Forgetting How to Pray: A Reflection


I never learned to pray. Not really. The only prayers I was ever exposed to in the church of my youth were pretty strict and formal. Don had an incredible cadence to his prayer he learned in the deep parts of rural West Virginia. Steve seemed to mention everyone and everything in his prayers. Pat’s prayers were brief and vague. Jim’s prayers were distant and didn’t really deal with anything in the real world. And, Bob, who I probably respected most, had rather matter-of-fact prayers that, at least as well as I could tell, oozed humility.

That was the extent of my teachings on prayer – examples. Of course we were always encouraged to pray – it was part of a staple answer for all things holy: pray, read the Bible, help the poor . . . but as the disciples were eager for Jesus to teach them to pray . . . this desire went unmet in my most formative years.

Indirectly, I learned that prayer was stagnate, ritualistic, and more of a suggestion than any kind of demand (everyone was always sure to bless the “hands of the doctors and nurses” and asked for healing, and then tagged on “if it be your will” to the end of every prayer as if to tell God, “But, you’re God so just go ahead and do whatever you were going to do anyways.”)
No doubt more impacting is the fact that I never heard either my mother or father pray. Ever. Dad wasn’t exactly the church-going type, and Mom has never been able to overcome her inferiority complex as a woman raised in a male-dominated environment. So . . . I would catch a prayer here or there in church, and at an ocassional family gathering, but that was it. And I have to admit . . . a decade of ministry under my belt and years of study to boot – I still feel like I’m waiting for someone to show me how to pray (and, more honestly, show me why I should pray).

My wife has helped. A lot. She prays more often that I do. She prays more fervently than I do. I remember when we first prayed together before we were married and thinking I had never heard anyone open their soul like that.  We don’t pray together often now.  We like to pray together.  We feel it’s important.  We just don’t.  Bad habits are hard to break.

I think what’s at the heart of the matter, if I am honest with myself, is that deep down, I’m just not sure I believe that prayer is all that important.  At least not set-aside designated times of prayer.  As a minister, I bristle as I write those words, but it’s the brutal truth.  Somewhere along the way, I’ve come to doubt prayer.

It’s peculiar, too, because I’ve never really doubted my faith.  Sure, I’ve had twists and turns in my beliefs and understandings, but I’ve seldom strayed far from really believing my faith.  I’ve read a couple dozen books on prayer – really good ones from guys like Dallas Willard and Richard Foster and even classics by Brother Lawrence and St. John of the Cross . . . and I love reading them, and they’ve impacted me, but I still find myself so far away from where I believe I should be.

I’m a long way from where I want to be.  And so I offer this reflection.  I’m a minister who doesn’t pray often.  I’m a minister who doesn’t pray well.  I’m a minister who feels his prayers are often more boastful and boisterous than humble and contrite.  I suppose, like a 12-step program, admitting this problem is a first step.  The key, now, is to move ahead to the other steps.  One of the most troubling realities for me here, is that I’ve encountered so few people who are examples of prayer.

Maybe it’d be easier to maneuver through all this if Jesus had three little kids running around him at all hours a day (I know he said let the little children come to me . . . but did he mean while he was using the bathroom . . . and showering . . . at every waking second)?  And, perhaps it’s a lack of faith . . . but I just can’t get up early and get to the mountain side to pray.  For today . . . I suppose . . . this stands as my prayer . . . Father, your will be done.

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2 thoughts on “Forgetting How to Pray: A Reflection

  1. Several thoughts for you that may seem random:

    1. Did you see Scot McKnight’s post yesterday on prayerbooks? Like us, he was raised to avoid “recited” prayer, whether from the Bible or other written source. He has since learned to make use of such prayer. I don’t know how to go about doing it, but our tradition should reexamine the use of “recited” prayer. I’m not saying this describes you, but I fell that far too often, when people feel as you do in this post, we don’t have a safety net, so to speak. Having the ability and courage to open up our Bible or a prayerbook and pray a written prayer when we ourselves don’t have the words could help us learn to pray.

    2. I don’t think the “if it be your will” tag is about giving God permission to do what he was going to do. I think it is an escape clause. It’s a security blanket we use to protect our faith. If our prayers are not answered favorably, then we just point to God’s will rather than examining our faith and whether we have enough or whether we are asking for the wrong motives. So called “unanswered prayer” can be a great inhibitor of faith. By adding the tag line, we can avoid asking ourselves the hard questions when our prayers seem to fail.

    3. Continuing the previous thought: Recently, our young marrieds class was talking about prayer and one girl spoke up to express her own difficulty with faith in prayer. She relayed the story of a cousin who was killed while in service in Iraq. Near the same time, another family had a son return home safely and in the aftermath, they spoke of how God protected him because of their prayers. The girl in my class said her family prayed as much as the other family, but her cousin did not survive. She wanted to know how the other family could be so bold in pointing to their prayers when prayer did not seem to help her cousin.

    4. Don’t be so hard on yourself. I still remember a young adults retreat at West End that you led where we talked about praying scriptures. At that time, it was a concept that was completely foreign to us. You may be struggling right now, but I imagine you have a better grasp on in that you give yourself credit for.

  2. Thanks Bergman, good comments – esp. #3, I’ve been really wrestling with that perspective lately. I read somewhere someone reflecting on a woman who had been molested by her father who was also a minister and still clinging on to faith as an adult being the ultimate example of faith. I think that speaks to that example. Someone who can put their ultimate trust in God despite experiencing ultimate pain (like the loss of a child). That’s a person I think we can all learn a great deal about – both in prayer and in faith.

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