I’m a little uneasy in posting this one. I could appear pious. Or I could appear weak and fallible, which would make me seem even more pious. I just hope, if you read on, that you’ll find some encouragement. If a ‘prayer life’ sounds big or fancy to you, I reckon that’s okay, because I’ve never had much of one!
Over the course of years, my prayer life has largely been woolly, shapeless and inconsistent. At times I’ve had many things to pray. At times I’ve had great motivation to pray. At times I have prayed those things in earnest and had the joy of seeing God work in me and others. Yet, frequently I’ve had little to pray. Frequently I’ve not cared to pray. Frequently I have had a prayer life of silent, damp fuzz.
Sometimes this has left me guilty and despondent. And when I do hear God’s grace again, it has left me burning to do more — but how? How can I start building a prayer life with some kind of shape and stability, in which God can work in me and those around me over the course of years?
Two things have recently given me a boost in confidence. One blog put prayer-life down to Just Do It. I found that helpful. I often fret that I’m not ‘in the right place’ to pray or that I don’t have the right words to say (frequently just as a rationalisation of my own apathy and laziness), when the point is not to pray perfectly (as if that were even possible) but to pray.
On a similar line, in one great book on prayer, Don Carson mentions the Puritan idea of praying until we pray: to spend time, mumbling and jabbering at God, until we stop being to-the-point, until we break through feelings of awkwardness and surreality, until we find that we are actually praying, that God is drawing us to pour out our inner cares and motivations, to seek his will, to know his grace, to delight in his redeeming love. This is not vacuous contemplative prayer. This is more like praying in the Spirit, praying that burns, praying that, more than personal reflection or God listening, involves God transforming us. Carson wants us to ensure that we are being persistent in prayer instead of approaching God as we often do, like ‘boys who ring front door bells and run away before anyone answers’.
The woolliness of my prayer life over the years could in part be due to the lack of shape given to prayer and devotion in my church and family background. That’s not to say prayer and devotion didn’t happen — it did — but there were few ‘set’ prayers and none I was familiar with apart from the Lord’s prayer, while liturgy was pretty free-form. So, while I’ve never really struggled with stifled formalism and mindless ritual, I’ve also never had deep devotional habits woven into the fabric of my faith. (It wasn’t surprising that I found the Book of Common Prayer somewhat refreshing at the time I started going to an Anglican church.)
I figure that meaningful habits are useful and useful habits are meaningful (?!). I guess that structured prayer and devotion could be good if it’s not high-church ritualism. At the same time, I’ve been uncomfortable with the traditional evangelical emphasis on personal ‘quiet time’, which is what I got legalistic about in the first place. I’ve always assumed that mindful, authentic prayer should be ‘free’ but for me, it turns out, unstructured praying has boiled down to poor prayer. Today I find that, if I’m to make a go of praying continually, I actually need to build a habit of some sort and get some familiar pegs on which to build doable praying.
Something that grabbed my attention a couple of years ago was what Tamie and I call ‘Peter Adam prayers’. Peter, the principal of Ridley, shared with us his list of one-sentence prayers that give shape to his prayer life. It’s a collection of phrases he’s tailored to his own weaknesses, needs and relationships, and he prays through this simple list each day. What I’ve begun is a collection of my own Peter Adam prayers. Things like:
Lead me to repentance in all things.
Enable me to fan into flame your gifts to me.
I tried some out the other day. Each phrase, sometimes a single word, became a little trail expanding into glades of prayer.
If you follow this blog, I’d love your prayers — that God would continue to help us all with these things.
Categories: Written by Arthur
Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.