—by Laurie A. Jungling
Several months ago, some members of my congregation gave me a T-shirt that read, “Prays well with others.” I love the T-shirt, but every time I read that phrase, I wonder: Do I pray well with others? Do I pray well alone? What does it mean to pray “well”? Should I even be worrying about this?
As a pastor, I’m expected to pray often and well…and aloud with others. In fact, as followers of Christ, all Christians are called to pray alone and with others. But many of us worry about praying well. We wonder: Am I doing it right? What if I don’t do it well enough?
So what does it mean to pray well? Often when we talk about praying well, we mean having a proper form, with the “right” words that fit together, or having a certain style that is beautiful, poignant or at least interesting to others’ ears…and God’s? Sometimes we’re so worried about what our prayers might sound like that we’re afraid to pray at all.
But another part of praying well can include an ethical component. Is what I’m praying for moral? Does it follow God’s law and guidance? For example, is it OK not to pray for those we are called to pray for, like our enemies? Or is it OK to pray for unethical things like getting away with cheating on our taxes or coveting a new car? Is it OK to pray for the other team to lose or for our enemies to be wiped out in battle?
Looking at the book of Psalms (often called the prayerbook of the Bible), it would seem such prayers might be okay. Psalm 139, for instance, begins as a beautiful prayer about God’s intimate relationship with us. Then we reach verses 19-22 which seemingly give permission to ask God to kill those we deem wicked or to hate those whom we think hate God: “O that you would kill the wicked, O God…Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord?…I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.” Yet such prayers appear to contradict the Great Commandment to love God and neighbor, as well as Jesus’ command to love our enemy and pray for those who persecute us (Matthew 5:44).
So are there good ways to pray—either alone or with others, or does anything go when we’re conversing with God? How do we go about determining the healthiest ways to pray?
The first thing to remember is that prayer is about being in relationship with the one to whom we’re praying. It can’t be prayer if we’re only talking to ourselves. Communication with God involves more than just talking. When we communicate with others, only about 10 percent of it is verbal; communication also includes nonverbal cues like facial expressions, body language, and actions or non-actions as well as listening, being present and interacting with others in the community. Each of these also affect prayer. For instance, in the same way that checking our cellphones interrupts our conversations with friends, so, too, it gets in the way of our conversations with God.
Our ideas influence our prayers
Many things influence our conversations with God. Prayer can be influenced by how we understand the God we’re praying to. If we view God as judgmental, we are more likely to pray with fear and trembling and perhaps worry about doing it well. However, if we view God as benevolent and merciful, we may be more willing to lay all our stuff before God, no matter the words or feelings. If we view God as too mysterious, absent or beyond our influence, we may not bother to pray at all.
Prayer is also influenced by our sense of relationship with God. Prayers born out of deep trust in or devotion to God will probably happen more regularly and authentically than prayers of convenience. Some Christians worry if it is okay to express anger with God in our prayers. Yet when we are angry with God, we may pray more honestly than when we pray with disinterest. Many psalm writers do just that, and Jesus’ lament on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” seems to contain a touch of anger (Mark 15:34). So why not? God can handle it, and it’s better than giving God the silent treatment or praying without integrity.
The responses we expect from God also influence how we pray. For example, a kind of magic incantation prayer (which often emerges over lottery machines) is expecting to get what I pray for as long as I do it “the right way.” Then there’s the Santa Claus prayer, which expects that if I’m nice, God will give me what I pray for, but if I’m naughty, then God won’t. Along the same lines, the Frenemy prayer suggests that if I get what I pray for, then God loves me, but if I don’t get what I want, then God hates me. Or the Facebook prayer, which expects God to click “like” on my every prayer.
On the other hand, there is the loving parent prayer which expects to receive the responses I need from God to help and support me, rather than only what I want. Or the loving spouse/partner/friend prayer, in which God hears everything I pray without judgment and then offers advice and guidance, pointing me in the healthiest direction. Or the God-is-mystifying prayer, in which I pray with trust and awe but don’t expect God to respond the way I expect. As we think about prayer, it’s important to ask what we expect of God as we pray and how those expectations may be helping or hindering conversation and relationship with God.
Dimensions of prayer
Another thing to remember about prayer is that it has four interwoven dimensions: speaking, listening, contemplation and community. Understanding these dimensions can help us become more faith-filled pray-ers and guide us into healthy ways of praying.
Speaking to God is often what comes to mind when we think about prayer. Here the person praying is doing all the talking. Many types of speaking prayers are found in the Bible, including petitions, lamentations or confession (see sidebar, p. xx).
Listening to and for God is the second dimension of prayer. Igor Stravinsky once said, “To listen is an effort, and just to hear is no merit. A duck hears also.” In our conversations with God, we are to be more than ducks. Listening is hard to do in our chaotic, noisy world—especially when we think we must do all the talking. But without listening, prayer is one-sided. Listening to God takes energy even though it is a receiving experience. In prayer, we strive to actively let go and let God talk. In these listening prayers, God chooses to speak to us through a variety of means including, but not limited to, Scripture, sermons, devotions, music, art, nature, other people’s voices or actions, knowledge, and events or experiences that happen in our lives. When we listen for what God may be saying to us in the moment, rather than listen merely for what we want to hear, we may hear some amazing things (see sidebar, p. xx).
Contemplation or seeking God’s presence is the third dimension of prayer. No one is speaking, but communication comes through contemplation and awareness of God’s presence. While God is always aware of us, we aren’t always aware of God. This aspect of prayer is like being in the same room with a person or pet you love, without saying a word, yet being aware of their presence and being present with them (see sidebar, p. xx).
