Learning to Pray

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher, 

Over the last couple of years I’ve developed something of a mantra about the task facing this generation’s leaders of the church. We need, I’ve said, to focus on two areas: biblical imagination and vocation. Biblical imagination, in brief, is knowing the biblical stories well enough that they suggest ways of being and doing otherwise unavailable to us. And vocation is simply the belief that every role in our lives – parent, child, friend, employee, citizen, neighbor, etc. – provides an opportunity to partner with God to care for the world and people God loves so much. If we can’t help our people find the stories of the Bible useful and believe that they are called by God to purposeful lives, I’ve said, we can’t expect, or probably deserve, much of a future.

Recently, however, I’ve added a third to my list of priorities: prayer. I’ve been wondering about prayer for a while, but haven’t talked about it as much because I never feel like I adequately understand it. Does praying a certain way or certain amount influence God’s action in the world? I don’t think so, but then why do we pray? I think prayer has more to do with relationship. We pray, that is, because it is a vital way of remaining in relationship, just as we may pour out our hearts to a friend, lover, or family member not in the expectation that they are going to do something about it but because we need someone to share with. And as we share the relationship grows stronger. I think that makes more sense to me. Prayer is about relationship.

Lately, though, I’ve been musing about prayer in another way. Perhaps prayer is also a way of attuning ourselves to God and our shared life. That is, among other things prayer is also a practice. It is a practice where we lift up to God our joys and concerns, dreams and fears, hopes and anxieties. Which means that we think about all these things in light of our relationship with God and our faith. That in turns means that every time we pray we bridge the gap between our “daily life” and our “faith life,” a gap that most of our people report as pretty significant and which has been named as one of the greatest contributors to people leaving church – their faith, in short, doesn’t touch most of their lives.

Okay, so even if you’re with me, you may be wondering what in the world all this has to do with Luke’s story of the transfiguration. Would you believe me if I told you just about everything? Give me a moment to explain.

Scott Shauf’s very helpful commentary this week on this passage drew my attention to two things. First, while the scene echoes elements of Jesus’ baptism – “this is my Son” – the force of the scene is directed to the disciples, not Jesus. Notice that it’s “This is my Son,” not “You are my Son,” and “my Chosen,” not “beloved.” Notice too that the final words aren’t the benediction, “With you I am well pleased” but rather the imperative, “Listen to him.” All of this is to persuade, indeed command, the disciples to listen to Jesus, to follow him, to continue and grow in being his disciples. It’s a turning point, as many of us know, in Luke’s gospel as in a few short verses Jesus will “set his face to go to Jerusalem” (9:51) and begin his forthright march to the cross. But it’s also a critical moment for the disciples, drawn as they are into the presence of Moses and Elijah, experiencing an epiphany of God’s presence, and being told to follow this one, the chosen, to the end.

Second, Scott points out that Luke is the only one who sets this scene in the context of prayer. Jesus goes up the mountain to pray and it’s while praying that he is transfigured. Prayer, actually, is a huge though often unexplored theme in Luke, as his whole ministry – right up to his words on the cross – are permeated by prayer. Which makes a lot of sense, when you think about it. After all, by the time Luke writes the church has reckoned with the fact that Jesus is not coming back as quickly as they had imagined. In response, Luke in particular invites two practices by which to remain in relationship with each other and God. Gathering around word and meal – Emmaus – and prayer – an accent that runs throughout Luke and Acts. Prayer and fellowship, that is, become the chief means by which we become and remain Jesus’ disciples, those called to listen to and follow Jesus.

But do we know how to pray?

A friend of mine recently shared an observation he had as his congregation celebrated their annual Prayer Partner Sunday. Prayer Partners are typically constituted by pairing an elder of the congregation with one of the youth with an invitation to prayer for each other over a period of several months. Then, on Prayer Partner Sunday, the various pairs sit together for Sunday worship. It’s a nice program on several levels and I know a number of congregations that do it or something like it. The one thing my friend reported that didn’t happen on Prayer Partner Sunday, however, was the two partners ever actually praying for each other. Presumably they’d been doing that, but my friend wondered why you wouldn’t also take time to do that on Sunday. “You might as well call it ‘Sit Together Sunday,’” he joked. But then we wondered if the reason is simply that very few of us are comfortable praying aloud for each other. We don’t really do that. In fact, perhaps other than reading the prayers printed in the Sunday bulletin or saying grace with your family, most of us almost never pray aloud. So perhaps we just don’t know how, or at least think we don’t know how and so are uncomfortable trying.

Which brings us back to Luke. The voice from heaven says to the disciples – and make no mistake these words are addressed as much to us as they are to Peter, John, and John – that they/we should “listen to him.” Certainly we can do some of this through reading the Bible, coming to church, and listening to the sermon. But shouldn’t we also be “listening to him” through our regular conversation with God through prayer. Is not that also part of what Luke is telling us, that as we pray we grow not just more comfortable but also more competent and confident at thinking about all of our lives in relation to God and our Christian faith?

If so, then this might be a good week not only to talk about prayer, but to try it. Perhaps we can have persons pair off and talk together for a just a few moments about what it means to “listen to him.” Where, that is, is God calling us? What might God want us to do? After sharing thoughts about this, then perhaps each person could pray for the other – the hopes, concerns, worries that the other person shared in relation to trying to listen to Jesus.

You might need to give some instructions, Working Preacher, as many of our people aren’t sure they know how. So, first, tell them there is no one way to pray. Second, tell them that prayer is first and foremost being honest with God. Third, remind them that a lot of prayers are “thank you” and “please” prayers – giving thanks for something that is good, asking help with something that is hard. Last, remind them that what’s powerful about prayer isn’t the words we use but that we care enough for pray for someone else.

I know this is a risk, Working Preacher, and you’ll need to explain that to your people as well, but I trust that as we grow more confident praying for each other we’ll grow closer together and closer to God even as we encourage each other to “listen to him.”

Whatever you may do with this passage, Working Preacher, know that I am praying for you, saying “thank you” to God for your good work and ministry and asking God to “please” give you the strength and encouragement you need to preach the Word.

Yours in Christ,

PS: Two quick notes: 1) We’re having a great conversation about prayer over on “…In the Meantime,” based in part on some of what I wrote here; feel free to hop over and join in. 2) We have another Bible Story Jam video up, this one on the Transfiguration.