Speaking to God through A Guidebook to Prayer
- Tuesday, November 19, 2013
*Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from A Guidebook to Prayer by MaryKate Morse.
The God revealed in the Christian Scripture is,
in essence, plurality in oneness: three persons in one being,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, all eternally bonded together in
the original community of oneness, in the embrace of the
interpersonal dynamics that the Bible describes best when it
summarily affirms that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).
God as One in Community
When you meet people for the very first time, you immediately begin gathering impressions about them. Are they quiet? Outgoing? Content? Sad? If you were to open the Bible for the very first time and you knew nothing about God, you would meet the God of Genesis 1 and 2. In the beginning of Scripture, God is known as the Creator in Community. God creates out of nothing and makes it good. And God creates in community and for community. The very first way that we know God is that God made us and made us for connection.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”
So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. (Gen 1:26-27)
Then the Lord God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner.” (Gen 2:18)
Being made in the image of God, we are designed for relationship with our Maker and with each other. It is not good for us to be alone. God desires connection with us, and we desire connection with God and others. Prayer is the simplest and most intimate way in which we can connect to God. Because we are made in God’s image and God is manifested in the Trinity as God the Father, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus Christ, one in three Persons, we too are most alive and most true to ourselves when we are in community. C. Baxter Kruger, trinitarian theologian (and fishing lure designer) wrote this:
"God is not some faceless, all-powerful abstraction. God is Father, Son and Spirit, existing in a passionate and joyous fellowship. . . . The Trinity is a circle of shared life, and the life shared is full, not empty, abounding and rich and beautiful, not lonely and sad and boring. The river begins right there, in the fellowship of the Trinity.1"
Psychologists and social scientists have conclusively observed that the emotional attachment of a healthy, loving parent with his or her child results in a healthy, loving child. When we are unable to attach for whatever reason, our mental health is unstable and our outlook on the world and on ourselves is skewed. God is perfectly whole and loving, and when we relate to God our lives begin to resonate with God’s character and nature. When we pray with others, we become in tune to each other. In the Garden of Eden, God would walk and talk with Adam and Eve. They would visit each day. It was a completely natural and even ordinary relationship.
We are created to be in relationship with God and others, so we are always seeking stabilization with others. Our humanity is precisely this—that we are most human when we connect. God as our Creator is most able to provide a foundation of love and worth in the midst of life’s challenges when we connect regularly to God. In the same way that we greet our loved ones each day, we greet God. In the same way we call and check in, we connect to God. With prayer we are bonded to our Maker and Sustainer.
Before the fall, prayer was not called “prayer.” Adam and Eve walked and talked with God. They had conversation and time together. After the fall when our natural connection was broken, prayer became more occasional. The first mention of prayer after the fall is found in Genesis 4:26: “At that time people began to invoke the name of the Lord.” People in the Old Testament began to pray after the fall. Throughout the Old Testament there are many forms of prayer—daily routine prayers, desperation prayers, guidance prayers, celebration prayers and petition prayers. The most basic of prayers are the prayers done together in community, often called “liturgical” or written prayers.
Worship in the Old Testament tradition involved saying prayers aloud in community, especially using the Psalms. Deuteronomy 11:13 describes the nature of prayer for the Jewish people: “If you will only heed his every commandment that I am commanding you today—loving the Lord your God, and serving him with all your heart and with all your soul.” To love and serve God with all your heart and soul meant to pray. It was called the avodah sheba-lev, service from the heart. The structure for prayer is called the Shemoneh Esrie, which consists of eighteen (later nineteen) blessings. The prayer structure contains the basics of prayer: praise, petition and thanksgiving.2
Prayer was a part of life experienced in worship and by praying three times a day. The prayers were a combination of written words that included Scripture verses and words that brought to remembrance God’s character and promises and the people’s covenantal response. Always there was a place for people to pray their own personal prayers during the recitation of the Shemoneh Esrie. Three times a day, morning, afternoon, and evening, Jewish people would stop to pray, men and women. There were extensive prayer versions and shorter ones to accommodate individuals’ prayer time frames.
