Thursday, January 21, 2010

My Experience with Prayer

If a student or friend asked me how to pray I would point them to the Lord’s Prayer, the fountain and source of all prayer, as well as the entire Psalter.  A couple years ago I was introduced to the short little book by Dietrich Bonhoeffer titled “Prayer book of the Bible.”  This short writing introduced me to a more ordered life of prayer led by the Psalter, the prayer book of the Bible – the prayer book of Christ himself.  In the psalms we pray with Christ and through him, as he is our brother and friend.  The Psalter expresses and encapsulates the whole Christian experience, from the depths of Sheol to the heights of heaven.  It holds the deepest mysteries of the faith from God’s speaking in creation to the sending of His Son and to the crucifixion of Christ - his suffering, death, and resurrection.
I learned here that God does not just set us loose to figure out prayer for ourselves.  When the disciples approach Jesus, begging, “Lord, teach us to pray,” He does not cast them off and say “pray for whatever you like” or “just search your heart.”  He has mercy on us saying, when you pray, say this!  He gives an imperative – a command of invitation and promise, “Our Father who art in heaven…”  

Bonhoeffer in his little book has given me this little bit of advice that I always return to, “We ought to pray from the richness of God’s Word rather than the poverty of our own hearts.”  With those precious psalms we speak back to God what he speaks to us, being joined together in the drama of salvation and the totality of the whole Christian church’s experience in all times and in all places.  We also know from scripture that Jesus and the disciples prayed periodically during the day would have times set aside to pray the Psalter, likely singing/chanting in the familiar way from synagogue worship. 

With prayer there must be times set aside specifically for prayer, hopefully down to the minute.  From my experience, I am too lazy to pray if it is left up to me to decide when it is convenient to pray (hint: it is never convenient to pray!).  It often seems like a waste of time, and if it were up to me to pray only spontaneously or extemporaneously, I would rarely or never pray at all.  Therefore prayer is first and foremost a discipline, a time set aside specifically for meditation.  It is habitual and orderly.  In the Lutheran tradition, we have a real treasure with the prayer offices of Matins and Vespers (I have written more about the Daily Office of Prayer HERE). 

Prayer is not easy.  My first year of seminary I began an orderly schedule of praying the Psalter everyday with a few dear friends.  I would of course miss many of the prayer offices (6am, 11:30am, 4:40pm, and 10:00pm).  I would often be interrupted from my studies or rest from one of the brothers rousting me to join him in praying the psalms, suffrages, canticles and so forth.  The prayer office usually took around 30 minutes, sometimes less, sometimes longer.  When my friend would show up to my door, more often than not I would have a little shoot of rage pierce my heart against him and his interruption.  How dare this pious jerk interrupt me to pray!  I would rather be doing this or that, and what is the use!  Why does he have to bother me?  Of course, I would usually join and 10 or 15 minutes into the singing and chanting of psalms and hymns my heart would be at rest and I would hope to be nowhere else than right there.  There was peace in the midst of those psalms and praying them in the close company of the brothers. 

The old Adamic man hates prayer.  He will do anything to avoid it, and will go to great extremes to find reasons why prayer is fruitless and in vain.  He would rather run from God and have nothing to do with him.  Loneliness and solitude can be great enemies of prayer.  When man was formed God saw that “it is not good that man should be alone” (Gen 2:18).  Man needed a helper not only to tend to his work but the work of prayer and devotion.  Community was given and formed for that need.  The Lord anticipated Adams need and gave him community for work and worship, which in many ways are one in the same.  Man’s work was a worshiping activity in which God spoke and Adam listened and spoke back.                      

Although prayer is difficult and at times awkward, when we hear preaching (viva vox evangelii), pray the Psalter or the orthodox and historic hymns of the church we are in our most ‘natural state,’ not in the sense of Rousseau’s “noble savage” but as man in the image of God, ‘male and female’ He made them, ‘blessed,’ ‘fruitful’ with the ‘breath of life.’  In that cultic activity, man lives by that invitation, “You may eat!”  This is how we can truly be ‘ourselves’ in the highest sense.  That true and natural man lives by the invitation to feast on that Word and promise of God, now given in His person Jesus Christ.  If we look for ‘self-discovery’ in the Socratic tradition, ‘know thyself,’ we ought to look to the Psalter above all else, “For thou hast possessed my reins: thou hast covered me in my mother's womb,” (Ps. 139:12).  In the Psalms we know and claim the thoughts of God toward us revealed through David’s seed, our Jesus

1 comment:

  1. This is all true, most especially the anecdote about "pious jerks." I felt the exact same way when you, Gary, Kurt, or especially Brandon would come and knock on my door. The piety of others bothers us mostly because it reminds us of our own impiety. Our laziness, our computers, even our procrastinated work becomes a priority when the needs of others and of ourselves are put forward in the suggestion, "would you pray with me?" And in that moment, we hate our neighbors and brothers so fiercely. It is Satan at work in us. We must finally be brought kicking and screaming against our will to prayer. Quite a lot like Baptism. -Sean


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