In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus begins the his teaching on prayer with the words, “and when you pray,” setting his followers on a course of prayer. “When you pray” is almost a command as it assumes an individual and corporate practice of prayer such that Jesus only needs to give it shape.
Prayer is very much on my mind as I think about the foundation we lay for this new church in Worcester and how to inculcate both an ethos and specific practices of prayer.
I feel both equipped and inadequate to do this as I’ve had teachers, mentors, and friends who have taught me much about prayer. On the other hand, a quote from an old scottish pastor, Robert, Murray M’Cheyne, comes to mind. “You wish to humble a man? Ask him about his prayer life.” My hope is that the remainder of this post will be teach and humble you as it does me. I remember the advice of a seasoned pastor who told me to put my thoughts and plans in writing as it forces clarity. Even in this writing I learn and am challenged to grow.
1. “Our” – The Lord’s Prayer assumes that we are always praying with and for our fellow siblings who also call on God as father. I was alerted to this first word and the plural language that runs through the prayer – “us,” “we,” “our” – by a seminary professor who spoke of the global implications of these small words. I never simply ask for my daily bread, forgiveness for my debts, or rescue from my temptations. I must pray with all of God’s church in mind, knowing that we have been joined together in Christ. This corporate language deepens my prayer life as the seemingly basic petitions of the Lord’s prayer take on new meaning when I think of the needs, flaws, and hopes of the Church. It also should push me to pray with others. While it is appropriate to say the “our,” “us,” and “we” alone it makes more sense to do so with God’s people.
2. In Matthew 18 Jesus states, “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” While this verse appears in a specific context, I believe that there is a wider application in that Christ is uniquely present among his people as they gather, seeking to align themselves with his will. This principle should lead us to pray together with great expectancy and hope of encountering Jesus.
3. When Christians pray together it can both amplify and challenge our self-centeredness. If, for example, you gather a group of people who’s individual prayer lives are characterized by an excessive focus on health, comfort, or success, you will simply have this dynamic perpetuated on a grander scale. It could actually be worse because rather than having a few minutes of primarily self-centered prayer you’ll have a much larger stretch in which adoration of God, confession of sin, and pleading for the advance of God’s kingdom is neglected. On the other hand if there is one person whose prayers have a broader orientation beyond themselves this can alter the dynamic of the whole meeting. Our self-preoccupation can be so powerfully exposed by prayers of praise, repentance, longing for God, and pleading for his ways which arise from the lips of fellow believers. There are all sorts of bad patterns* we can get into when it comes to prayer and praying with other believers is a way to break the cycle.
4. When Christians join for pray, an excellent way to avoid bad patterns is to pray God’s word. This could mean praying a Psalm or portions of it word for word (which Jesus did); paraphrasing a section of scripture and adapting it to the current situation; or remembering a narrative from the bible and drawing out themes to inform prayer. While this may sound like it would lead to a dull or dry prayer time it is just the opposite. Praying the bible brings a richer understanding of who God is, more balanced requests, more emotionally robust experience, and incredible certainty that God is listening.
5. When we pray together it is a wonderful opportunity to know God in new ways. When others pray we gain a glimpse of the unique way in which each child relates to the father. Consider this quote from C.S. Lewis
“In each of my friends there is something that only some other friend can fully bring out. By myself I am not large enough to call the whole man into activity; I want other lights than my own to show all his facets. Now that Charles is dead, I shall never again see Ronald’s [Tolkien’s] reaction to a specifically Charles joke. Far from having more of Ronald, having him “to myself” now that Charles is away, I have less of Ronald…In this, Friendship exhibits a glorious “nearness by resemblance” to heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each of us has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah’s vision are crying “Holy, Holy, Holy” to one another (Isaiah 6:3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall have.”
The language, tone, emotion, and posture of another believer’s prayer helps me to know more of God and to better understand prayer. This happens especially as other Christians pray according to God’s word (see #3).
6. As Christians pray together they grow in unity. The subtext of prayer is our insufficiency, our need of God to act, our need of forgiveness, and our unmet longings. When you embrace this vulnerability it invites those praying with you to greater intimacy and a deeper level of trust. It is impossible to open your heart to God in prayer together without in some measure opening yourself to others. In a similar vein, when our prayers are directed beyond ourselves to God’s great purposes in this world, we are brought to further unity by our common mission. If each person in the church is primarily focused on getting his or her needs met we will often find ourselves irreconcilably opposed to each other. However, when we each submit ourselves to God’s purposes and plead together for one common goal, we are reminded of and actually join in pursuit of the church’s true end.
7. When Christians pray together it is easier to pray for longer periods of time. While there is not virtue per say in a longer prayers, there are many biblical examples of earnest prayer that continues for an extended period of time (Daniel 9; Acts 1-2). On my own I am more easily distracted and can run out of things for which to pray. But I pray with other Christians I am stirred up by their prayers, view more of God’s character and mission, find greater boldness, and am renewed in my ability to pray.
*Praying for our needs is commanded by Jesus (Matthew 6:11) but is only one aspect of our prayer lives. The problem isn’t in praying for ourselves but in becoming preoccupied with ourselves. Other bad patterns are: hypocrisy, empty repetition, emotional imbalance (too much or not enough joy, fear, love, sadness, etc.).