Do you struggle with prayer? I sure do. I remember in high school reading Paul’s instructions to the church in Thessalonica:
“Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thess 5:16-18).
I could get my head around rejoicing always and giving thanks in all circumstances (these seemed like attitudes I could carry with me), but what in the world would it mean to pray continually? Some translations say “pray without ceasing.” Huh?
For me, prayer was more of an activity than an attitude, so it was difficult to wrap my mind around what this could mean. Was Paul just being superlative to make a point?
Learning from dead people (again)
Later, though, I made a discovery about how Christians have been practicing “praying without ceasing” for centuries. It’s called the Jesus Prayer, and it comes from Jesus’ parable in which a Pharisee thanks God that he’s such a great person, but the tax collector prays, “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:10-14).
The tax collector’s prayer is heard by God, Jesus says. The prayer that developed in Christian tradition, then, goes like this:
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.
Some people call it a “breath prayer,” because it is easily memorized (try it, I bet you’ll have it down in 15 seconds or so), and because you can pray it under your breath,
- “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God” as you breathe in,
- “Have mercy on me” as you breathe out.
Playing the “game with minutes”
Praying this kind of prayer several times a day re-orients my thought-life toward God in humility. In fact, you can intentionally train your brain to pray more continually by doing an exercise Frank Laubach called “The Game With Minutes.” Here’s how he did it:
During the course of his normal day, (he was a literacy advocate and missionary in the Philippines) Laubach would seek to bring his thoughts back to God once per minute for an hour.
The Jesus Prayer is a great way to bring your thoughts back to God, and so I’ve tried this several times, using my phone’s timer app to remind me every minute. Every time the timer goes off, I pray the Jesus Prayer and reset the timer. Rinse and repeat for an hour.
A few things I discovered as I practiced this:
- It’s actually hard work to do this! I realized how quickly I “lost” my sense of God’s presence during my normal workday, and that training myself to pay closer attention to God took a bit of effort.
- It really did “pay off” quickly. Even though it was tiring to do so, I found the work I was doing while seeking to pray continually was just better. It’s difficult to describe, but I was just more effective while praying continually – confident, filled with peace, and more effective and creative.
A trinitarian take on unceasing prayer
Awhile back, I came across a modified trinitarian expansion of the Jesus Prayer from N.T. Wright. I really love this prayer as well, but you can’t quite pray it in one breath. But it works really well as a way to “prime the pump” of unceasing prayer in the morning.
I repeat this prayer 3-5 times in the morning to turn my attention to God and orient my day toward his kingdom. It goes like this:
Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth,
Set up your kingdom in our midst.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the Living God,
Have mercy on me, a sinner.
Holy Spirit, breath of the Living God,
Renew me and all the world.
I like it because:
- It’s trinitarian. Any spiritual exercise that orients us toward the Triune God is a winner, in my book.
- It balances individual concerns and community concerns. We ask for mercy and renewal for “me” but also ask God to set up his kingdom in “our” midst, and renew “all the world.”
- It forms our desires and imagination. It’s so easy to turn prayer into a wishing game, and God into a genie-in-a-bottle. This prayer trains us to want the things that God wants, to ask for the things that will truly bring our flourishing.
- It’s short enough to memorize easily. It’s theologically robust, but compact enough that most people can memorize it in a few minutes. If you pray it every day, it’s now available to you for the rest of your life!
Learning to pray from those who know how
I used to think “authentic” prayer was the same thing as spontaneous prayer. Prayer that was made up on the spot was “truer” than pre-written prayers. But now I see what nonsense that is.
Prayer is not just about me expressing myself to God, it’s about being formed by God into the image of Christ. Prayer is something we must learn, as the disciples intuited when they asked Jesus to teach them to pray.
One of the ways we learn to pray is by submitting to the wisdom of those who’ve gone before us in faith. That’s all tradition is: the collected wisdom of our ancestors in the faith. It doesn’t make sense NOT to pay attention to them, right?
So I’m going to do the Game With Minutes today while I work on some elements of our church plant.
What prayer exercises have you found helpful in your quest to pay more attention to God’s work in and around you?
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