This week, guest author Peter Hartwig will be writing for the blog. Peter has an M.Phil. from the Faculty of Divinity at the University of Cambridge and is currently completing his M.Div. at Princeton Theological Seminary. He also serves as Theologian in Residence at National Community Church in Washington, DC. He is a good friend, a partner in ministry, and a thoughtful theologian. I hope that you will benefit from what he has to share.
It is hard to look like you do not know what you are doing, especially when whatever you are doing is supposed to come quite naturally. I am sure that you already learned that when you ran-the-mile in middle school P.E. (and came in last) or during your first kiss. But maybe you have also learned it, as I have, in prayer.
After all, what could come more naturally than prayer? Talking out loud about what is really going on to a God who is everywhere and knows everything — that is surely the easiest thing in the world! Now if you add to that the Protestant sensibility in which our faith is primarily a matter of grace as opposed to works (though that is a pretty rough caricature of the Reformers themselves), you might also wind up with a fear that prayer is in danger become something you accomplish. You don’t want prayer to become works righteousness, now do you?
Prayer ought to be just about the easiest thing in the world.
The problem is, I know countless people, myself included, whose experience of prayer is anything but easy. Not only do I feel like I am not praying well, but I also have a nagging sense that I should not care whether I am “praying well” at all… lest I fall into the trap of self-justification! I get left with a double task: to pray well by not caring if I pray well, learning to pray by not caring if I learn to pray.
So it came as a bit of a curiosity and a relief when I found, in the gospels, a story about learning to pray. In Luke 11 (you can find a similar story in Matthew 6), we find this small episode:
Now Jesus was praying in a certain place, and when he finished, one of his disciples said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples.” And he said to them, “When you pray, say: “Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone who is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation.” (ESV)
Evidently, it was not so obvious in Jesus’ day that a person would just know how to pray. It was the sort of thing you would ask your Rabbi to teach you to do; both John’s and Jesus’ disciples ask to be taught the discipline of prayer.
In my short stints in youth ministry or college ministry, if a student had come up to me and asked me to teach them to prayer, I think I know what I would have said. I would have told them that prayer is a conversation. I would have emphasized the presence of God. I would have tried to convince them of the intimacy, the secrecy, the wonder of prayer. I would have avoided, if I could, the sense that a new burden was being placed on their shoulder. Prayer isn’t something we have to do, it is something we get to do! I would have tried to clear space for them to keep an open and expectant posture for what God might do in that very moment without setting them up for disappointment if nothing happened. I would have, in other words, tried to tell them that prayer was just about the most natural thing in the world as I handed them an octopus’ load of spinning plates.
But that is precisely what Jesus does not seem to do. Jesus gives them a clear and concrete lesson. In no uncertain terms, he gives his disciples words. When you pray, say this… It is a practical and directive and, in that way, it is a gracious. Because, at root, what Jesus is doing is honoring the sense that they do not know how to pray. They need to be taught.
Of course, there is a lot more in the New Testament about prayer. In fact, there is more even in Luke 11 about prayer. But what I am trying to point out here is the fact that Jesus’ disciples clearly think of prayer as something people learn to do. Just the same, Jesus thinks that prayer is something he can teach them.
If you also feel like you are floundering in prayer, but without any clear sense of what it means to pray well, I hope that this cycle of posts — graciously hosted by Josh Ziefle — will give voice to some of what you have experienced. I hope it may even point you in a helpful direction.
I do not think of myself as an expert in prayer. I think of myself as a theologian who has recently become convinced that I have been pushing the cart of theology in the wrong direction. So I am starting over and I hope you will start over with me in the school of prayer.
Peter Hartwig email@example.com