The purposefulness of saying each word aloud, to God, stirred something I don’t know how to describe. I love listening to God, but speaking to him doesn’t come easily, and I don’t know why. Praying a liturgy of psalms aloud makes a difference for me. I feel more connected in my prayer time. The repetition allows the meaning of the words to soak in. I stay focused rather than let my thoughts stray. I want to keep praying like this and see how my relationship with God grows through it. —Cheryl Flaim
It is not clear where the habit of praying three times a day originated. However, it probably corresponded with the temple sacrifices, which were offered three times a day, and it recognized the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. We also know that David and Daniel prayed three times a day. For us, it is clear that prayer is a regular way to connect with God and be reminded of God’s grace and goodness. It is a time to adore God and bring our concerns to God, and also for God to love us and respond to us.
Prayers were said standing, kneeling, lying flat on the ground, sitting or raising hands. Prayers were said in the temple or in one’s bedroom or by the roadside. Not many contemporary Christians have a habit of praying three times a day, but we can choose to have regular times to connect with God and others. Time, place and manner help create space for prayer. Another necessary element is attentiveness to God.
Attentiveness is an awareness that we are in God’s presence, and God is in ours. The Jewish people call it kavanah, a proper concentration or focus. Simply put, it is a sincere desire to enter God’s presence. We give our attention to someone with whom we are talking. We focus on the person. In the same way, we focus on God.
In the Jewish tradition, psalms are prayed aloud. The faithful stand as individuals together in worship and surrounded by all the faithful throughout time. There is a very present nature to prayer and also a timeless aspect. Those from the beginning and millions since David have prayed the psalms. And into the future, people will pray these prayers. Saying written prayers such as the psalms or prayers written by faithful men and women in the past has several advantages.
First, we become part of the great community of faithful from the Old Testament people to Jesus to today. We are not alone or isolated. We also become part of the community of faithful all around the world in every country and tongue. We might not understand their words, but when we say psalms together we are saying the same words for that day. Second, we are challenged to pray things we might not normally pray.
The psalms cover the full gamut of human experiences. Some we would rather avoid. Some psalms we love and others cause discomfort. By praying all the psalms we are stretched by God’s Word and we allow God to teach us and shape us. Many of the psalms shift from lament to praise. We are invited to experience all the emotions and challenges of our humanity such as betrayal, illness, confession, anger, pleading and thanksgiving. Praying prayers written by the faithful connects us to God and each other.
Community Prayer Guidelines
- The term community prayer is also referred to as “liturgical” prayer. Liturgical prayers are written prayers used by a community of believers to connect together to God.
- The phrase liturgical prayers can suggest to people staleness and ritualism without faith. However, praying authentically in this manner is personal and full of meaning. These prayers require a sincere desire to enter into God’s presence together.
- The psalms, prayers written by saints or prayers written for special occasions by participants are all possible forms of liturgical prayers. They invite us into common human experiences.
- Liturgical prayers are often assigned to specific days of the year with Scripture verses and sometimes meditations.
- These prayers can be said privately, but the backdrop is people everywhere using the same prayers to come together with God. The point is to experience God together. The purpose is to remember God throughout our days.
- All aspects of our life are brought to God, and the prayers remind us of God’s sovereignty and goodness. The psalms and written prayers protect us from hyperindividualism, which can create God in our own image.
- Community prayers are prayers of trust that God is good, present and yearns to be with us.
- Community prayers are especially helpful when one is struggling with despair, ill health or difficult circumstances. The community of the faithful surrounds us.
Community Prayer Experience
- In the Talmud it reads, “Whoever recites Psalm 145 three times a day is assured of a place in the time to come.” This doesn’t mean that saying the psalm saves us, but that the words are so powerful they remind us over and over about the true character of God, and thus we are changed.
