If you grew up in church, you learned how to pray. Perhaps you learned by default or may have been taught certain prayers and methods. The evangelical/reformed churches I grew up in had a specific view on prayer. The liturgical church I am part of now has a different, and also specific view on prayer. The more I learn about prayer, the more I realize I have to learn.
I have done a lot of deconstruction work in my adult years. This process involves reevaluating the things I was taught and deciding what to keep. It was also a description of what is both biblical and helpful. One the of first things I had to deconstruct and reconstruct was my prayer life.
What is a prayer life?
In the most basic sense prayer is how we (human beings) communicate with God (a spiritual being). When you talk about it outside of Christian settings it seems like a weird culty thing. To the modern-thinking person it is weird and maybe even crazy. Communicating with spiritual beings is just not normal.
Understand that you are a human being, and as such have more than just a body. This is a complicated idea. Acknowledging that you have a soul is a wild thought. From there you get to the point of believing in things beyond the senses of your physical body. The idea of a spiritual being wanting to have a relationship with you is wild. From there we arrive at the point; prayer is the means by which we communicate our desires, intentions, and innermost feelings to this spiritual being.
Feel strange yet?
If you are over the hurdle of recognizing how strange prayer is, you are perhaps ready to learn how to pray. Faithful Christians can testify to the truth that it is an ever-changing experience. You will not wake up one day with a perfect prayer life. In fact, if you think you have one, you probably are missing the point. How then do you learn about prayer?
The Lord’s Prayer is the obvious starting point. Taken from the Sermon on the Mount, this prayer is considered by Christians everywhere to be the foremost teaching on prayer. The entire sermon is about turning over the complicated religious perceptions of Jesus’s culture. He took rigid rules and reframed them to consider human beings.
“Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward! But whenever you pray, go into your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. When you pray, do not babble repetitiously like the Gentiles, because they think that by their many words they will be heard. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. So pray this way:
Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored,
may your kingdom come,
may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread,
and forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.
“For if you forgive others their sins, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive you your sins.Matthew 6:5-15
Jesus telling people to pray was revolutionary. Many of the religious leaders laid out a lot of “if, and’s, & buts” to prayer. Prayer could only happen in certain ways, at particular times, and you had to be “clean.” There were barriers for the poor, the non-Jewish or biracial, the sick, or female people. These limits made God inaccessible to most people. I have been in churches where a similar type of gatekeeping occurs in Communion. Some of it is in preaching, often with passive-aggressive tactics used to make someone feel that they don’t belong.
From the Lord’s Prayer, thousands of Christians have written their own prayers. Many of these prayers are recorded for posterity, and I use them in my regular prayer practice. You have access to these prayers too. Don’t start from scratch when you can learn from others.
Resources for your Prayer Life
Much has been written over the centuries about prayer. As I reconstruct my prayer life these are some resources that have proven helpful.
Prayer in the Night: For those who watch or Work or Weep by Tish Harrison Warren. Part commentary on the prayers of Compline, part personal stories, Tish dives into why and how the Book of Common Prayer is valuable.
A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracted World by Paul Miller. For Reformed and evangelical persons, Paul gives you the biblical based paradigm for prayer.
The Book of Common Courage: Prayers and Poems to find Strength in the Small Moments by KJ Ramsey. A beautiful and simple collection to have whenever you feel stuck in your prayer life.
Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals compiled by Shane Claiborne. If the Book of Common Prayer feels daunting, this walk through the year will be a more straightforward place to start. Guided prayer and devotions for 365 days, but you can start any day you want.
Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions is the first collection of recorded prayers I ever remember using, and it opened up my horizons to praying the words of others.
Apps: Gather at Dawn, Quiet Collection, Dwell, Common Prayer
If you are learning or relearning how to pray, know that it is not something people have figured out. It will be a journey, but it is a journey that others have walked before you. You are in good company as you learn how to pray.
Follow along with my personal essays on deconstruction on Substack.