Community is the fourth dimension of prayer. Whether we’re praying silently alone or aloud among others, the community is always present with us. We pray the Lord’s Prayer with fellow believers, but we pray for others as well, which brings the community into our midst even when we’re alone. Hearing others pray aloud nurtures our own faith in God. In fact, we usually learn to pray by listening to others. When no one prays out loud, how will we learn to do it? And if we always make the pastor our official prayer giver, how can we practice so that when the pastor isn’t present, communication with God doesn’t stop? Prayer is never just about me as a pastor. It always involves the community of which I am a part.
What does it mean to pray well? I believe it means simply to be in conversation with God, regardless of what is said or how. When we pray out of authentic faith and open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit’s working in us, we can never say a wrong or bad prayer. And regardless of what we say, God has promised to listen and respond, perhaps not in ways we expect or want, but certainly in ways that guide us towards God’s desires for our lives. So let us pray! God really does want to hear from us.
This article is from the July/August 2018 issue of Gather magazine. To read the full story or more like it, subscribe to Gather.
The Rev. Dr. Laurie A. Jungling serves as an interim pastor in the ELCA Montana Synod, focusing on transition ministry while also writing, researching and leading workshops.
This is wonderful!! I’m going to share it with our prayer group. Thank you!
I hAVE BEEN BATTLING DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY FOR MORE THAN ONE YEAR AND ALL THE MEDICATION IN THE WORLD CANNOT COMPARE TO THE WEEKLY PRAYER GROUP I ATTEND. The warmth, love and Christian spirit travel through each of us and we are driven to pray. Oh, not the pre-printed prayers that now seem impersonal to me, but the prayers that come directly from the heart of the Holy Spirit.
We pray to tears every week and every week I come away renewed and refreshed. I have learned that Christ is as close as my right hand and when I feel anxious I just ask for His help in defeating the fears I feel.
A very dear friend told me years ago that she begins her day with prayer and honestly, I wondered what she meant. Really meant. Now I know. God is my best friend and without him I would have fallen into a deep hole of despair by now. Thank you for these wonderful articles. “Gather” is a welcomed addition to my daily prayers. Thank you wonderful ladies for going for the gusto……Donna Duckworh, St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church in Easton, PA.
How wise of you to share your need! Now you will have unseen friends praying for you!
Part of depression seems to be not knowing how much we are loved. Another part is being more alone than we should be. Being with people sort of wakes us up to who we are. I would hope that there is something you do that affirms that you are valuable to someone. Someone somewhere needs your help. I bet, if you look around TODAY, you will find one.
You are fighting. Sometimes when we feel our weakest, but do something about it, we are strong. It is incredible! Just to will to stay alive, when you feel most depressed, reveals how strong you are.
I am looking out my window. There is a flower there. I sometimes take it for granted.
But it would not be there without my help. I keep it alive by tending to it. It silently –
very silently – answers me and says without speaking: “All I can do is bloom for you.
Look at me. Appreciate me. I open my face to you. Look into me! I cannot move to where you are. I can only bloom where you have placed me. Love me, please! (And don’t forget to water!) I’ll be here for you to appreciate as long as I can.” And behind that flower is a tree who is ALWAYS there, valiantly living through all kinds of weather. I love it. I love its beauty and its steadfastness. I’m so grateful that it lives!
You are like the flowou and the tree – for someone . You have been and you can be – but far more – because of your human qualities. And, if you are part of a group, as you say you are, you are a part of what keeps them alive. They are part of what heals you. And you are part of what keeps them more healthy. As Henri Nouwen wrote: “We are all wounded healers.” Christ is too.
I, too, am not as well as I would wish. But I do know that every cell in my body, is terribly important and has a job to do. Sometimes I say to my body: “I am so grateful for your faithfulness!”
And I am grateful for you, for I can share my life and faith with you, even though I feel physically weak.
You know, you will “make it,” and afterwards, you will help someone who feels as you feel now. God is wonderful, but has no arms. But God lives in us and uses ours.
I bless you in my prayers.
Thank you, Pastor Laurie.
Your words are right on and much needed!
I hope you will see my upcoming GATHER article on Receptive Prayer
about which I have written two books and given many retreats both here
and abroad. Your own Montana Synod invited me to give five presenta-
tions on it several years ago. THE LUTHERAN magazine also asked me
to write about it more than once. But it takes a lot to get people’s atten-
tion, let alone, elicite the willingness to actually spend time in prayer. We
even think that we know all there is to know about praying!
We have not taught our people to do the very thing God asks for: to
listen to God’s response. Why pray if we don’t expect an answer?
Both testaments say: “Listen! Rest. Wait. Receive.”
We are very remiss. Faith is not a matter of good argument! It’s a
matter of loving, active relationship with our Maker and all those
made in the godly image. And if we never listen to the Being we
expect to listen to us, there is an abysmal lack of relationship. Why
does it not occur to us that we are not “Phoning in an order to God
or presenting a daily Christmas list? Without a sense of what God
asks us to do, how can we say: “God’s \work. Our hands!”
We can read the printed word for instructions, but if we yearn for a
personal answer, it may or may not appear in print! The unasked
question in prayer is: “What shall I do for you, my Master and Creator?”
No wonder so many people have not heard a “call.” We have not
listened! I believe that God is calling everyone all the time! All calls are
not earth shaking! But they matter enormously to those who benefit
from the convictions that are born in us in the silence.
Yes? I know your answer. To that I respond with: “Thanks.”
Grace Adolphsen Brame, Ph.D.
The Integration of Theology and Spirituality