I grew up surrounded by simple spoken prayers. My Southern Baptist grandfather still sprinkled his prayers with thy and thou, but there was a familiarity in his language. They sounded like the King James Bible because that was the Scripture in his heart. From an early age, I learned that God welcomes us to speak and listens to us in our own language—whether it be simple or complex words, poor or Oxford grammar.
Flies on the walls are likely to hear many extemporaneous prayers (spontaneous spoken prayers, like our regular speech) in the dining rooms, sanctuaries, and living rooms where evangelical Christians gather. But there is also a growing trend in evangelicalism of reaching back into the historic tradition to pray using form (or written) prayers.
For some Christians, form prayers (or what some may think of as “liturgical prayers”) may be unexplored territory. Concern about “vain repetitions” (from Matthew 6:7) is a key reason
(though we could probably each recount hearing vain repetition in extemporaneous prayers as well). On the surface, form prayers may appear insincere—as if they aren’t from the heart. Or we may wonder if we are essentially lying to God if we don’t completely feel what the prayer says. “After all,” we ask, “doesn’t God just want me to be myself?”
The Prayer Gym
While it is certainly good to emotionally agree with words in worship, worship also plays a role in forming us as believers into the likeness of Christ. Shauna Niequist is part of The Practice, a weekly gathering led by her husband, Aaron, and his team in the chapel of Willow Creek Community Church, where much of the service follows the Book of Common Prayer. “The driving idea behind The Practice is that the gathering together is not where we receive information,” Shauna Niequist says. “It’s where we actually do the formation.” This idea of worship as formative, as exercise or practice, draws upon the ideas of St. Ambrose, who described the formative nature of the Psalms as “a gymnasium for the soul, a stadium for all the virtues.” When we read, practice, and pray the words of others who have gone before us, we are learning to talk to God.
One helpful way to approach this idea is to imagine the household of faith, past and present, as an actual house. Imagine walking around, seeing the desert fathers and mothers, having tea with Amanda Berry Smith, and listening to Hildegard play the psaltery. This is our house of faith. We benefit from the practices of those who have gone before us because they’ve been there first, building the house. Of course Jesus is there, too, and the psalmists, those named and unnamed lovers of God who articulated so many aspects of the human experience in the 150 form prayers at the center of our Bibles. Ultimately, form prayer is not just a “liturgical,” “Catholic,” “Orthodox,” or “high church” practice. It’s our practice. And it started in Scripture.
Training with Jesus
In Luke 11, Jesus was praying aloud, and apparently his disciples were standing around listening to him pray. When he finished, a disciple said to him, “Lord, teach us to pray.” In reply, Jesus taught him a form prayer: the Lord’s Prayer.
All of us, just like Jesus’ disciples, need help in the prayer department. There’s a certain unnaturalness in the act of speaking to a mysterious, completely transcendent, yet completely immanent, God. It is good to recognize this challenge, like the disciples did. “There was a level of self-awareness that their prayer life wasn’t what it needed to be, that they needed to learn something,” says the Rev. Joyce Borger, senior editor of Lift Up Your Hearts hymnal.
Lately, I find myself reminding my two-year-old to say “please” when he wants something.
“More milk!” he shouts, aggressively pounding his cup on the table.
“What do you say?” I ask.
“Peas, Mommy,” he replies.
I would never say, “Nope. Got it wrong. It’s please. With an ‘l’ sound.”
Instead, I say, “Yes, son. Here’s more milk.”
God is like this too. He’s patient with us as we mutter and stammer and struggle to get our words out because we are learning to speak to God. And our hope is to mature in our relationship. To, one day, be able to say, “Hey, Mom, this is terrific milk. Thanks for putting it in that polka-dot glass. May I have more?”
So we join Jesus’ disciples in asking, “Teach me to pray!” Our request shows aspiration. We want to be more like Jesus. Form prayers, like the ones we find in Scripture or prayers written by spiritually mature historic and contemporary Christians, help us to become more like Jesus. They teach us how to speak to God.
The Prayer Primer
The Psalms are a great prayer primer, full of different ways to speak to God. There’s praise and adoration (I love you, God!) in Psalm 95; there’s confession (I’m sorry!) in Psalm 51; there’s petition (Help!) in Psalm 61; there’s lamentation (Why? How long?) in Psalm 137; there’s dedication (What can I do?) in Psalm 116; and there’s thanksgiving (I am grateful!) in Psalm 136. In fact, almost all the Psalms can be categorized into one or more of these ways of speaking—our “vertical habits.”
As we practice through praying the Psalms, we learn that there are more things we may say to God besides thanking God for the day and asking him to be with the sick. Through the Psalms we learn that it’s okay to express our deep anger and frustration. It’s okay to wonder why things are the way they are. It’s okay to say that God seems far away. It’s okay to vent to God about our enemies. This is all okay, because these are relational words. God can handle our emotions.
