On the Side: Prayer-Filled Life

header_imageA few weeks back preaching fatigue was the focus of the series. The suggestion list was rather intentionally human. It is not that we should start with the human, or that human things matter most, or that we can presume prayer is happening in the lives of preachers. We simply did not want to turn prayer into mechanism you use instead of a life to live.

I remember sitting at Doug’s kitchen table. I am a coffee guy, strong and black. He liked tea. Slowly brewed. Carefully served. The table was small and round. The kitchen simple and not exactly uncluttered. I had preached an evening service following our morning service. Doug was the pastor, I was the guest. He shared with me his story of burn out, spiritual dryness, and turning to spiritual direction for guidance and recovery during a sabbatical. He completely changed his life of prayer,  he said. He did not emphasize changing his “ways” of praying. He changed his life of prayer. He slowly sipped his tea. His words were measured and calm. His demeanor relaxed. Something about sitting with him and listening to him describe the change from spiritual desert to peace-filled streams of prayer inspired me.

prayer-walkDoug had something I did not have: a peace-filled life of prayer. My prayer life was strong and edgy like my coffee. But unlike my coffee, it didn’t restore me and I did not look forward to it. It was driven. It tired me rather than rejuvenated me. It felt repetitive. At times it was manipulative.

I read some books Doug recommended. But mostly, I sought the life Doug reflected. I think preachers lose a great deal of solace when their prayer life is primarily about asking God to do things. That includes asking God to tell us what to say.

Here are some ways of praying I have discovered along the way as I sought to follow the path Doug found. Don’t use them to make preaching better. Pursue them if you think life will be better. They will affect your preaching, but from the side.

  1. Prayers of Presence – Brother Lawrence is of course the patron saint of this concept. His only aim was to attend to the presence of God as much as possible in every moment of the day. He did not even want to “lift so much as a straw from the ground” except insomuch as he was moved by love. His peaceful presence, godly spirit, and way of being in life drew many to see him as a preeminent example of a different way of living. The different way of living primarily attended to the presence of God. Try this in your life and you will find greater peace moment by moment, hour by hour than you have likely ever experienced before. When the sun glances off your cheek, let the warmth of the love of God sink into your soul. Take the wind as a reminder of the Spirit moving all around you in ways you cannot see or feel. When rain falls, remember your baptism or the lavish love of God. As you are doing dishes remember Christ’s cleansing work. When you stop at a light, stop and remember God’s goodness in your life. This one simple experiment, seeking to remember God as much as possible, may be the most life-giving thing anyone could ever offer you. Pray the presence of God.
  1. Prayers of Enjoyment – Celebration is not just a sung-worship thing. Our lives are intended to be doxological in every wrinkle and in every tucked away corner. As I write this I am on a writing weekend getaway my wife gave me out of great love. I am sitting listening to the waves of a lake hit the shore driven by wind blowing about 5 to 10 knots. The October sun is still coaxing the grass to send down roots, and the crickets have not given up on summer. Each of these things are beautiful gifts from God, not the least of which is the love of my dearest friend who supports my work and my soul at the same time. These are from God, are to be enjoyed, and give great occasion for thankfulness. That’s just this moment. There was the pleasure of a favorite fruit bar earlier, the glimpse of a family out on a stroll, and the memory of God’s forgiveness of my worst sins. Stop for a moment. Look around in celebration of the goodness of God. You may not have small whitecaps streaming up to riprap and late fall butterflies dancing in front of your view. But there is beauty. Who in your life is God using lately to give you good gifts that touch your soul? When we pay attention to the presence of God, we can also celebrate the goodness of God. We can hold onto that goodness, savor it, and let it sink down into our soul. Pollyana has become the icon for super sappy sentimentality. Still, she was right in a way. The glad verses get short shrift from we preachers still to this day. The earth, though fallen still bears the glorious dust of God’s goodness.
  1. Prayers of Release – Breathing prayers seek to draw up the goodness of the first two ways of praying into rhythmic intentional movements we can practice in set aside times of prayer. The goal of course is for more and more of our moments of the day to be filled with prayers of presence and prayers of celebration without set aside time. It is the working person’s joy to find work a means of prayer. Breathing prayer has three movements attached to breathing in, holding, breathing out. The first is recognizing God’s presence as you breath in. The second is enjoying God’s presence as you hold. The third is the releasing movement. You release your anxieties to God. The distractions that come into prayer are often the anxieties we have not yet released. It is a difficult release to surrender to the notion that God is God. We are not. That is more painful than we think. Our anxieties are miniature household idols, tiny attempts at controlling our world. We cannot let go of them, so they have a great hold on us. Anxiety is the enemy of spiritual formation. Angst chokes the soul, cuts off the oxygen of surrender, and deafens the heart to the nudges of God. Prayers of release do not even have to have words. Simply breathing them out in a mindset of release can be powerful. Our groanings and sighs are musical to God.
  1. Prayers of Lament – We do not allow ourselves to grieve in America for long. Monday someone dies. In eight days our cultural rhythms are over, our rituals done, and our official grieving past. Prayers of presence and celebration and release do not need to number our prayers of grief and lament. Perhaps our preaching carries more tones of anger with it because we have not yet fully grieved a dozen wounds we bear. So we cover those wounds over with the heavy cloth of righteous indignation at things which have little connection to our grief, except by way of distraction. What sadness casts a shadow over your chest? Spend time holding it, like a stillborn child, between you and God. Pass it back and forth. Share your tears with him, and let him share his grief with you. We have a great high priest who knew death and loss. Where was Joseph after the move back to Nazareth? When did he disappear? What wounds must he have carried over being someone’s “natural son” as the British used to say.
  1. Prayers of Improvisation – There are so many ways to commune with God it would be silly to list them all. The key concept Doug opened for me in new ways that night over his kitchen table was that there were so many, and they each bore unique gifts. Isaiah chastises the people of God for allowing their worship of God to be “made up only of rules taught by men.” I do love to ask people what meaningful ways of worship they have discovered that no one taught them to do. From fall-peak road trips listening to Rich Mullins CD’s to prayer-versation where you seek to hear God through what your friends say each day i learn beautiful new ways to pray and worship from others. It’s the improvisation in the moment that seems to me the sign that someone has found a life of prayer, not just ways of praying. As they narrate the inner life they have discovered I hear moments of sheer freedom in knowing and being known, loving and being loved, listening and being heard by God.

The life of prayer is “on the side” only insofar as it should not be corrupted by preaching’s desperation for help in professional tasks “right now.” There are times to cry out for help in dependance to be sure. God does not despise it. Yet if that is the focus of our prayer life, asking for this and begging for that, we have missed something —the beautiful dance of life with God.

by Dave Ward

 

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