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.

 

 

It’s Not Enough

Have you ever noticed the word “all” in Ephesians 4:13?

…until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ…

Altogether too often I am tempted to read Paul’s letters as though they were written to one individual (namely me) rather than to a church full of people. I know I am not alone in this approach to reading the Epistles, which can be an obstacle to the kind of selfless service to others to which Christ calls us. It is so easy to be deceived into thinking that being a disciple of Christ is all about me and my spiritual maturity. That attitude, however, is a testament to immaturity, the very state I am struggling to rise above!

The whole point of this passage is that the apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors/teachers are to equip all the people for the work of ministry–that is, serving others–for the building up of the whole body, not just one or two or a dozen individuals. What’s more, Paul makes it abundantly clear in 1 Corinthians 12 that every believer has a role to play, that service to others is the name of the game when it comes to following Christ and being part of His body. I really don’t see Paul making any provision for the “it’s all about me” mentality prevalent in today’s culture!

If I were to stand before Christ today and point to my spiritual maturity, there is no doubt in my mind that He would say something along the lines of, “Well, I’m pleased that you are maturing, Andee. But it’s not enough. There are so many who don’t yet have knowledge of Me, so many who are stuck in their maturation. It is good that you have matured, but it won’t be enough until all have matured! How are you helping others to grow?”

I love how Eugene Peterson renders this passage in The Message:people_are_the_church.20682523

He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ’s followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ’s body, the church, until we’re all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God’s Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.

It’s time the church awakens to the fact that we are together one body–not a collection of individual units, each responsible only for himself or herself. It’s not enough that I concern myself only with my spiritual maturity. My maturity benefits the person next to me. His maturity benefits me. Only when we are growing together is the body functioning as it is meant to. Only then can we be fully alive like Christ. Only then will Christ say, “Yes! This is enough!”

I know I need to worry a little less about my spiritual maturity and focus on how I can come alongside others to encourage their growth. How about you?