I serve in a seminary. How and where we teach is often conducted with methods and in settings very similar to other, more familiar educational settings. The teacher or professor delivers content, and we sit and listen, much like in a public school or a college lecture hall. We know answers to test questions are being given, and tests must be passed to move on to the next level. We take notes. We study. We produce those answers. And we move on.
This is all fine and good. We do a lot of good work. But the church is a different kind of setting, with different educational modalities and formational aims.
We have a problem when we get our wires crossed and begin thinking that the church is identical with the seminary, and how we’re led and taught effectively in one place is identical with the way we’ll lead and teach in the other. In the seminary, we’re taught all kinds of facts about the Bible, history, theology, and the practice of ministry. Those things are important. But we mistakenly assume that it is these facts, and these points of emphasis, that we’re supposed to stress while with the congregation. When we do this, there is something more central, more important, and more essential that we miss. What are we missing?
In The Contemplative Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about his discovery that his educational outlook for pastoral ministry was very different than that of a previous generation of pastors, who throughout church history had learned “on the job” within the life of a parish. Seminaries, either as independent institutions or embedded within university systems, are more recent innovations. How we learn now, and how we teach, isn’t the only way to do it, nor is it the only way it has been done.
Peterson discovered both our problem and a different way to approach the pastoral task as a Christian educator. He writes:
My secularized schooling had shaped my educational outlook into something with hardly any recognizable continuities with most of the church’s history. I had come into the parish seeing its great potential as a learning center, a kind of mini-university in which I was the resident professor.
And then one day, in a kind of shock of recognition, I saw that it was in fact a worship center. I wasn’t prepared for this. Nearly all my preparation for being a pastor had taken place in a classroom, with chapels and sanctuaries ancillary to it. But these people I was now living with were coming, with centuries of validating presence, not to get facts on the Philistines and Pharisees but to pray. They were hungering to grow in Christ, not bone up for an examination in dogmatics. I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language.
Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people how to pray. I did not abandon, and will not abandon, the task of teaching about the faith, teaching the content of the gospel, the historical backgrounds of biblical writings, the history of God’s people. I have no patience with and will not knowingly give comfort to obscurantist or anti-intellectual tendencies in the church. But there is an educational task entrusted to pastors that is very different from that assigned to professors. The educational approaches in all the schools I attended conspired to ignore the wisdom of the ancient spiritual leaders who trained people in the disciplines of attending to God, forming the inner life so that it was adequate to the reception of truth, not just the acquisition of facts. The more I worked with people at or near the centers of their lives where God and the human, faith and the absurd, love and indifference were tangled in daily traffic jams, the less it seemed that the way I had been going about teaching made much difference, and the more that teaching them to pray did.
The educational task of the pastor is to teach, or to invite, people to be in relationship with God. It is to invite, model, instruct, and encourage them in the life of prayer. There are other facets to teaching, of course. But prayer is central.
Bishop Augustine was preaching his series of homilies on the Trinity in the cathedral of Hippo. Between services he would walk to the seashore to meditate and rest his mind. He saw a boy on the shore digging a hole and then filling the hole with a bucket of seawater. He did this repeatedly. Finally Augustine walked over to the boy and asked, “Son, what are you doing?” The boy replied, “I am going to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole.” The wise and fatherly Augustine said kindly to the boy, “My son, the ocean is too big to place in that little hole.” The boy looked up at the bishop and said, “Easier for me to take that big ocean and put it in this little hole than for you to take the big Trinity and put it in your little mind, Bishop Augustine!” At that the boy disappeared. He was an angel sent by God to remind Augustine that sublime as his teaching might be, he could never fully understand or express the divine mysteries of the Trinity (or the incarnation, for that matter).
The words we utter about God should always be spoken with humility, for the reality is far greater than that which the human mind could ever comprehend or behold. And yet, on this night, Christian people proclaim that this God came in the form of a child, in the person of Jesus, and in and through him, delivered salvation to the world.
