This post, like the earlier “The Proper Way to do Devotions”, isn’t to tell you the best and only way to pray. Prayer, like devotions, can become an unfortunate exercise in seeking the correct technique rather than seeking God. There is no shortage of people eager to tell us how to pray and what outcomes to expect when we pray as they tell us to.
My experience is that I don’t pray the same way every day. For a long time that bothered me. After all, we Presbyterians pride ourselves on doing things decently and in order. At the same time I had trouble following a plan or a rubric for prayer with any consistency.
Since we’re being honest here, I might as well confess this also. Prayer lists baffled me. Adding people is not a problem. But how do I know when to take someone off my prayer list. I feel guilty “removing” someone. Once I start praying for a few sick people, shouldn’t I continue to pray for every sick person? I have trouble defining precisely who I should pray for and for how long. I have trouble knowing where to stop and that often keeps me from beginning. Structuring prayer in a certain way, for example Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication, while helping to keep me organized and not quiet so self absorbed in prayer, often seems forced to me.
For me what works best, what has been sustainable is to have a small amount of structure. I use the morning and evening prayers in the Book of Common Worship; Daily Prayer to start. After that, honestly, anything goes. I do what I need to do. I may pray for individual people and situations. I may pray about the “big” things -world peace, war, hunger. I may sit, sit and wait. Sometimes people and situations come to mind. Sometimes insights or solutions develop. Sometimes confusion reigns. Sometimes I just sit.
What I am doing is coming to God as I am. Confused. Worried. Peaceful. Thankful. I don’t try to cover all the prayer bases. I just try to come into God’s presence however I can.
Sometimes it doesn’t seem like too much happens. But prayer is the work of a lifetime. It all counts and it all adds up. I am being formed and shaped ever so slowly to be more like Jesus. With the emphasis on “ever so slowly”.
Desmond Tutu in his great little book, God Has a Dream likens being in God’s presence to being in front of a fire. Over time the fire warms us. The characteristics of the fire- warmth, heat- are transferred to us and we become warm when before we were cold. We don’t do anything but sit near the fire in the presence of light and warmth and wait. We are changed and it is not our doing. We are changed by our being present.
Prayer isn’t only bringing our “to do” lists to God to take care of. It is good for us to pray for people and situations and to ask for God’s intervention. But prayer is also a time to be with. To be with God without agenda.
The proper way to pray? There are lots of ways to pray. Various techniques and organizational plans can help get us started. They can help prevent us from slipping into rote, unthinking patterns. They can help us remember to focus on God and others as well as our own concerns. The particular patterns and practices of prayer will likely change over times as we change and as our life circumstances change. The proper way to pray, I think, is to bring your honest self before God, whatever that looks like.