And, yes, even when we don’t feel like the psalmist feels, it is still beneficial to pray the words. Consider these words by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:
If we want to read and to pray the prayers of the Bible and especially the Psalms, therefore, we must not ask first what they have to do with us, but what they have to do with Jesus Christ. We must ask how we can understand the Psalms as God’s Word, and then we shall be able to pray them. It does not depend, therefore, on whether the Psalms express adequately that which we feel at a given moment in our heart. . . . If we were dependent entirely on ourselves, we would probably pray only the fourth petition of the Lord’s Prayer. But God wants it otherwise. (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible)
Praying the words of form prayers requires a posture of humility. By praying through the words of others, we’re reminded that the Christian life is not just about “Jesus and me.” It’s about Jesus and all his followers.
Regarding this communal aspect of prayer, author Frederica Mathewes-Green told me that “the contemporary strategy of marketing faith to seekers by flattering them goes down sweetly, but in times of trouble it is distressing to discover that you have no spiritual father/mother except yourself, or a leader who seems to have no more wisdom than you do.” She went on to explain, “Developing humility is the first step of the spiritual life, and for the Christians in earlier centuries such humility was instinctive. When we pray the prayers they wrote, we begin to acquire their wisdom.”
When I spend time reading and praying from one of my favorite books of prayer, Walter Brueggemann’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth, I am humbled by Bruggemann’s use of language, the direct and specific requests he makes to God, and his prophetic understanding of the state of humanity. In his prayer “The voice we can scarcely hear,” he writes:
We are a part of a hopeless people,
because the other voices eat at our hearts,
and we are immobilized
and we become deaf.
When I pray his prayers, I’m filled with aspiration and humility. His words help me recognize needs I’ve never before thought to bring before God.
A Strong Foundation
Form prayer is grounding, providing spiritual rootedness and, at times, comfort. “There is a growing desire to be a part of something historically grounded,” Niequist says. “There’s something for me [that’s] very comforting about the routine aspect of it.” Sometimes we seek this sort of comfort in the midst of personal turmoil. Madeleine L’Engle wrote about finding solace in a very ancient form prayer:
I woke up in the night as I usually do with the words of the Jesus Prayer plashing up into my conscious mind like a little fountain . . . . And I thought bitterly, why on earth am I saying these meaningless and empty words? . . . And then I flung myself into the words of the prayer like a drowning person clutching at a rope thrown into the dark sea. (The Irrational Season)
The Jesus Prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner”) "was developed in the deserts of Egypt and Palestine during the early centuries of Christian faith,” writes Mathewes-Green in her book about the prayer. When I asked her why form prayer may provide such a grounding experience, she noted that “Ancient, continuous traditions cut right across the artificiality of modern days and link us to a profound reality, one that has been tested and proved by previous generations. It’s not just getting the theological ideas right, but entering a practice that has been shown to transform; it’s been proved in the examples of saints in earlier centuries.”
A Wider Bandwidth
The invitation into form prayer is not an issue of choosing form prayer or extemporaneous prayer. It’s not either/or, it’s both/and.
Niequist shared with me how her own faith story has influenced her interest in form prayers, explaining, “I grew up in a church my parents started in a movie theater, extremely non-traditional. I didn’t even know what ‘traditional’ was. So for someone like me who grew up in such an informal environment, I’m drawn to the formality of the liturgy. But my friends who have grown up Catholic are extremely excited about the idea of extemporaneous prayer.”
Though some of us may be naturally more inclined toward one or the other, both prayer practices can enrich our lives and help us to learn more about God and about ourselves. We can all widen our bandwidth, as Niequist mentioned in our conversation, in the ways we connect with God. And by learning and praying form prayers, we can also strengthen our extemporaneous prayers.
“I do think that we are better equipped to pray extemporaneously if we have been a student of prayer through the Psalms and other tools,” Borger says. “I also believe that in this society of ‘instant everything’ we are in need of something that will slow us down, ground us, and help us maintain/develop a Christ-centered life.”
Mathewes-Green compares this grounding from form prayer to an architectural structure: “a structure in the day, like the steel skeleton of a building, that supports continuous extemporaneous prayer.” This is why it’s so important for us to enter the historic house of prayer. This isn’t an avante-garde architectural experiment or a rickety house in tornado alley. This is a strong house with a sturdy foundation. We can trust it.
There is no single “right way” to pray, but we can all grow in the way we speak to God. Maybe you’ve wondered about what it means to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17, KJV). Perhaps this is an invitation into a constant awareness of God’s presence—a recognition that is cultivated through frequent times of prayer.
There’s a historic house of faith at your fingertips. Will you enter it and allow the saints to show you how they experienced Jesus?
Joy-Elizabeth Lawrence is a TCW regular contributor. A writer, biblical storyteller, MDiv student, and elder at Thornapple Covenant Church, Joy is the mother of two children and lives with her family in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She can be found at PathlightStories.com.