While browsing for a resource on family devotions I came across these prayers for couples, and this one, I liked:
A Prayer for a Couple About to Marry
“O God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, bless these Your servants. Sow the seed of eternal life in their hearts, so that whatever they learn in Your Holy Word they will profit from it, and bring their learning to fulfillment by their deeds. Look, O Lord, mercifully on them from heaven. Bless this couple. As You sent Your blessing on Abraham and Sarah to their great comfort, so send Your blessing on these Your servants. Help them to obey Your will and always live in safety under Your protection. May this pair live in Your love to the end of their days. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we pray. Amen.”
Master of the Universe, through your son you would have us be your friend. But what could it possibly mean for us to be friends of God? Friendship with other people is hard enough. To be your friend is quite simply unimaginable. Friendship with you is right up there with asking us to be friends with our worst enemy, but then, maybe you are our worst enemy. Maybe I am my worst enemy. So, if you are nearer to us than we are to ourselves, unless we become friends with you we cannot become friends with ourselves or anyone else. This business of friendship must take time, but thank God your patience with us gives us all the time we need. Make us your friends so that when the puzzled world cannot figure out what makes us Christians the same, they will say, “But see how they love one another.”
– Stanley Hauerwas, Disrupting Time: Sermons, Prayers, and Sundries
In John 15:15, Jesus says, “I do not call you servants any longer, because the servantdoes not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father.” What a profound statement.
Jesus is speaking with his disciples. In John, Jesus is offering his “last words” to his friends before being betrayed, arrested, tried, and executed. One of the last things that he imparts: “I have called you friends.” Why? “Because I have made known to you everything that I heard from my Father.” Jesus, the Son, withheld nothing. Not even his life.
Hauerwas’ thoughts on friendship mirror my own. “What could it possible mean for us to be friends of God?” He is right to observe our relationships with other people, even our friends, are “hard enough.” Friendship with God is all the more challenging because God, being God, knows us inside and out. God can bring us face to face with that which is most unlovable about us. How? By facing us with the reality of the cross.
In his prayer, Hauerwas leaves enough openings to allow us to make our own connections. In becoming friends with God we discover the love that enables us to truly befriend not only ourselves, but our neighbor. We find both strength and wisdom to love our enemies. We discover the hope that our enemies may even one day be counted as friends, a hope made possible solely by the power of God. God has also tasks us with work: Jesus, by counting us among his friends, commands us to befriend one another, and in being friends, so display love that leads to witness.
Being a friend of God should unsettle us, even frighten us. “You? Friends with me?” After all, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” But this same fear should also fill us with reverence and awe, for, despite our expectations, friendship with God is not only possible, but is sure. God has made such friendship available in and through Jesus Christ. For people of faith, this friendship is not contingent, but is established. And God, being eternally patient, has given us all the time we need to become his friends.
“Trinity Sunday” was published in Herbert’s The Temple in 1633. Each morning I read the Bible, a psalm, the daily entry from Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest, and a few pages from one (or more) books that I’m slowly, presently working my way through. Herbert’s poetry is a recent selection. I read at least three of his poems each morning.
“Trinity Sunday” is a very short poem, but contains a vast survey of Christian doctrine, beginning with creation and concluding with eschatological, ultimate hope. Herbert brings to memory that the story of the Bible begins with God bringing order from chaos. In Genesis 2, God forms the first human being from the dust of the ground. In the final line of the poem, Herbert asks for the blessing of union with God. What began as mud now runs and rises and then finally rests with God. Humble origins, and a heavenly hope.
Between Herbert’s mention of first and last things, we encounter the doctrine of salvation. God is the redeemer, having justified Herbert through the blood of Jesus Christ. God is also the sanctifier, the one who sets the priest and poet apart, making him holy for a purpose: “to do good.”