- Instructions: The group leader prepares a handout with the Shema and Psalm 145 printed out so everyone has a copy. Explain the prayer before experiencing it.
- Everyone stands with feet together facing in the same direction. (If you desire, you can face toward Jerusalem to remember the land and place where God led the chosen and where Jesus came in the flesh.)
- Begin by reciting together the Shema (a central prayer for the Jews and a declaration of faith in one God). A partial version is below (Deut 6:4-9).
Sh’ma Yisrael - Hear, O, Israel
Adonai Elohaynu - Adonai is our God
Adonai Echad - Adonai is one
Baruch Shem - Holy One of Blessing
Kavod malchuto - Your Presence radiates glory
l’olam va-ed - now and forever
- Move to the Amidah—the experience of standing and praying together in community when we are seeking God. We each seek a special place to experience our own “burning bush.” During this part of the prayer, speak the psalm out loud but to yourself. We each audibly say the psalm at our own pace. We enter into the experience as individuals but with others saying the same verses at their own pace. The pray-er can take three steps forward and bow, signifying respect for Almighty God. Upon conclusion of each reading of Psalm 145, the pray-er takes three steps back. When ready, move forward again three steps and repeat the process until you have said Psalm 145 three times. The experience is over when everyone has finished and a designated leader says, “Amen.”
- After the prayer discuss in small groups about the prayer time. What was meaningful? What was difficult? How did you experience God and the others who were praying? What aspects of community prayer might enhance your personal prayer life?
- For Jewish people each day of the week has a particular psalm: Sunday is Psalm 24, Monday Psalm 48, Tuesday Psalm 82, Wednesday Psalm 94, Thursday Psalm 81, Friday Psalm 93 and Saturday Psalm 92. Start by using these psalms. If you want to continue for subsequent weeks you can choose your own psalms to pray, or you may begin with Psalm 1 and complete one each day, or follow the psalms in the daily lectionary.
- Stand and say the psalm aloud three times (unless you have chosen one of the longer psalms, then adjust which sections you plan to read aloud). If you would like, take three steps forward at the beginning of the psalm, and three steps back at the end of each psalm as preparation for entering God’s presence.
- Plan to meet with your prayer partner as many days of the week as you can to pray the psalm for the day together. If you cannot meet physically, pray the psalm together on the phone or Skype or with an electronic device that allows for a face-to-face encounter.
- Remember these psalms were prayed by Jesus and in worship together with his disciples. Discuss your experience together. Did any words or phrases resonate with you? Did anything cause you confusion? Sometimes God speaks to us in the quiet and sometimes in the questions.
- Pray the psalm for the day by yourself and aloud following the same pattern of standing, taking three steps forward and then back at the end of the psalms as explained in the group experience above. Journal about your experience. What drew you to God today or helped you with your spiritual walk?
- You may also use the Book of Common Prayer and follow the prayers for the day. There are many wonderful books with daily prayers and Scripture, such as Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals and Celtic Daily Prayer. A suggested list is found at the end of the chapter.
- If you like the idea of praying with others but are unable to, you may find a prayer place online, such as missionstclare.com, which has a recorded choir and music for hymns. Sacredspace.ie is an online site that guides you through small prayers, questions and meditations. Many others such as Christianprayers. com and prayergroup.org respond to your prayer requests and allow you to pray with persons around the world. Pray-as-you-go.org allows you to download daily prayers.
The Prayer Journey
When you pray, you are never alone. These simple words at the end of the daily prayers on sacredspace.ie launched me on a new perspective on prayer. The totally obvious yet mind-shattering revelation that other people, perhaps a great number of people, were concurrently participating in prayer with me shook me out of my fixed view of prayer. It is not, after all, between me and God— it is between me and God and everyone else in the world who is praying. I am humbled because I am now unable to pray without remembering I am but one of a vast multitude before the throne of God.
