(Art: "New Creation" by Ed Bustard.)
There are a lot of different ways to pray. After all, we sit atop of 2000 years of Church history, and there have been a lot of different local expressions of prayer that have grown and developed out of the unique needs of each Church. This may come as a surprise to some of us: Prayer has always been folding your hands and asking the Lord to provide. This is an awesome way to pray, but it is far from the only way to pray. In fact, Jesus probably prayed in a very, very different way than we do today. So let’s explore a few ways prayer has happened throughout history:
Praying The Office
I am reading “Fasting” by Scott Mcknight, and in it he details how Jews incorporated fasting into their liturgical calendar, so early Christian communities (and even Jesus himself) likely participated in annual Jewish fasts. The same can be said about prayer. Prayer in the time of Jesus was very different than it is today; it was very structured. In Jesus’ day Jews prayed at three specific times, in the morning, afternoon, and evening. When they prayed they would recite the Shema (Deut 6:4-7), followed by a group of benedictions called Tephilla, or “The Prayer.” Today this most closely resembles an ancient Christian practice called praying “The Office,” and while it is practiced in a variety of ways. The gist of praying “The Office” is that you mark particular times of the day every day to pray.
Praying with a Prayer Book Vs. Praying from the Heart.
I was taught that it was wrong to read prayers as a kid, and that it should come from my heart. I think there’s an important truth to this, and it’s that prayer should always be done with our full intellectual and emotional attention. However, I’ve seen too many extemporaneous prayers devolve to a ritualistic repetition of “Lord God... Just, Lord... Jesus, Lord...Jesus Lord, Father God…” Even prayers that we come up with on the spot can be recited without thought or care.
So, whether we are praying from our hearts or a prayer book, or a prayer that somebody wrote online, the important thing is that we don’t “babble like the pagans” in Matthew 6. The Jews we mentioned earlier had memorized ‘The Prayer,’ and we too have prayers that are memorized or written down. I have personally found it especially helpful to read from a contemporary prayer book called “Every Moment Holy,” and you can find a sample of it’s prayers here.
If you are curious about reading from a prayer book, you need to look no further than the book of Psalms in your Bible. The Psalms are a prayer-book that Israel regularly used in their worship; we can read the Psalms aloud in order to pray, and never let worry get in our way because we know it’s God’s unfailing word. In the psalms you'll find two broad kinds of prayer; praise and lament. We may be accustomed to prayers of praise, but less so with lament. The next time you read the Psalms, notice how human the Psalmists are as they pour out their pain before God in prayer.
Prayer has often been practiced in ways that seek to direct our attention through listening and thinking. A classic practice is praying with your hands palm down then palm up. Another example of a meditative prayer practice is Lectio Divina, where scripture is used to organize our prayers. However, contemplative prayer has also had its fair share of pushback in recent times: Jared Wilson over at the Gospel Coalition wrote a helpful article for discerning what forms of prayer are Biblical, sharing that “Many warn repeatedly about the dangers of “contemplative prayer.” ....What is being warned against is the kind of contemplation that has more in common with eastern meditation than Psalm 1:2. Wilson is right to warn us about eastern meditation practices; Eastern philosophies often aim at extinguishing the ego rather than encountering a transcendent God. He also notes that it is important that whatever kind of prayer we practice, it keeps Christ at the center of our focus, and doesn’t contradict scripture.
A recent, but classic way for Christians to approach prayer is through the acronym ACTS. A stands for adoration, which is an expression of love and worth to God. C stands for confession, which may include confessing sins, but also includes confessing truths about God (See the Apostle’s Creed). T stands for thanksgiving, and is simply recognizing that God gives us everything we have and thanking him for his gifts. S stands for supplication, and it’s essentially asking for what you or others may need.
Every Church does congregational prayer differently. The Baptist Church I was raised in had a specific time to share prayer requests during the service, and people would pray for each other. Anglicans recite prayers from a prayer book. I once visited an Eastern Orthodox Church and we sang the entire liturgy, prayers included. I also used to attend a Pentecostal Church where everybody would pray at once in a cacophony of voices.
Looking forward to this Sunday, Josh is going to be talking about some other practical aspects of prayer, including the physical postures we take.
Make sure you tune in to watch!