God is then petitioned: first to purge, then to enrich. Herbert repents, asking God to do the cleansing work. He considers his sin a “heavy” thing. Sin, transgression, wrongdoing before a Holy God most certainly is. Yet God removes the weight. Herbert vows to “sin no more.” There is a turning. Only then does he asks God’s blessing, that his “heart, mouth, hands” (his whole person) be strengthened for God’s purposes and in accordance with the classical Christian virtues of faith, hope, and charity (charity is the traditional rendering; we’re more familiar today with love being mentioned here).
The poem begins and ends addressing the same subject: “Lord” and “thee.” “I” and “my” appear three times; “me” is used four. There is an interplay between Herbert’s “I” and God’s “Thou.” Formed from mud, burdened by sin, Herbert looks to God as Creator, Redeemer, Justifier, Sanctifier, and Sustainer. Herbert looks upon himself, confesses his insufficiencies and inadequacies and faults, and yet he offers himself as a servant, knowing that is the reason God has redeemed and now sanctifies him. He has been caught up and brought into God’s eternal story. He can only play his part with God’s grace, God’s help. The same is true for any who would call upon God today.
I have seen the last three lines of this poem quoted. But those lines become so much richer when they appear alongside and after the first six. To ask God’s help is all the more profound when considered under the full scope of God’s person and work, and to state one’s one weakness, burden, and sin simultaneously serves to humble and uplift. Apart from God, we are quite small and frail, very lost and exposed.
But with God we are united to the source of an unsurpassed and unequaled strength, a strength that works through frailty and weakness and woundedness to make manifest the beautiful gifts of faith, hope, and charity. We are known, and found, and protected, and sent. We are lifted and carried, welcomed and restored.
At first we want the consciousness of being guided by God, then as we go on we live so much in the consciousness of God that we do not need to ask what His will is, because the thought of choosing any other will never occur to us. If we are saved and sanctified God guides us by our ordinary choices, and if we are going to choose what He does not want, He will check, and we must heed. . .God instructs us in what we choose, that is, He guides by our common sense, and we no longer hinder His Spirit by continually saying–“Now, Lord, what is Your will?”
Chambers follows a citation of Psalm 25:14 with a question, “What is the sign of a friend? That he tells you secret sorrows?” Chambers, rightly, says that many are glad to share their troubles, not only friends. No. A friend draws near not uniquely by sharing their woes, but instead when disclosing “secret joys.” When do we receive secret joys from God? Chambers answers with a question: “Have we ever let God tell us any of His joys, or are we telling God our secrets so continually that we leave no room for Him to talk to us?” If God has secret joys to share, surely we want to hear them. Hush. Listen.
Chambers identifies an ever-present Christian concern: knowing the will of God. We often seek the will of God by asking, presenting our requests. We pray, desiring assurance that every choice, every avenue we take, every word we utter, every feeling we have, every thought that crosses our mind, is, with certainty, according to the will of God. But Chambers gently reminds us that answers come with listening and through relationship, the means by which God “gets us in touch with His purposes.”
How does God do so? We listen for the voice of God in prayer; we also study the Word of God in Scripture. God has spoken, and God speaks. We also remain mindful that when we face trials and tribulations, it is through those circumstances that God conforms us to the likeness of Jesus, refines us by the fire of the Spirit, and matures us in faith. We look upon our days with and through the eyes of faith, trusting that God is there, present, with us, has not left us nor forsaken us, and is, right now, renewing our minds, hearts, souls, bodies.
Sanctification is a promise. God does set us apart as holy and will, by grace, render change in those who sincerely trust him–of outlook, understanding, feeling, or hope–at God’s own rate of speed. Our arrival at that place of transformation is often by a circuitious route that we would not choose nor could ever design. It comes when God confides in us, guides us, teaches us, instructs us, not only in what we should actively avoid, but how we are to be and become: people of love, gentleness, wisdom, discernment, service, truth, joy, peace, and humility.
Chambers is clear in reminding us that God knows every detail of our lives. God shares “amazing intimacy” with us. God knows us best, tending to our “tiny things,” in which God reveals his grace. As grace takes effect, we speak differently, we feel differently, we think differently and believe differently, we become like God by learning the way of Christ from Christ and in Christ.
