Last week, we started looking at the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:1-20, focusing on the Beatitudes as a way to look at God’s kingdom priorities. This week, we move to the second reading in our Sermon series Learning to Follow, the main focal point being Jesus’ teachings on prayer.
Prayer: The Center
In the first 18 verses of Matthew 6, Jesus teaches about three different spiritual practices, almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These are clearly set together with the introductory phrase “whenever you [spiritual practice], do not [do it for the attention of others].” It may not be significant, but the teaching on prayer is placed in the center of these three. It is also the longest teaching, almsgiving and fasting each getting three verses (according to our versification) and prayer getting 11. It also, in terms of verses, is around the exact middle of the whole Sermon on the Mount. This tells me that Jesus is teaching that prayer is of central importance to life in the kingdom of heaven.
Always and Everywhere
This makes sense. Life in the kingdom is not abstract, it is life in relationship with God. Prayer is communication with God, and we all know that communication is the foundation of relationships. Here at Spirit & Truth Publishing, all of our products have a component called Living the Story where the Bible passage of the day is connected to an assigned spiritual practice category: Prayer, worship, fellowship, or service. It’s helpful to differentiate practices into categories, but they do not have clean distinctions (e.g. worship can be done in fellowship, as can service, and prayer).
The unique quality of prayer is that you can pray at any time in any setting. For acts involving fellowship, you need other people. For service, you need a specific activity. Worship can be done in two ways, corporately (where, by definition, you need other people) and individually. Either way, worship is a type of communication with God, and therefore fits under the broad definition of prayer. Prayer, in all its forms, can be done anywhere and everywhere, individually and corporately, at any time.
Prayer: A Limited Understanding
When you are talking about prayer in a worship or educational setting, the first step that you need to do is to establish a definition. There are (many?) people who have a very limited understanding of prayer. Your liturgical-churchy folk might think of prayer as something the pastor does in fancy language, the rhyme you say as grace before a meal, and/or reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Other churchy folks might focus on the fancy prayer that the truly spiritual say. Non-churchy folk might focus on emergency (“Help!”) or foxhole (“If you help me, I will…”) prayers, or fancy, overly spiritual language.
Prayer: A What-Is
All of this is to say that for those who are not “in the know,” prayer is for professionals (or “break glass in case of emergencies”) and proper prayer has specific, rigid rules. But, in reality, prayer doesn’t have rigid rules (besides “only pray to God”). Prayer is any way we can communicate with God:
- Speaking (Rote)- One of the two most common ideas. This is speaking using other people’s words (including the Lord’s Prayer). Rote prayers can give us the words to say when we cannot think of our own. Their structure can teach us ways to pray.
- Speaking (Ad Lib)- The other most common understanding, this is when we pray with our own words, making them up as we go. We can use a structure (e.g. the Five-Finger Prayer), or not. The most important thing to point out here is that it doesn’t matter how fancy our language is. It’s about how we
- Wordless- Sometimes, we’re at a loss for words. Often that’s when we are overwhelmed by emotion or in shock, but sometimes we just don’t know what to say. We need to let people know that this is prayer, too. Just scream, cry, or look blankly at the wall to God. The Spirit helps us at these times.
- Listening- It’s news to some people that communication with God is a two-way street. Often people use some form of meditation to listen for God. Sometimes people experience God speaking in words, others in emotions or images.
- Written- A spin-off of spoken prayers, some people find it easier to focus while writing prayers to God, often by journaling.
- Active- Another lesser-known manner of prayer is to prayer with part or all our body. Creating and/or performing art are the most common ways to think about this, but any other type of action or work can be dedicated to God as well.
The Lord’s Prayer: A How-to
Prayer is the foundation of life in the kingdom of heaven, and in Jesus’ teaching, the Lord’s Prayer is a foundational model of prayer. How can we utilize the Lord’s Prayer?
- Speaking (Rote)– Recite the prayer. Learn about it, so you can focus on the meaning of the words.
- Speaking (Ad Lib)- Use it as a model or structure (e.g. start with praising God as a loving parent and move on to each petition). Rephrase it in your own words (see our free activity “Living the Story: The Lord’s Prayer” from our Living the Word: Small Groups product).
- Wordless- The hardest for me to conceptualize, but you can focus on a word or image and pour your heart and soul into it.
- Listening- Use Lectio Divina or other meditative technique.
- Written- Journal or free-write with the Lord’s Prayer in mind.
- Active- Translate the prayer into art or dance. Use small or whole-body movements to act out the prayer (you might be less self-conscious if you are doing this with kids).
The most important thing (and something I need to remind myself) is simply to pray. Try out a lot of different ways to pray and see what feels most natural or comfortable to you. Stick with one or rotate them. Give yourself grace when you’ve “fallen off the bandwagon” because God sure does.
I’ll finish with a quote I like from the movie Shadowlands (1993). It’s put in the mouth of C.S. Lewis when his wife’s cancer goes into remission, but not actually said or written by him:
“That’s not why I pray, Harry. I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God. It changes me.”
-Gregory Rawn (Publisher)
We are over halfway through winter, but it’s not too late to order Winter faith formation resources or to start thinking about Spring (Lent through Pentecost Sunday)! If you had ordered Fall Living the Word resources or are interested in just getting started, order your Winter resources now, which go to Transfiguration Sunday (March 3rd). As soon as your payment is processed, you can download the Winter (and Spring) quarters immediately and start using them!
Year 2 (2019-2020) products will be launched soon with a special discount for readers of this blog. Keep an eye out!
For more great ideas on how to engage participants of all ages in the story of God’s love, check out our Living the Word series for elementary students, youth, adults, and intergenerational settings!