Friday, August 29, 2008

On the Apprenticeship of Prayer

Growing up in churches of Christ, I was exposed to and formed by the wonderful tradition of prayer being the center of all things, shared and led by anyone and everyone, offered in the sincerity of the heart and the moment. It would be impossible to trace my, or anyone's, prayer training through any direct line, much less mention all the contributing factors. But, as my wife would tell you, one of my absolute favorite things in life is realizing that the very words and phrases coming out of your mouth in prayer are no less than the very words and phrases you have heard others pray in your presence.

(I take quite literally Barth's dictum that "We can only repeat ourselves," and thus my wife often interrupts me whenever I begin any conversation with the words, "You know what's interesting?" First, because as I find everything interesting, no, she cannot know; second, I need to edit myself to limit my own strenuous verbosity; third, I need to check my thoughts in order to make sure what is to follow is not, in fact, the seventeenth time I have shared this with her; and fourth, because after I answer, "The way we learn prayer from others," she nods kindly and says, "Yes, and Steve, and Randy, and Mike. I remember." And I say, "Oh yeah...Hm. Well, wanna know what else is interesting?" This is what she has to deal with, every day. Do pray for her.)

Everyone experiences this phenomenon, and I'm sure many have noticed it, but how often do we talk about it? What a wonderful way to frame the way prayer happens in worship, class, small groups, and the like. In the same way that the disciples learned to pray by listening to and modeling their prayers after Jesus' own prayers ("Lord, teach us to pray"), so we in the church can learn to pray only by listening to one another. What a sanctifying and edifying practice!

For example, I don't know if I will ever in my life preach before a church or audience without praying the words of Mike Cope, which he says at the end of every pre-sermon prayer he offers: "And Lord, I pray that you would pour through me the gift of preaching, that these old words would speak afresh to us today." The best thing about learning those words from Mike is that he very well could be modeling them after another preacher who taught him how to pray, and so on. It's organic, fluid and contractible, like what C.S. Lewis termed "good infection" in describing faith in Christ.

Other examples abound. I learned from Steve Hare to begin each prayer, especially morning prayers, by not taking anything for granted: "God, we thank you for a new day. We thank you for causing the sun to rise and to shine on us. We thank you for the rain you have given us, we thank you watering and replenishing the land." Most Monday mornings, meeting at Cracker Barrel at 7:00 am, that is what I heard.

I learned from Randy Harris to pray the Psalms: "O God, you are our God; earnestly we seek you, as a thirsty man longs for water in a dry and weary land." I learned from my dad that I had to pray even if I didn't want to, and I learned from my mom that you should never ever let moms pray before dinner, because they can't stop praying once they stop.

And on, and on. A final example is humorous, but best proves the point. My younger brother Garrett, from around the age of 8 to 18, would end all his prayers by saying, "Dear heavenly Father, Amen." Being the good theologian, and older brother, that I was, it bugged me to end that my brother was ending his prayers in a way that was (at best) theologically questionable and (at worst) potentially blasphemous. Christians pray in the name of Jesus, not the Father! That's mixing the second person of the Trinity with the first! Bah!

For years this went on. And every time, I cringed.

Finally, of course, I got over it. (Actually, it may have been that he finally changed the ending, and I stopped cringing.) I realized that the point was that he was praying, not whether his formulaic conclusion was on target.

However, upon coming back from being in college for a couple years, I noticed something remarkable. My youngest brother, Mitchell, was praying before our meal, and how did he end his prayer? "Dear heavenly Father, Amen."

No, no, no! My brother is going to hell! He's crossed over to the Garrett Heresy!

As you can see, Mitchell learned how to pray from Garrett; and my guess is, he never had a clue he was ending his prayers in a way that no one else around him (peers, parents, adults at church) was. Did it matter that it sounded like a beginning rather than an ending, or that it was (in my mind) theologically questionable? Of course not. He had learned how to pray! And not by a teacher in front of a class, or a preacher in front of a congregation, but by being at the table, eating as a family, listening to his brother pray to God for blessing.

Dear heavenly Father, Amen.

1 comment:

  1. Brad, I am glad to see you are going to be sharing your thoughts on a wide array of subjects with everyone through this medium. I look forward to reading your ideas and forcing myself to think of answers to the questions you will inevitably pose.