I am encouraged for exactly the same reason. Experiencing prayer in this way made my daily experiences less frustrating; it mattered less if I felt the presence of God in the way I thought I “should” during prayer. Instead, I felt the power of the community of believers. As time went on God used conversation with others to teach me that I truly participate in the communion of all the saints when I pray. God has been teaching me that when I am speaking to him, I am speaking in concert with everyone who ever cried out to God throughout history.
I was experiencing God in a new and bigger way. As I prayed in the shadow of all the saints, I began to experience what I will call unintentional prayer. Whenever I gathered with my brothers and sisters in Christ, I found myself praying. Not aloud, not as some kind of ritual, but as an internal reflex. My thoughts took on a quality of speaking to God, rather than to myself.
The most shocking change was that I listened for a response from God in the voices of my brothers and sisters—and found it. God really was speaking through his people, and he had given me eyes to see it. I was again forced to reevaluate what prayer was. I had already discarded the idea that prayer was just between me and God. Now I found myself questioning if prayer is communication in the way I thought of it. If my internal voice is becoming prayerful by God’s grace, is prayer communication—or transformation?
The frustrations of my prayer life faded in the wonder at God’s transformational ability. He had made prayer an experience of community beyond any I had before and transformed an internal part of me where I hid sinful attitudes like envy and anger—using one line on a prayer website from Ireland.
One August I heard a rabbi teaching that if we would promise God that we would do something at the same time every day for the rest of our life, it would change us. I once more began a process I hoped would bring about a change in me for the better. I read that a pious Jew would read Psalms 145–150 every day before prayer, just to get into the right attitude. I promised the Lord that this is what I would do every day at 5:00 a.m. for the rest of my life. Of course I have started these kinds of projects before only to find that I couldn’t fast one day, certainly not forty days.
The first three weeks were difficult. I started writing down prayers for people and reading these after I finished my psalm ritual. This was great because it kept me from praying for the things I wanted. As my list grew longer I found more and more people and their situations coming to my mind instead of my usual financial fears about the future. After a couple of months I noticed a kind of satisfaction developing in me.
I eventually recognized this as pride that I was following through with my promise. One morning I felt like God just wanted me to be still. This was a real issue because I had my routine and I kept track of my consecutive mornings, and I was now in the seventies. I felt like God was asking me if my routine was the main reason why I was getting up or if it was just to be with God. Sheepishly and reluctantly, I did not turn on my laptop.
I sat still for about ninety minutes. I had no revelation and I did not hear God say anything, but I felt like I had a personal breakthrough. My mornings have become precious to me, despite no breakthroughs and some prayers not answered. Mostly I do my routine, but every now and then I will feel like I am just supposed to be still or read Scripture. I wait expectantly, not knowing exactly what I am waiting or hoping for, but nonetheless happy that I am waiting.
I have learned that it is quite all right to use my lists, read, pace or lie across the ottoman downstairs, as long as I don’t come to believe that any one or combination of these things is somehow necessary. I don’t see any changes in myself, but my wife says I have changed dramatically. She says I am more relaxed, easygoing and attentive. All I know for sure is that when the alarm goes off at five I get up with expectancy, as though a friend is waiting for me. Speaking of a friend, my everyday prayer used to be for godly wisdom, discernment and understanding.
I would finish my praying by telling God when I die it would be great to hear God say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” Now the desire of my heart is that when I breathe my last, I so much want to hear God say, “Welcome home, old friend.”
Claiborne, Shane, Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove and Enuma Okoro. Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010.
Peterson, Eugene. Praying with the Psalms: A Year of Daily Reflections and Prayers on the Words of David. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
The Northumbria Community. Celtic Daily Prayer: Prayers and Readings from the Northumbria Community. New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002.
Tickle, Phyllis, compiler. The Divine Hours, pocket edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.
**This preview published Nov.18, 2013
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