PRAYER FOR DUMMIES (PART I)
Prayer is not a natural or easy thing for me. As a mild extrovert, the conventional ways of conversing with God (eyes closed, hands folded, mouth shut) have never appealed to me. I’m a verbal processor, and praying in my head easily morphs into daydreaming or some other form of distraction. So many good books have been written on the subject of prayer, presenting buffets of possibilities in terms of how we can connect to God (see a few recommendations below). But those of us most in need such books shy away from them because we don’t see ourselves as “pray-ers,” and our experience of prayer has left us so disappointed and disillusioned that we have no desire to explore it more deeply. For years I just assumed that prayer would always be drudgery for me—a boring but necessary discipline, like taking a daily vitamin. But I’m learning how to pray in ways that are both satisfying and transformative. I’ve a long way to go, but I’d like to share some tips that I’m learning along the way.
Embody Your Prayers
I pray better when I am not just praying in my head, but somehow engaging my body in the act of prayer. The simplest way for me to do this is to write out my prayers. For years I have kept a prayer journal, which reads like a long, on-going letter to God. Writing helps me pray in some very concrete ways. First, it helps me to stay focused. I don’t fall asleep or daydream when I am writing, and I also follow a clearer train of thought. Rabbit-trailing becomes laborious in writing, so I avoid jumping around from topic to topic. Writing also slows me down. When I pray in my head, my thoughts whirl around quickly, but when I write, I am forced to pay attention to my own thoughts, I become more reflective, intentional, and careful with my words. For those who are more visual than verbal, perhaps drawing or doodling your prayers would be a better option. Either way, a pen in hand helps me to be present to God and to myself when I pray.
Another way to embody prayer is by exploring different postures of prayer. Being in a position that is not normal or natural helps me to focus and pay attention by providing a clear point of entry and exit into the time of prayer. I went through a season when I could only pray if I was laying prostrate, face-down on the ground. (My pets found this to be highly amusing, and often stood on my back, which only added to the humiliation of that posture.) I have bad knees, so I don’t tend to kneel much, but I know that this is also a traditional prayer posture that others have found to be helpful. The Jews would walk rhythmically to the reading of the Psalms. I run without my iPod because I find running to be a prayerful place for me. In worship services people often raise their hands as a gesture of openness, praise, or surrender. I do the same in my times of personal worship and prayer.
Finally, I embody prayer by engaging all of my senses. I look around, and pray according to what I see (a photo of my kids leads me to pray for Graham and Chandler), what I hear (the noisy garbage truck reminds me of how thankful I am for a Savior who takes away all my sin), what I smell (the aroma of a nearby bakery reminds me that Jesus is the bread of life, and I pray to find satisfaction and fulfilment in Him), what I taste (the welcome cup of coffee makes me long to be awakened to the work of God in and around me), and what I feel (I can bring every emotion, positive or negative, to Christ, and ask Him to do his redemptive work). I also like to pray aloud, even when I am alone. There is power in the spoken word, and I find that impure motives, impertinent complaints, and false beliefs are revealed for what they really are when I hear myself proclaim them. Thus, praying aloud helps to purify my prayers (writing has this effect as well!).
How do you embody your prayers? What is your experience of God as you embody your prayers?
Some GREAT Resources
If you struggle with prayer, let me encourage you STRONGLY to read Richard Foster’s classic book, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. Though this book had been recommended to me for years, I avoided it (for the aforementioned reason) until it became assigned reading in seminary. Each chapter describes a different type of prayer and the scenarios when such a method of praying would be most useful. Foster is easy to read, and he engages both heart and mind in his writing.
A second resource I want to recommend is MaryKate Morse’s A Guidebook to Prayer. Dr. Morse is one of my favorite professors at Portland Seminary, and her book is a true guidebook, complete with prayer exercises for both individuals and groups. If you need a nuts and bolts “how-to” on prayer, this book is for you.
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