The brilliance, I think, in Chambers’ meditation is the suggestion that we are not always consciousness with regard to how or why God has brought about our harmony with God’s will, our freedom in Christ, and our accountability to the Spirit. We desire God’s guidance. We draw near to God. Then, we find ourselves doing things that stem from being bathed in God’s grace, immersed in God’s Word, and present to God’s Spirit. We don’t always perceive it. We should. Chambers says God “guides our common sense,” which might also be said as, “God gives us wisdom” or “adjusts our judgment.”
That which seems natural to us was once unnatural. Our common sense would not be common apart from the God who is truth. The supernatural has taken up residence in us, the Spirit of God has made a home in us, and God’s immeasurable grace has done a quiet work in making us something we could never have become without The redeeming work of Jesus.
To walk in the will of God as though it were the only way to walk, the most natural way, is an incredible testament to the gracious action of God. God has shared “secret joys” with us, the greatest of which is God’s very self. God is there to be known, and God makes that knowing possible.
As I’ve thought over what I wrote over the weekend about prayer, I’ve returned to the idea that prayer needs a context to make sense in our life with God. Prayer is not only about getting answers, or fixing problems, or changing the course of history, though God is certainly free to give us answers, or address our issues, or change our present reality. Prayer is a part of something bigger. It is not an isolated activity, but is part of a larger whole.
What is that larger whole?
Dallas Willard explains:
Hearing God’s word will never make sense except when it is set within a larger life of a certain kind.
To try to locate divine communication within human existence alienated from God is to return to idolatry, where God is there for our use. To try to solve life’s problems by getting a word from the Lord is to hide from life and from the dignity of the role God intended us to have in creation. As John Boykin remarks, “God does not exist to solve our problems.” We exist to stand up with God and count for something in this world.
We must ultimately move beyond the question of hearing God and into a life greater than our own–that of the kingdom of God. Our concern for discerning God’s voice must be overwhelmed by and lost in our worship and adoration of him and in our delight with his creation and his provision for our whole life. Our aim in such a life is to identify all that we are and all that we do with God’s purposes in creating us and our world. Thus, we learn how to do all things to the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31; Col. 3:17). That is, we come in all things to think and act so that his goodness, greatness and beauty will be as obvious as possible–not just to ourselves, but to those around us.
That’s the greater context. We pray, not so that we can fulfill a religious duty (one that can be undertaken either happily or unhappily), nor to get God to do what we want, but instead to be in relationship to God and to live according to God’s greater purposes, to learn how best to fulfill the purposes for which we have been made and the vocation to which we have been called.
Anglican priest and poet George Herbert said, “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” Martin Luther once remarked, “To be a Christian without prayer is no more possible than to be alive without breathing.”
But I’ve concluded that though people try to pray, want to pray, and desire to pray, they still wonder if they are doing it right, enough, or correctly. Countless times I have heard people say that they want something more. Friends have also shared they wish to be more disciplined. The longing, the hope itself, is a gift from God, a sign of God’s work, and a wonderful beginning.
If you want to develop a prayer habit, firstly take heart. The evidence of God’s activity and grace is found in the desire itself. God is drawing nigh to you. Draw near, then, to God.
Where Do I Begin?
In Luke 11:1-13, we are told Jesus was praying, and when he finished his disciples made a request, “Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
Jesus then offered his friend a set of words. In Luke’s account, it is a version of the Lord’s Prayer, the more familiar form of which is given in Matthew 6:9-13. Jesus tells his disciples to address God, to ask that God’s kingdom come, to provide for us, forgive us, to help us forgive, to free us from temptation, and deliver us from evil. If this was all we had to go on when it comes to prayer, this alone would be a mighty foundation.
