This is the fourth blog in the series, “Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry.” You can find the previous three blogs linked at the bottom of this page.
How often do you pray? Do you have a particular posture? Do you say particular words? What is your focus when you pray? Who taught you to pray? What is prayer anyway?
Over my years in ministry, I have discovered that one big assumption is people know how to pray. The reality is we have difficulty praying. We have learned to pray short prayers publicly for dinners or special occasions, but few of us have a pattern for prayer. Our difficulty in praying is not that we don’t have time, or that we lack discipline. Our difficulty in praying reveals that we do not know how to pray, what to pray, or even why to pray.
In the tradition in which I grew up, I experienced prayer as heartfelt, genuine, and spirit-led. People prayed extemporaneously from the heart. They just let prayer flow because what just flowed was more genuine. They didn’t think about what to pray.
What I remember is, what flowed naturally was what was on their minds and in their hearts at the moment. Too often they were not thinking of the conditions of the world or of the people beyond their own families or community. Their prayers were genuine, but the brokenness of the world and the pain of others beyond themselves did not automatically flow.
As a teenager, I attempted to follow what I had experienced by watching and listening to others.I even went through a time of thinking that real prayers were unrehearsed prayers. In other words, the written prayers, whether in liturgies or offered by worship leaders, were not “real prayers.”
Understanding of Prayer
I certainly am not saying I know how to pray today, but as I reflect back upon my years of ministry, I have matured not only in my understanding of prayer but in my practice of prayer. Prayer is no longer something I do. Prayer is interwoven into who I am.
My prayer life has matured and deepened through several seasons of life. During each season there have been certain individuals, resources, and experiences to help me grow in faith and practice. I am grateful for each person, resource, and experience, but early in my ministry, I was introduced to E. Stanley Jones through his book How To Pray.
Much of what is recorded in that book is true today. He wrote, “If I were to put my finger on the greatest lack on American Christianity, I would unhesitatingly point to the need for an effective prayer life among laity and clergy.”
“If I had one gift, and only one gift to make to the Christian Church, I would offer the gift of prayer, for everything follows from prayer. Prayer tones up the total life.”
“Prayer, in the curriculum of living, is the required subject. We do not graduate into adequate human living without it…the difficulty comes in the how of prayer.” *
Prayer is Bigger than Anyone of Us
One of the difficulties of prayer is that it is bigger than anyone of us. To not give thought to what to pray makes prayer small. To not give time to prayer makes prayer insignificant. Not to pray keeps you from becoming all who God has created you to be.
I think the disciples had not given much thought to prayer until they experienced Jesus praying. Other than observing Jesus, their only experience of prayer was with John’s disciples. They had seen the power of prayer and they wanted their prayers to make a difference. They knew that John had taught his disciples to pray and now they wanted to pray.
I find it interesting that the disciples did not ask Jesus to teach them how to tell a parable, multiply the loaves, or heal the sick. They asked him to teach them how to pray. And when asked, Jesus taught them a pattern of prayer.
Let’s use our pattern of “Read, Reflect, Respond, and Return” to focus on prayer.
Read Luke 11:1-13
Jesus was praying in a certain place. When he finished, one of his disciples said, “Lord, teach us to us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.”
So, he said to them, “When you pray, say: Father, may your name be revered as holy. May your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.”
And he said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, ‘Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, ‘Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything out of friendship, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs.
“So, I say to you, Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. Is there anyone among you who, if your child asked for a fish, would give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asked for an egg, would give a scorpion? If you, then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
Luke has Jesus praying at important points in his ministry. His pattern is to go off to a desert place or a lonely place to pray. It was in those times of prayer that Jesus kept his focus on the ministry God called and commissioned him to do.
Through prayer, Jesus not only received his call and commission for ministry, but he also sought direction for his ministry. When he experienced success in his ministry, he prayed. He prayed to check the desires of his heart, “Do I go with the crowd, or do I go to the cross?”
It was through prayer he chose twelve apostles out of all the disciples who followed him. He was seeking those who, in the present, could hold together Israel and the emerging Christian community.
In the feeding of the 5000, Jesus was feeding those who are hungry as the sacrament of Holy Communion. In relation to Simon Peter’s confession, Jesus prayed because Simon Peter and the other disciples misunderstood his suffering and dying as a contradiction of who and what they understood the Messiah to be and do.
In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus prayed because his identity and purpose as a suffering Messiah did not match the images of the people who loved him and who followed him. In the mission of the 70, it is in prayer that Jesus gives thanks to God for the faith given to his followers.
Teach us to Pray
Now, when he returns from his time of prayer, his disciples are asking him to teach them to pray. They knew that John the Baptist had taught his disciples to pray, so when Jesus returned from prayer, they took advantage of the opportunity, “Lord, teach us to pray.”
