This winter/spring I read an amazing book on prayer I wish I had come across years ago. It is called Prayer: Conversing with God by a missionary named Rosalind Rinker. She first published it in 1959, but it is so relevant. Could have been written yesterday. Easily one of the best books on prayer I’ve ever read.
She talks about her early experiences on a missionary team, when they had staff prayer meetings:
“We were all together on our knees in the same room, each with love for the other, and each with a common purpose. But I began to realize we were each making a little speech to the Lord when our turn came. I know we were supposed to pray silently with the one who was praying audibly, but when we all covered the same ground — well, I found that I was trying to think how I could start my prayer with more “colorful” words. How I could put more “action” into my prayer, how I could make it sound more “spiritual,” and how I could take hold of the promises with more faith than the others. I wanted to word it differently from the persons who had prayed before me, and make it sound more important and interesting.”
That spoke to me. I’ve had the same thoughts many times. As if the prayer time was a showcase of spirituality. Who could get the most “Amens” or “Yes, Lords”? I’m guilty of those thoughts each month when I attend my local ministerium prayer meeting or my denominational district pastors’ prayer lunch. There are buzzwords you can pray and you know you will get a reaction! Start talking about revival in your prayer, that’s guaranteed to get you some “Amens!”. But is that how we should pray?
Rinker goes on to say:
“I used to choose a chair near the bookcases, so that when things got dull, I could quietly glance through the shelves and make a mental note, and often a penciled note, of the books I wanted to read. Then there were the times I actually pulled out a book, and using my jacket around my shoulders as a shield, leafed through some of the books during the prayer meeting. Sometimes I just plain fell asleep on my knees during those long sessions of prayer. After my turn was over, it wasn’t too hard to do.”
Yup. Been there too. When prayer becomes performance, who cares if we pay attention. But is that how we should pray?
Rinker says that her relationship with God, and thus her practice of prayer, was revolutionized when she discovered that God desires us to talk with him as a friend. If you read through Exodus, you see the example of Moses and God and how they talked. It is amazing. Real friendship. Real conversation. And in fact in Exodus 33:11, we read “God talked with Moses face to face, as a man talks with his friend.” You read through the Psalms, and you see David is like that too. You watch the example of Jesus, and it is the same. Real conversation in prayer. Real emotion. Truth. Honesty. That’s how we should talk with God.
But what about rote prayers? If we are supposed to talk with God as a friend, does that mean it is wrong to read or repeat prayers? Hear me clearly: recited prayers, memorized or read, are not wrong. In fact, I think they can be very helpful, and we probably need to use them a lot more than we do.
A resource like the Book of Common Prayer is excellent, and I would suggest you all use it, as least from time to time. There are also numerous BCP apps for your smart phone. You might look into other prayer books too, and there are many biblical prayers that are fantastic. There is nothing wrong, for example, with saying the Lord’s Prayer every day, every worship service, as long as your heart is in it!
Along with that kind of written prayer, I believe that conversational, unprepared, ad lib prayer is also very important. This is where Rosalind Rinker’s book is so helpful. She has loads of excellent practical suggestions for how to have great conversations with God.
From time to time I hear the argument that says “Well, isn’t prayer unnecessary, because God already knows our thoughts and our needs and everything about us?” God does know all that. But that’s pretty one-sided isn’t it? A real relationship involves equal give and take, both friends communicating as much as possible. How do you think God would feel if we never or rarely make an effort to talk with him?
Therefore, God desires us to be persistent and consistent in prayer.
David says in Psalm 5 that he prays in the morning and watches for God to answer. I encourage you to read that this week.
Then there is the parable Jesus told in Luke 18 about the widow. Another one to read this week. Parables can sometimes be hard to understand, but Luke tells us exactly what Jesus was trying to accomplish in that parable. In Luke 18:1 he writes “Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up.”
You know what that means? Prayer takes energy, investment, and commitment. When I took prayer class in college, I heard a phrase that shocked me “prayer is hard work.”