But again in Luke, Jesus follows the words of a prayer with instruction on the character of God. Jesus tells stories to illustrate. Read the passage. Jesus says that when we pray, we should be persistent and audacious, and that God will honor the bonds of friendship. He is even more faithful than the neighbor we might disturb in the middle of the night. Jesus encourages us to ask, seek, and knock.
Finally, he illustrates God’s way of relating to us like a parent by making a comparison to earthly parents. People give good gifts to their children, even though they are inclined toward evil. God, being good, certainly exceeds us in the capacity to provide good things, in a good manner. We shouldn’t be afraid to ask, not only for things, but for the Holy Spirit, who indwells those who trust in Christ. God not only provides what we need when we ask, but gives us God’s very self, which is, in fact, our greatest need.
If you wish to begin a prayer habit, be like the disciples. First, ask Jesus to teach you to pray. Then, pay attention to his teachings. Memorize his words. They can help you tremendously. Truly think and meditate on the prayer Jesus teaches us to pray. And as you do so, consider the character of God. Is God someone that you really want to know?
Generally speaking, we enjoy being with those we long to know better. We soak up the moments. We cherish common experiences. We tell stories. We share. It can be likewise with God, if only you give thought to who God is, and how among all beings who have ever existed or ever will exist, God is unsurpassed. God is the fullness of beauty and truth, the wellspring of grace, the font of wisdom and the source of all knowledge. God is always out for our good, and is the source of all love. We do not have to spend time with God, but God extends us the privilege. And God, being all-good, all-powerful, all-wise, and all patient, joins us in our concerns, whether large or small.
When, Where, and What Do I Pray, and How Do I Grow?
Prayer is presence and conversation, being with and talking with. It is a posture, an inclination, a disposition. Prayer is a way of speaking and listening. It is also a habit of heart and mind.
When, where, and what do you pray?
The answer: you are invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things.
God is concerned with your life. Not only your manner of religious devotion or even simply in your wants. But with you. God wants you to know him, and God desires to become an intimate friend to you. This means you are invited to pray throughout your day, wherever you are, and in whatever you are doing.
It is as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians 5:17: “Pray continually.” In Philippians 4:6-7, Paul adds, “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
That’s the challenge, isn’t it? We’re invited to pray always, in all places, and concerning all things. But we find that we pray seldom, perhaps (hopefully!) in church, and concerning what we may consider small, self-focused matters–things we worry God might not care much about.
But God does care about those small things, and the things we ask in boldness–the “impossible” things. God cares, and is concerned, because we care and are concerned. God’s all surpassing goodness, power, mercy, and grace mean that it is well within God’s means to meet us exactly where we are and to provide for us in the exact manner that we most need.
In reading this you might feel guilty or overwhelmed. I understand. So let’s back up. The invitation to pray moves us toward an ongoing presence and conversation with God that concerns the totality of our lives. But in order to arrive there, we must start smaller, think incrementally, and, finally, act with consistency over time.
First, start small. If you want to develop a prayer habit, set aside one to five minutes a day to pray. Designate a place. I often pray at my desk with my morning cup of coffee. I keep a list of concerns, written in a notebook, that I have tabbed so that I can easily turn to the names and circumstances I want to remember before God. For many years, my prayer dwindled to, “Lord, teach me to pray.” Or, “Help.” Or, “I’m hurt.” Or, “Remember your promises!” Or, “Thanks.” God honored each prayer, I think, and my short prayers were a small enough act to keep me going, to keep me on the path.
Second, think incrementally. You may begin with a short prayer. You may begin with a short list of concerns. But that time you spend in prayer, and those concerns, may grow. You may want to begin memorizing Scripture, praying God’s words. You may want to routinely read one of these great prayers from the Bible:
Remember, you can make the words of Scripture your own. You do not have to pray “original” prayers. You can borrow words. There are other prayers in the Bible, and other passages. You may want to chose a verse that is meaningful to you and bring it to memory, like John 3:16 or Romans 8:37-39.