They have been present with him through each of these experiences of prayer and they have not prayed. Jesus has been praying to keep his focus on God and what God has called and commissioned him to do. Are the disciples now asking for the same focus?
Persistence in Prayer
Luke gathers Jesus’ teaching material on prayer in chapter 11. Immediately following what we know as the Lord’s Prayer, Luke tells a story of persistence or perseverance in prayer. This teaching is to reassure believers that their prayers are heard and answered.
If a grouchy neighbor awakened from sleep will respond to an urgent request for bread, how much more will God respond to our prayers? The story is not about praying harder or longer. Luke is encouraging his community to persist in prayer because to pray is to stay focused upon God and God’s call and commission to ministry.
Jesus’ pattern was to go to a lonely place to pray and then come back to engage in ministry. His time away to pray was to keep his focus on God’s call and to test his desires in response to God’s call. Luke’s encouragement to persevere in prayer is to keep your focus on God.
Perseverance in Prayer
Next to persistence in prayer, Luke places the “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” sayings. “Ask, and it will be given you; seek, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.” He teaches perseverance in prayer.
In Chapter 10, Luke tells of Jesus sending the disciples out, his instructions on what to take with them, and how to respond to those who accept them and reject them. The “ask,” “seek,” and “knock” material was adopted by the early Christian missionaries as an encouragement to live out their mission, depending only on friendly supporters along the way. Luke uses the sayings in relation to prayer. Since God is eager to hear and respond to the believer’s prayer, we may confidently ask, seek, and knock, no longer on human doors, but on the gates of heaven.
Luke concludes the teaching material with, “How much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.”
The Focus of Prayer
So, the difficulty of prayer is seen in the persistence and perseverance of staying focused upon God and God’s call to ministry. Focused prayer involves preparation. There are times when your mood may not be right; an irritated or anxious temper may get in the way. Or perhaps the preoccupation with work and family may be clouding and crowding your thoughts.
A dozen different demands and pressures make special preparation an absolute necessity for real prayer. So, remember this: To pray is to focus on God and God’s call. To pray is to live in God’s presence and to receive God’s power.
Prayer is who you are as a Christ-centered leader, and who you are is how you lead.
We are not sure what brought the disciples to the point of asking Jesus to teach them to pray. But as I think about it, motivation is not as important as participation. When the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, Jesus was ready to provide them with direction. He did not ask them about their motivation; he provided them with a pattern for participation.
His pattern was to pray, so he could engage in ministry. His time away to pray was to keep his focus on God’s call and to test his desires in response to that call.
Pray to Stay Focused on God
As a follower of Jesus, called and commissioned as a leader, you pray to keep your focus on God and to keep the desires of your heart in alignment with God, as you have experienced in and through Jesus.
To learn to pray, practice focusing your prayers. Ask yourself the following questions:
- What would happen if I walked through the neighborhood focusing upon my neighbors as I prayed?
- What would happen if I educated myself to think naturally of children, poverty, gun violence, prejudice, hunger, or homelessness in my neighborhood, community, or city?
- What would happen if I listened to the news or read news stories in preparation for prayer?
- What would happen if I became more aware of the politicians, the first responders, the teachers, the medical personnel in my neighborhood, community, or city?
Asking Jesus to teach you to pray means that you prepare yourself to focus upon more than your thoughts and feelings. As a Christ-centered leader, focus your prayers to become more than “just how I feel” prayers. Praying extemporaneously is important, focused prayer is what makes the difference.
The difficulty of prayer is experienced in actually praying. When prayer becomes a part of who you are, you begin to participate in your prayer. So, I offer this caution with prayer, when you pray be ready to act, because God will empower you to be the answer to your prayers.
Prayer helps make you who you are, and who is are is how you lead.
Give God thanks for the people you met today.
- When and where did you pray?
- In what ways were you assisting others to pray?
- How were you exercising leadership when you prayed?
- What did you learn about yourself and about your feelings and actions toward prayer?
- How did you experience God’s love?
- With whom did you share God’s love?
- Who is helping you grow as a leader?
- What will you do differently tomorrow?
Give God thanks for the opportunities you had to love others as you have been loved.
O God, as I open myself to you, I am asking you to teach me to pray. Keep me focused on you and your direction for my life. Keep me mindful of the world around me so that I may pray for the well-being of the people around me and the community. By your grace, continue to make me an instrument of your love and peace so others might know of your love and acceptance. Thank you for the opportunity to be one of your leaders at this point and time. I do believe you created me and gifted me to lead for such a time as this. I offer myself to you in the name of Jesus. Amen*
*How to Pray, by E. Stanley Jones, first published in 1943. Reprinted by the E. Stanley Jones Foundation 2015.
Other Blogs in this Series
- The first blog in this series focused on people: Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: The Importance of People.
- The second is focused on the power of words: Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: Words Are Powerful
- The third blog was focused on gratitude. Reflections on 50 Years of Ministry: The Grace in Gratitude