In high school I participated in something called Summer Institute at Eastern Michigan University. It was a great experience. For two weeks I lived on campus with a group of other high school high achievers from various disciplines. I was there for music. It was an amazing time. I learned a lot about writing and creating music. While we were there we had to do some “electives.” One of them was meditation. I remember sitting on the floor on a squishy mat, that was surprisingly comfortable. The instructor spoke in a calm quiet voice and guided us through a time of meditation. I don’t remember anything after the first fifteen minutes. Why? Because I fell asleep!
My experience with prayer has been pretty much the same as that first time I tried to meditate. It has been one of the hardest spiritual disciplines for me to embrace. I know that I shouldn’t say that. I am a pastor and pastors are supposed to be really spiritual and prayer warriors. I confess, I’m not. I really struggle in prayer. I have figured out over the years how to do public prayer. I know the scripts and the words and such that need to be said. But, when I sit down to pray I often find that I either get sleepy or my mind wanders.
I can identify with the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus asked them to keep watch and they fell asleep. Keeping watch in prayer is really, really hard.
If it’s so difficult, why do we do it?
For me it’s simple, because Jesus did it.
Jesus prayed and I want to be like him. So I pray. It’s hard though.
How do you do it?
In a movie about C.S. Lewis’ life he is quoted as saying, “Prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes us.” I suppose that’s true. Prayer is like spiritual weightlifting. When you start it hurts. It hurts for days. You feel weak and in some sense you even get sore.
I know some people who can pray for hours. I mean, literally hours. A number of weeks ago I was at a meeting with some pastors and one of them prayed, out loud for a solid twenty minutes. My times of private prayer typically last shorter than that.
Over the last few months I have become completely fascinated with the Lord’s Prayer found in Matthew 6. I find myself praying it and often times simply thinking on one phrase of it for periods of time. As I do, different things come to mind that relate to that particular phrase and I talk to God about them. When I say, “I talk to God,” it’s not an out loud kind of thing but more a thoughtfulness. An intentional focusing of my mind on that particular idea and at the same time seeking to be mindful of the presence of God.
As a result of this, my times of prayer are short. They are very focused but very short. There are also multiple times of prayer throughout the day.
But, really why?
I think that there are two reasons I pray. Primarily it’s because I want to be like Jesus. I find Jesus to be the most fascinating person to have ever lived. He was full of grace, love, truth, wisdom, and brilliance. Jesus gave all of himself for his friends and it is beautiful. I want to live that way. I want be a person of grace, love, truth, wisdom, and brilliance. I want to be someone who is willing to empty himself for his friends. When I look at the life of Jesus I see that prayer was a fundamental aspect of his life. Therefore, I am going to make it a central aspect of mine.
The second reason is that when I pray with people I experience a sense of intimacy with them that I don’t in other ways. As we turn our attention to God together there is a connection that we make with one another that is intangible. I don’t close my eyes often when I pray because I want to see my friends pray. I want to see their body language. I want to experience that with them. I pray because I want to enter in with people in a way that I can’t by just having a conversation.
You will notice that I didn’t say that I pray “because it works.” I have come to realize that prayer is not some sort of magical incantation that forces God to do something. He will do as he wills. I have become convinced of that. There is room within the will of God for our choices to matter. I don’t believe in fatalism or ultimate determinism. Yet, I am firmly confident that God has a sovereign will and that can do as he pleases. Prayer is not about the pragmatic. Too many people have prayed for great suffering to end. If that’s all it took then we wouldn’t have had the holocaust. Prayer apparently doesn’t work that way. It’s something different. I don’t really know what that “something different” is though. I wish I did.
At the very least prayer is something that Jesus did and that when we pray together we connect more deeply with one another. That’s enough to keep me praying.