (like a fireworks display – whether man-made or God’s lightning). What is it that you say?
Or how about when you see someone hurting? How do you react?
What noise do you make when you are frustrated? Angry? Annoyed?
Every reaction, every sigh conveys emotions and experiences that are part of our conversation with ourselves, with our neighbors and with God. Being in communication is more than the words we speak; we also include the unspoken and nonverbal.
And since is prayer is by definition communicating with God, even our gasps of awe, groans of pain and sighs of frustration are prayers.
Next we ask, “Why do we pray? For what/whom do we pray?”
Here are some common types of prayer:
– Petition = we seek out and ask for what we need
– Thanksgiving = we share our gratitude for gifts and blessings that have been provided
– Worship/praise = we glorify God by stating what good things God has done and will do in our lives
The Book of Psalms is one of the best resources for prayers in the Bible. The 150 psalms each have their own special message to be shared. These are both prayers and songs. Many hymns sung in church are based on the psalms, but you can also pray them silently or spoken aloud.
Read the Psalms 4, 88 and 145 SLOWLY. As you read the psalms, pay attention to words and phrases that stick out to you. What rings true? Also, pay attention to your emotions as you read. Do you feel mad, sad or glad? Do the words lift you up or pull you down?
Here are some reflections:
– Psalm 4 – This is a prayer asking God to provide one of the most essential needs: protection. Note how the psalm begins: “Answer me, O God.” This is not a nice “Oh, when you get the chance…” This is a bold statement and (dare I say it) demand for God to take care of his child. The psalmist cannot even go to sleep without trusting that God will provide safety through the night.
– Psalm 88 – This is the most despairing of all the psalms. Most psalms end with some form of blessing or praise to God. This one does not. This psalm remains “depressing” and very realistic about the pain the writer is feeling. One of the biggest gifts of this psalm (and others similar to it) is that we are given words to express our pain. We do not always have to be bubbling over with joy, especially when life is not joyful.
– Psalm 145 – This is one of many “praise” psalms. Notice how this psalm talks about God and what God is capable of doing. But also, this is a psalm that invites the reader (and consequently speaker) to also declare what God has done and who God is.
The next question we consider: How do we pray?
One of the parts of prayer that we often overlook is what our bodies are doing as we pray. Think about your favorite prayer position. Are you standing, sitting, kneeling, laying down, walking around? What are you doing with your hands and arms? Are your eyes open or closed?
Just remember, there is no right or wrong way to pray. But paying attention to how we pray can help us focus on our prayer.
Try sitting still with your hands folded, head bowed, and eyes closed. How do you feel?
Try standing up with your arms outstretched, hands open and eyes looking outward. How do you feel now?
Try kneeling with your palms up. Or laying face-down on the floor. How do you feel?
So many times we were taught that the “best” way to pray is to remain still and bow our heads. That is a position to focus us as we pray, and it can work for some.
But it can also close us off.
Sometimes we need to have our bodies open so that we ourselves are open for God’s message. This is why so many people feel closest to God while wandering out in nature, not closed up in a room with head bowed down.
Recently, I learned a random fact: most of our brains are capable of handling 1.5 things at once.
This means that as we talk with someone, our brain is a) listening to what is being spoken, b) helping us to think a reply, and c) doing something else (whether compiling a to-do list in your mind or showing as a physical movement).
I think of this in regards to my “fidgety” fingers. While in the midst of a conversation (listening to words and thinking my response), my fingers are often busy playing around with whatever finds its way into my hands (jewelry, cell phone, pens, etc). I have also experienced shifting weight while standing, shaking my legs, doodling on paper, or tapping out rhythms.
While many of us can find such motions distracting, for the person involved, such movement may be necessary in order to focus on the conversation.
In regards to prayer, this means that we strive to use our bodies and our movements carefully and intentionally. This is why some people pray best while swaying. Others pray best while knitting or crocheting. Others paint, walk, or bake in order to focus while praying.
Prayer is not just a formula of words to be spoken: “Dear God, I need ___. Thank you for ___. You rock!”
Prayer involves all that we are (thoughts, speech, actions).
There is no right or wrong when praying. The most important thing is that we pray.
I’ve lost track of how many times people have asked me to put forth special requests to God.
Sometimes, I am humbled, honored and blessed to be entrusted with your concerns while other times I want to roll my eyes and ask “Do you really expect me to pray for that?!”
I am always willing to take time to pray for people, but I’ve learned to be careful and considerate with my prayers.
Sometimes, when asked to pray, I am taken aback and want to either giggle or groan, depending on my mood and the request.
For example: I might groan if you ask me to pray for a really hot, sunny day (mainly because I think anything over 75 degrees is unfit for humans and consider such prayers to be ridiculous). I might laugh if you ask me to not pray for snow, even though you live in North Dakota and it’s December (partly because I happen to like snow and cold weather and why would I ever agree to pray against something I enjoy?).
But I will faithfully pray that God sends the weather that we need and to watch over those who are out in the elements.
I draw the line with some prayers. We all have our limits, and even as a pastor I occasionally hesitate to ask God for some things.
I won’t pray for a sports team to win. I will pray for safety of players.
I won’t pray for you to win the lottery. I will pray that God will work through others to help you.
I won’t pray for the things that I believe are wants or desires. I will pray that God sees your need and gives you what you need.
I will not pray for what appears to be self-serving, but I will pray that God watches over all of us in all aspects of our daily lives.
So here is a word of advice: be careful what you pray for.
When we pray, we better be ready for the prayer to be answered (whether the answer is yes or no). Praying for a snow day because you want a day off might be answered with clear skies.
When we pray, we better be paying attention to exactly what it is that we pray for. Praying for health may not mean that a miracle cure happens or the physical ailment is “fixed” when health might be the emotional or spiritual acceptance of our own mortality.
When we pray, we better be ready to change. Praying for something and not receiving it could lead us to turning away from God (as we claim that since the prayer wasn’t answered how we wanted means God doesn’t listen) or else teaching us patience and trust that God provides, even if we don’t get what we want when we want it.
Whatever the prayer, I use honesty and caution.
Honesty because prayer is the time when we can share our deepest concerns and wishes with God, knowing that God sees into our hearts and knows when we are trying to hide.
Caution because God is paying attention, and sometimes we know what we ought to be praying for even if we don’t want to pay attention to what we feel deep in our hearts/guts should be our prayer.
After all, prayers are powerful and life-changing.