The School for Prayer

prayer in community


[Church is] where you learn how to pray. Of course, prayer is continued and has alternate forms when you’re by yourself. But the American experience has the order reversed. In the long history of Christian spirituality, community prayer is most important, then individual prayer.         -Eugene Peterson, The Contemplative Pastor

The foreward of Peterson’s Book, The Contemplative Pastor, consists of an interview with Rodney Clapp, associate editor of Christianity Today. In it, Peterson speaks about private prayer versus common prayer. He says that, in common prayer, we learn to be “led in prayer.” It is an exercise in humility.

In my private prayers, my tendency is to just launch into whatever is on my heart and mind. This makes my prayer all about me, about my wants and needs. Humility is not a factor! These prayers may not align with what’s on God’s heart and mind, and are apt to be met with silence.

I worship in the Anglican tradition. Our worship is liturgical in form, and our prayers are rooted in the Book of Common Prayer. During our times of worship–praying in community–most of our prayers are responsive. In other words, their content is not initiated by me. Take Sunday’s appointed Psalm, for example. Instead of someone just reading it, the congregation is invited to join in the ancient prayer uttered by countless Christians before us. We pray it responsively by half-verse.

At another point in the service, we pray the “Prayers of the People,” a litany of petitions from the Book of Common Prayer. After each short prayer in the litany, we respond with one voice, “Lord, in your mercy, hear our prayer.” The emphasis is not on me, on my wants and needs, but on each of us aligning our heart with God’s heart as he speaks to us in community.

Prayer has to be a response to what God has said. The worshiping congregation–hearing the Word read and preached, and celebrating it in the sacraments–is the place where I learn how to pray and where I practice prayer. It is a center from which I pray. From it I go to my closet or to the mountains and continue to pray. (emphasis mine)

The second point that Peterson makes about praying in community has to do with feelings. He points out that individual worshipers are not asked what they feel like praying about when they enter the church. Our common prayer isn’t predicated upon, or evaluated by, my personal feelings. If the efficacy of prayer is dependent upon my capricious thoughts or fickle mood, it may well be a lost cause!

Peterson concludes this segment of the interview by pointing out that it’s virtually impossible to learn self-differentiated prayer apart from community.

But if I’m in a congregation, I learn over and over again that prayer will go on whether I feel like it or not, or even if I sleep through the whole thing.

Want to pray more effectively? Cultivate humility through praying in community–prayers that do not have their origin in your thoughts, feelings, or desires. Then take what you learn there into private prayer.



Degrees of Clarity

A couple of weeks ago I paid a visit to my eye doctor. I was pretty excited–I had eye exambeen waiting for my insurance to catch up with my impaired eyesight and, finally, the time had come when I was eligible for new glasses.

The part of the exam that I anticipate is when the doctor begins trying different lenses to see which provides the most clarity. She will put one lens in place, asking me to focus on the letter chart, then click another in place and ask which was better. We repeat this process a few times before she finds the best degree of correction. With each new lens, my excitement mounts as the letters I am focusing on are a bit more defined each time. I’m always grateful that my doctor doesn’t settle for some improvement, but presses on until she finds the point of greatest clarity.

I met with a ministry leader recently who was struggling with a different kind of impaired vision. He has a lot of clarity regarding his spiritual gifts, his temperament, and his abilities. During the past couple of years, he has achieved a few more degrees of clarity as he has gained deeper understanding of equipping others for ministry. However, recently his vision has become somewhat impaired…  his focus is not as sharp. The responsibilities of “running a church” have left him struggling for clarity regarding his own unique design for ministry.

Thankfully, this leader is self-aware, understanding how God has wired him for ministry. We had talked before about the importance of sharing ministry so as to balance the work, as well as allow others to serve out of their gifting. He had a degree of clarity about all of this. But at a particular point during our recent conversation, the right lens clicked into place and suddenly his vision cleared. He could really see what his ministry would look like if he focused on doing only what God has gifted and called him to do!

The energy that came from this leader’s moment of clarity was unmistakable! Not only was he incredibly energized, but his energy carried over to me as we continued talking. Certainly there will be challenges as he urges his congregation to new degrees of clarity. There will probably be moments when it will seem easier to settle for less than the perfect degree of clarity but, like my eye doctor, it will be important for him to press on. As he does, I believe that the energy created by this leader’s clarity will empower a whole new level of ministry among the people he serves.

When you consider your ministry and calling, what’s your degree of clarity? Are you settling for something less than perfect vision? Do you need to re-examine your spiritual gifts? your preferences? your abilities? Try it… and get energized by clarity of vision!

(And if I can help, let me know!)