Praying is like breathing. Where breathing is essential to physical life, prayer is essential to our spiritual life.
The time we spend with God in prayer shapes our souls. (Philip Yancey makes a good case for this in his book on the subject.) I think it works much the same way our human relationships do; the people we spend time with shape who we are. Like when I went to London for a week, and about halfway through found myself taking on a British accent. I am not in the least British, and neither was I consciously trying to imitate my new friends… I just couldn’t seem to help but assimilate.
The more time we spend with someone, the more we start to think and act like them.
As this is true with our human relationships, it’s also true with God. Our time spent in prayer shapes us and molds us. We begin to naturally imitate God. Our hearts are aligned with God’s great heart. Our love is made perfect.
This is why prayer is like breathing – it’s essential to spiritual life.
But prayer is also very much *not* like breathing. Where breathing is so natural we do it without thinking, prayer can feel so unnatural that we’re not even sure where to begin.
Prayer is having a conversation with God… which can quickly feel awkwardly one-sided. On the positive, God is a really, really great listener. But among the negatives is how prayer can feel like a filibuster effort – a long monologue about whatever topic comes to our own minds. Sometimes we run out of things to talk about (or don’t even know where to start). What would God – who knows everything anyway – want to hear us say?
When we find things to pray about, we might wonder whether we’re covering the wrong topics altogether. It’s as though we got the chance to interview a brilliant man like Stephen Hawking… and out of our ignorance are failing to ask the questions that really matter.
Then there are times when it’s clear what we need to talk to God about. We need direction; we need healing; we need a response, and we need it NOW. Yet God remains frustratingly quiet.
When I was a kid, my mom and I would get in arguments (as most mothers and daughters sometimes do). My mom was a quick thinker and I had a little-to-none shot of besting her in verbal debate. But I learned that it drove her crazy if I just sat there and said… absolutely nothing. It was the best defense I had.
Sometimes, prayer can feel like that: we’re talking and talking, and God is stone cold quiet.
Prayer is as essential as breathing to our spiritual life… but it’s also frustratingly mysterious.
In seminary I asked a professor how to pray. Could she recommend a book, some sort of manual? “You learn it best by doing it,” she answered. And while this is deeply true, it was also not-at-all helpful. When I got down on my knees later that night I still didn’t know where to begin.
If I could go back and re-script her answer, I’d still have her tell me that we learn to pray by doing it. But I’d have her add this point of direction:
“…And start by praying the Psalms.”
Psalms is a big book in the second half of the Old Testament. If you open up your Bible to the middle, odds are you’ll find what looks like poems – 151 of them in all, collected together as the Psalms. Many of them were composed as hymns – songs directed toward God and intended to be used in various forms of worship. Others are for individual devotion. Most famous among those is the 23rd Psalm: “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…”
This book is our great model for how to pray.
Eugene Peterson, Bible scholar and pastor to pastors, puts it this way:
“The great and sprawling university that Hebrews and Christians have attended to learn to answer God, to learn to pray, has been the Psalms. More people have learned to pray by matriculating in the Psalms than any other way. The Psalms were the prayer book of Israel; they were the prayer book of Jesus; they are the prayer book of the church. At no time in the Hebrew and Christian centuries (with the possible exception of our twentieth century) have the Psalms not been at the very center of all concern and practice in prayer” (Working the Angles, 50).
Later he quotes Athanasius, a fourth-century Egyptian theologian and bishop: “most of Scripture speaks to us; the Psalms speak for us” (Working the Angles, 55).
How do we pray? We learn by doing… and we can start doing by praying the Psalms. Pray one as you wake up and begin your day; pray one after lunch as you resume work; pray one at the close of the day. Pray these Psalms, and you’ll find them to be as beautiful and surprising and complicated as life itself. Pray these Psalms, and they’ll help you find the words to talk to God.
Today I want to hold up one particular example for prayer that the Psalms provides. It can serve as a guide, a framework, so that we don’t face such a blank slate when we begin. The example I have in mind has a particular name: acrostic.
“Acrostic” is a form of poetry where each line begins with a new letter of the alphabet. If I were writing an acrostic poem about the total solar eclipse we’ll have in Andrews this August, I might start it like this:
Andrews, NC – population 1,800
But on the day when the moon will
Cover the sun, it’ll be
Destination Andrews for the whole southeast
Never mind that I’m not much of a poet… but do you get the idea? A complete acrostic in our English language would be 26 lines long, traveling from A to Z. The purpose of such a poem is varied. It looks cool; it expresses a kind of completion; it might also be easier to memorize.
The acrostic Psalms work in much the same way, probably with the same varied purposes. For examples, you can turn to Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145. And if you do actually turn to one of these, you’ll immediately be wondering if I’m making it all up – because they don’t run from A to Z at all.
I bet some of you out there are guessing why.
Yep – the Psalms are written in Hebrew. In our English translations the form is lost. If we open up a Hebrew Bible it’s easy to see. Well… maybe not easy because of the different Hebrew characters, but certainly possible to see. (Hebrew runs right to left, so look to the right column to see the start of each line.)
Techniques like this can be an interesting tool to apply to prayer. If you enjoy writing – even if you do it badly – then writing an “acrostic” prayer might be a rewarding spiritual practice to try this week. Work your way through the letters of our alphabet, talking to or about God. Let that structure give your prayer purpose and design.
For some of us, writing a 26-line poem won’t make praying any easier. If that’s the case, here’s a simpler version, one that’s more of an acronym but serves a similar purpose of giving our prayers structure and design:
This four PART prayer (see what I did there?) can provide balance to our conversations with God. Instead of only Asking for help, we also Praise God: “God, you’re awesome!” Instead of simply Thanking God for things, we also spend time Repenting of our sins and asking for forgiveness. And – perhaps most helpful of all – instead of starting with a blank page, we have a format to follow that gets us started.
Praying is like breathing. It’s essential to our spiritual life.
Praying is unlike breathing; it takes some work before it feels natural.
But if you give it some time that can change. Pray the Psalms. Writing an acrostic prayer. Follow the PART pattern. Keep at it, and you may be surprised to find that praying becomes a rhythm as regular as the movement of your lungs that keeps you alive. Keep at it, and you may just find yourself becoming more and more like our God.