Leaning into Prayer

For those who’ve known me any length of time, you’ve probably heard me lament my struggles with prayer. Simply put, I am no good at prayer. I don’t mean that in any pragmatic sense — “I pray and I pray, but God never seems to answer me!” — but, I mean I often struggle to pray. At times, I struggle to make time to pray. (Margin is a challenge in my life I am tackling head on.) At other times, I struggle to focus long enough to pray when I’ve set the time aside. (Part of that is part of my natural disposition. I am easily distracted. This isn’t helped by my lack of margin.) Of course, there are also those times when I struggle to know what to pray — like in the face of senseless violence or the evils we often see play out before us. (I don’t think I am alone here.)

My struggles with prayer take a toll on me. To pick the low-hanging fruit, I am much grumpier when I am not praying. I am much more prone to act in not-very-cruciform ways. I am also more prone to approach things on my own. This could go on for a while, but I’ll drop it here.

Inspired by some of the thinkers, writers, and speakers in my life, I’ve really worked to lean into the practice of prayer over the last year or two. This has helped greatly, and like to share a few insights with you.

Learning to Pray

For starters, I’ve been struck by the notion that Jesus’ disciples apparently thought they needed to learn how to pray, and Jesus apparently thought he needed to teach them. No doubt, some will object to this — even though it is in the gospels! — but everyone learns to pray, whether they mean to or not. It is never a matter of “just saying what’s on your heart.” Sure, you may say what’s on your heart, but that message is filtered through the way you’ve been taught to pray.

Here’s an exercise. Spend the next few months really listening to the way people pray in your church and notice all the familiar phrases and cliches you’ve tuned out over the years. In my tradition, we have our lingo: “guide, guard, and direct us,” or “keep us till the next appointed time.” You may have noticed others use the word “just” four times a sentence when praying. I’m not making fun of those things, but where do these things come from? We’ve learned them.

Here, I’ve learned to see prayer as something akin to playing a guitar. When you start learning, you learn the basics — chords, strumming patterns, scales, licks and riffs. As you practice those elements, the language of guitar, you learn to mix and match those elements to come up with music unique to you. Prayer works in the same way.

The biggest change in my prayer life is I’ve started intentionally learning to pray.

The Lord’s Prayer

In that process, the regular, intentional, reflective praying of Jesus’ model prayer has probably done more to strengthen my discipline of prayer than anything else. It has not only shaped the way I pray. It has also shaped the way I see the world. Praying as Jesus taught has formed me, which is what good prayer will do.

Going back to our music metaphor, I sometimes pray the Lord’s prayer as it is written — though I take pains never to pray it automatically. I pray it the way I sing my favorite song. No matter how often I sing it, it’s never empty. Other times, I linger over each line, reflecting on and improvising variations of the main riff. “Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven …” What would it look like in my life, in the life of my family, or my church, or my community for God’s will to be done?

Other Written Prayers

I’ve also found infinite value in praying from the prayers of others. These prayers help me hone the language of prayer. The Psalms are a primary source, as well as the other great prayers of the Bible. (Man, do I ever long to pray like Paul in Ephesians 3. That guy …)

But, I also read the prayers of other men and women of God throughout history. For instance, I’ve learned a lot from St. Patrick’s prayer called, “Patrick’s Breastplate”, and also from the misattributed prayer of Francis of Assisi. As with the Lord’s Prayer, I sometimes pray as it’s written, but I’ve also learned to incorporate the movements of other prayers into my own times of “improvised” prayer. (Much as Mary does in the Magnificat in Luke 1.)

As with anything else, when you’re looking at the prayers of others, there will be things you can get behind and things you can’t. Then again, the men in my church often pray things I can’t get behind either, so it isn’t really much different. I try not to pray without my brain engaged.

Regular Rhythms of Prayer

A third practice that has helped me lean into prayer is the discipline of praying at regular times. There are several ways of doing this. Currently, I am praying the Divine Office, which sets aside times for and provides liturgies for times of prayer in the morning, mid-day, evening, and night. (With this practice, you will spend 90% of your time praying the Psalms.) I still struggle to do this, but I’ve noticed a tremendous difference in my prayer life (and life in general) since I’ve started this discipline.

(For those concerned that we ought to “pray without ceasing,” you will be interested in knowing this practice has increased the amount of time I spend praying outside of those four blocks of time. It is a discipline that reinforces the reflex of prayer.)

Breathe Prayer

The last practice that has really helped me is the ancient practice of breathe prayer. Essentially this is the practice of praying a short prayer each time you breathe out.

In my experience, there are several ways this works. First, you can pray the same simple prayer over and over. For instance, in a time of worry, I ask God to give me confidence in him. With each breathe, I refocus my thinking on God’s faithfulness and provision. Second, you can pray a series of short, unconnected prayers. Third, I’ve found praying in rhythm with my breathing helps me focus during my prayer time, and so I find myself pausing as I breathe in and structuring my prayers in succinct clips.

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I suspect I’m not the only one who occasionally struggles with prayer. These practices have really helped me. I offer them in hopes that they might help you as well.