It seems wrong to say “prayer is hard work”. But anytime you do anything consistently and persistently, it can feel like hard work. So let’s not fool ourselves by saying that prayer is supposed to be simple or carefree or effortless. A healthy practice of prayer, like any healthy relationship will take work.
Here’s the beautiful thing, though. Hard work can become heavenly. How many of you have had the experience of learning to love and enjoy hard work? Whether it is straight up physical labor, exercising, practicing a sport or maybe a musical instrument, you can grow to enjoy it. Say you are on a sports team. After you practice and practice, and after you put in the hard work, how many have found it to become delightful?
Jesus’ disciples once asked him “Teach us pray.” Great question. That’s what this sermon is all about. We want to learn How to Pray. So, what should you actually do? What will this hard work of prayer look like? And will you work at it, practice it, till it becomes delightful to be in such regular, wonderful conversation with God?
Here are some practical suggestions:
- Plan to pray. Carve out time. It could mean cutting out something to make room for prayer. I recently read an article where a guy made a commitment to wake up at 5am every day for a year. Not necessarily to pray. But it changed his life. Would you wake up early to make time for prayer? That might work for you. Or would you cut out time on Facebook in order to have time to pray? In Matthew 6, right before he teaches the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus suggests that when we prayer, we get alone, be in secret, talk with God. When I was a student at LBC, I used the private music listening booths in the library.
- Write down prayer requests. Keep a journal. I found a great free prayer app this week. Prayer Mate. It is available for both iPhones and Androids.
- Pray God’s word. Write down this reference. I preached it on Easter. Ephesians 1:17-19. Then the most famous prayer of all is the Lord’s Prayer. Matthew 6:9-13. Memorize it. Use it both as a word-for-word prayer, but also as a model for prayer. Take note of the elements that Jesus includes in the Lord’s Prayer. Praise, Confessing sins, Requests, Thanksgiving. Then go to the Psalms. We need a steady diet of the Psalms.
- Just start talking. Know that God loves you, that he is your friend. And just start talking to him. Tell him everything. Have a conversation with him exactly like you do with your friends. In a group setting, can I challenge you to take a risky step and pray out loud. Even if it is just one sentence.
Learning to how to pray is not going to happen by reading a blog post or book about prayer. If you want to learn how to pray, it all boils down to just starting. Make a practical goal for yourself this week.
My personal goal is prayer walks through the church. I need to get started. When I walk through the various rooms and hallways of the church building, it reminds me to pray for various ministries, groups and people in our church family. In the lobby, I see our Summer Lunch Club volunteer sign-up table. That reminds me to pray for all the volunteers and participants in a wonderful outreach the helps families in need. Down the hall, I walk past the nursery and I think about all the families in our congregation raising young children. I pray for them during what is an emotionally and physically exhausting period of life. Around the corner, I see the offices of The Door Christian Fellowship, an amazing congregation that rents space from Faith Church. We’ve deeply appreciated our partnership with The Door, and I pray that God blesses them. And on and on the prayer goes.
How about you? What will you to work on prayer?
Here’s my one big action step I’d like you to consider. Get a trainer. Be a trainer. Yup, just as you would get a trainer for your physical health, get a spiritual trainer to learn how to pray. Jesus once said, “Where 2 or 3 are together, there am I with them.” When you get together with people to pray, he is there. What an outstanding promise! So who will train you to pray? Or, who will you train?
Then add Rosalind Rinker’s book to this. Each of you get the book, and read one chapter per week. Get together for an hour per week, and take 30 minutes to review the chapter, then take 30 minutes to pray.
Get started. With expectancy.
With any habit, it can take a while for it to feel more comfortable. But that is the nature of anything you want to grow in. Practice. Practice. Practice.
You can see such a difference in people that practice. Whether it is a musical instrument or athletics. There is such a connection to the spiritual life. We are not just spirits. We are bodies too, so how we use our bodies affects our spirit. That’s why we need to practice spiritually.
Remember God’s grace. You don’t have to pray perfectly. God doesn’t care about that. Just start talking with him. Share your thoughts with him, and do it consistently. It might feel awkward, but push through. That’s what practice is like. And watch your conversations with God grow and flourish.