You may also want to buy a book of written prayers, those that either point you to daily Scripture readings or offer you other devotional material that can structure your time with God. I’ve used the following:
There are other helpful guides out there. Keep your eyes sharp, and your ears open. Another possibility is to download the Bible app from YouVersion and sign up for a reading plan.
Third and most critically, act with consistency over time. It has helped me to set daily reminders to review my prayer list, memorize Scripture, and to set a top priority. This is a list I consult at the beginning of each day. Doing each of these has become part of my morning routine, as has reading four chapters from Scripture and praying a selection from Psalms with my spouse.
Have I missed my appointment? Yes. Have I fallen behind? Yes. But then I start each day new. Don’t let guilt weigh you down. Remember God’s grace.
How Do I Remain Disciplined?
One of the greatest aids in remaining disciplined is to be extremely clear on the reason you began in the first place. One of the Desert Fathers, Abba Anthony said, “Whoever hammers a lump of iron, first decides what he is going to make of it, a scythe, a sword, or an ax. Even so we ought to make up our minds what kind of virtue we want to forge or we labor in vain.”
In Luke 14:28-33, Jesus put it this way:
“Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it?For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’
“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.
In Luke 14:27, Jesus said, “Whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” To follow Jesus, you give up everything. But consider what you gain! You gain him, and the life that he has promised. Therefore, whatever it is you give, what you will receive from God will be immeasurably greater, and definitely worthwhile.
Why do you want to pray? To impress God? No. Hopefully not. But if you to become more like Jesus, grow in holiness, and walk the path of discipleship, if you want to open the possibility that you will transform and change and become more like the person God designed you to be, then you’re more likely to remain disciplined, to stick with it.
Moreover, if you want to know God, prayer will lead you into a space where this is possible. That relationship, above all, is a treasure beyond compare.
How Does Prayer Shape My Life?
Mother Teresa said, “For prayer is nothing else than being on terms of friendship with God.” She also said, “God speaks in the silence of the heart. Listening is the beginning of prayer,” and observed, “The fruit of silence is prayer. The fruit of prayer is faith. The fruit of faith is love. The fruit of love is service. The fruit of service is peace.”
Psalm 145:18 says, “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” Call on the Lord. Live as God’s friend. Serve others in the name of Jesus.
Prayer will shape you, will conform you to the image of Christ, Christ in you.
So often we try to convey or communicate the character and work of God to others by stepping up the noise and the activity; and yet for God to communicate who and what God is, God needs our silence.
– Rowan Williams, Being Human: Bodies, Minds, Persons, 98
The spiritual life involves speaking and not speaking.
In speaking, we issue invitations. We draw attention and take action. We converse, convince, and persuade. We do.
In not speaking, we stop. We become silent. We are still. We listen, contemplate, and consider. We be.
The church has always needed heralds. Romans 10:17 says, “faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.” In Romans 10:13 we find, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.” In Romans 10:14-15, Paul asks, “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’”
The logic is easy to follow. The person who hears and responds in faith does so following a proclamation of the message of and about Jesus, brought by another person who has been called and sent forth for that task.
The best gospel ministry marries proclamation to demonstration. We are told what the kingdom of God is like, but then we see it, it is put on display. In Matthew 4:23, we read that “Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” There is not only speaking, but activity.
And yet to plumb the depths of God, to know who God is and what God is doing, there comes a time for silence. Psalm 46:10 says, ““Be still, and know that I am God! I am exalted among the nations, I am exalted in the earth.” In Psalm 62:5, we read, “For God alone my soul waits in silence,for my hope is from him.” Lamentations 3:26 reads, “It is good that one should wait quietlyfor the salvation of the Lord.”
Even Jesus withdrew to lonely places to pray. Jesus surely spoke. But he also surely took time to listen, away from the noise, the activity, and the constant demands.
Ecclesiastes 3:7 reminds us, there is “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.” Observe each in its own time, do not neglect either. There is speaking and not speaking. There is action and stillness. There is doing and being.