Prayer is Primal Speech
Wednesday, May 21, 2014 at 10:49AM
Ben Simpson in Christian Spiritual Formation, Christian Spiritual Formation, Eugene Peterson, Spiritual Disciplines, prayer

Growing up as part of congregation, I grew up around people saying prayers. It was strange speech. In Sunday School and worship, before meals and at family gatherings, a respected elder would call upon everyone to pray. Someone would lead us in a petition for help, blessing, or thanksgiving. We would pray for neighbors, friends, family, community, church, or nation. Prayer was modeled before it was ever taught.

Only in retrospect can I look back and call such speech strange. But the day eventually came when I was not expected to listen and attune my heart and mind to our collective petition, but to give voice and speak to God on behalf of the community. To my recollection, the earliest opportunities came as part of a Sunday School. I do not remember if I was an eager volunteer as a young boy. But I do remember that I was one of the few willing to give it a try during the middle and high school years. When a teacher asks for a volunteer and no one speaks up, someone has to step up and do everyone a favor, for we all know that until someone prays, we won’t be dismissed. And after you pray once, your peer group begins to look to you for leadership, since you’ve braved the voyage of prayer before and achieved safe passage.

My first forays into prayer were not undertaken with a sure knowledge or unshakeable confidence. I simply spoke from my heart and relied upon the patterns of speech that I had received. Every prayer I recall being offered in the Baptist congregation of my youth was of the spontaneous sort. Scripture may have been quoted, but formality was not present or expected. Simple speech. I was trained to pray with simple speech.

But as the years passed I realized I had much to learn. Prayer in public was one thing. Prayer alone, in the hidden place was quite another. What was I to say? When I gave voice to the cry of a community, I could articulate hopes and desires, or fall back on the reliable petitions of the people of God in all times and places. But when I was alone, I was not sure where to begin, or what to say in a world filled with trouble, speaking to a God who surely had other, more important matters to attend to than the trivial concerns of little old me. 

Things changed when I offered a simple prayer, asking God to teach me to pray. That was my beginning. When I was alone before God I turned my being toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and began with that bit of simple speech, “Teach me to pray.”

On some days, that was all that could be said. At other times, my private prayers, either written or spoken, stretched a little further. It was like I had discovered a muscle I had never really flexed, so the least bit of activity was a challenge. But I persisted in the knowledge that the strengthening of this muscle was vital for the well-being of the entire body, my entire self. No transplants were available. I was going to have to practice, to exercise, and build endurance.

Eugene Peterson* was one of my guides along the way. He says it well:

[W]hen we engage in the act of prayer itself, there is no preparing, no getting the right words, no posture to take, no mood to assume. We simply do it. Prayer is primal speech. We do not first learn how to do it, and then proceed to do it; we do it, in the doing we find out what we are doing, and then deepen and mature in it.

That’s where we begin. We “simply do it.”

Along the way I’ve figured a few things out. I have learned that God’s greatness is found in his lowliness. God can give ear to the concerns of “little old me,” because God is “great old God.” I’ve learned that my small, trivial concerns are not unworthy of a true friend, and I’ve become aware that it is self-centeredness and attempts at self-preservation that have kept me from crying out for help. I think I can handle my problems. I think I am the center of my own universe.

Through prayer, God teaches us that this is not true. Through prayer, we suspect we will discover the One who rightfully belongs at the center of our lives, and of course, this displaces us. We think we belong at the center. Therefore we resist. Eugene Peterson states:

In prayer we intend to leave the world of anxieties and enter a world of wonder. We decide to leave an ego-centered world and enter a God-centered world. We will leave a world of problems and enter a world of mystery. But it is not easy. We are used to anxieties, egos, and problems; we are not used to wonder, God, and mystery.

I have also learned to rely on the Psalms. The psalmists have become my certified personal medical and training staff. Why?  Many of the Psalms are laments, and our world is filled with trouble. Each cry of despair only confirms that those who have been faithful through the centuries have been acquainted with grief, just like their Lord. But there are also psalms of petitions and celebration and remembrance. The Psalms teach us to pray, and to do so within the community of the prayerful. In joining my voice to theirs, God helps me discover my own deep need for salvation, redemption, healing, and restoration. I discover who God has made me to be, and who God is calling me to become. In prayer, my life is aligned with God’s life. My deepest desires are uncovered, revealed, and fulfilled.

Peterson again:

The Psalms train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees; lift our hands in concert with other lifted hands; join our voices in lament and praise with other voices who weep and laugh. The primary use of prayer is not for expressing ourselves, but in becoming ourselves, and we cannot do that alone.

Peterson insightfully adds that “We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be,” and that “The regular place of prayer is the ordinary life.” The Psalms reinforce this discovery, and as we learn their rhythms and patterns, and adapt them to our own realities, they train us to rely on God in the same fashion as those saints of old.

There are still lessons to learn. My training is not complete. But if prayer is something you are seeking to learn, begin, even if your first efforts appear to you as weak. The Word precedes your words. It is God who calls us to pray. When you cannot pray for yourself, rely on others to give voice to your cry, either in the Psalms, or in the congregation.

“The Spirit searches all things,” Paul writes, “even the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10b) The Spirit searches our hearts, and reveals to us the unfathomable nature of God’s love. Prayer is our response. Let us learn from the One who will teach us.

*All quotations are taken from Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.

Article originally appeared on Benjamin A. Simpson (http://benjaminasimpson.com/).
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