My earliest memories of praying are centered around the dinner table when I was a little girl. Our family had a nightly ritual of clasping one another’s hands, swinging our arms up and down and praying “The Lord is Good to Me” in sing-song rhythm before each meal. It was a blessing designed just for us children.
As we got older, our prayers evolved to include a more formal blessing for the dinner meal and a pre-bedtime prayer for our family. The words were the same each time, the cadence and inflection measured and predictable. This type of prayer was familiar to me–I was raised in the Catholic Church, and most of the prayers I prayed were pre-written, scripted out and easy to memorize and follow.
As I became older and moved away from my Catholic roots toward the Evangelical church, the scripted prayers were pushed to the background in favor of original, spur-of-the-moment type prayers. Emotion became a driving force in the way that I prayed–it seemed that the effectiveness of my prayers was bound to how much I felt as I prayed.
In the past few years, however, the amount of creativity that I have to devote to praying has dwindled. I am juggling a marriage, a job, and two children under three years of age. My emotional reserves are sapped, and my prayers have suffered as a result.
It is fitting, then, that I am tackling the spiritual discipline of prayer for this installment of our series on spiritual practices. Dallas Willard asserts in his book The Spirit of the Disciplines that in the most basic sense, “prayer is conversing, communicating with God. When we pray we talk to God, aloud or within our thoughts.”
It seems odd that I would need to train myself to have a conversation with someone–I like talking to people and consider myself a good communicator. It should be easy to talk to God–after all, he is available 24/7.
And yet, even in my closest human relationship–my marriage–I’ve had to practice how to communicate. Learning to express myself so that I am understood, and making time to connect with my husband (especially since we both work and have two little ones to manage), requires me to carve out time and give voice to the thoughts running around in my head.
The issue in my prayer life, then, is my own willingness and ability to put forth the time and the effort to engage in the conversation.
Given my current lack of creativity and the general exhaustion that I face as a working parent, it’s easy to be discouraged by this idea. Richard J. Foster offers encouragement in his book Celebration of Discipline, and states, “but rather than flagellating ourselves for our obvious lack, we should remember that God always meets us where we are and slowly moves us along into deeper things.”
I am at the place where I simply need prayer to be a regular habit. In this way, the discipline of prayer looks more like regularly scheduled times to engage in conversation with God, than a heartfelt outpouring whenever my emotions kick in.
The life of Jesus clearly demonstrates the habitual nature of prayer. In Mark 1:35, we see Jesus beginning his day with prayer — “Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, he went out and departed to a solitary place; and there he prayed” — and then, in Luke 6:12, he “continued all night in prayer to God.”
In an effort to follow after the life of Christ and to foster the habit of regular prayer, the Catholic Church developed something called the Liturgy of the Hours. According to saintmeinrad.org, “The Liturgy of the Hours has its origins in the three-part daily prayer of classical Judaism. From the time of the Exodus, faithful Jews offered morning and evening prayers and sacrifice.” In this prayer model, prayer is scheduled at particular times throughout the day during which one can stop, enter into conversation with God and prayerfully read through Scripture.
With this in mind, I’ve started praying a simplified Liturgy of the Hours. With the help of the Church of England’s Daily Prayer smartphone app, I am incorporating scheduled prayer into my day. The app includes prayer for morning, evening, and night, which corresponds with the times that I nurse my youngest daughter. Now, instead of browsing Facebook or posting to Pinterest I am able to pray through Scripture and pre-composed prayers, thus incorporating regular conversation into my relationship with God.
There is comfort in the regularity of this conversation. And in moments when I am moved to thank God or ask God for help outside of these regular times, I pray in my own words. I have noticed, however, that this type of prayer seems to increase with the habit of my scheduled daily prayers. I am excited to see how my conversations with God continue to grow.
Suggestions for Practice:
Take a moment each day to notice something that you feel thankful for, and then express your gratitude to God in your own words.
If you want to pray in your own words but struggle to do it on a daily basis, set several reminders to pray throughout the day using an alarm, your watch, or your smartphone to remind you to pray.
If you want to incorporate regular structured prayer into your day like I am doing, there are several smartphone apps designed around the Liturgy of the Hours. Download one of these and use it to pray during regularly scheduled times throughout the day.
You can also print out a selection of three prayers – morning, noon, and night, and intentionally pray them each day.
Remember, in all of this, the goal is to become accustomed to talking to God on a regular basis.