By Kent Carlson, VP of Leadership Formation, North American Baptist Conference
September 16, 2019
Over the next three weeks, we will be sharing some articles on prayer written by the North American Baptist Conference. This week’s article, which focuses on prayer as a spiritual discipline, is written by Kent Carlson, the Vice President of Leadership Formation for the North American Baptists. To read more of the articles provided by the conference, visit their website at nabconference.org.
by Kent Carlson
published by the North American Baptist Conference
I have a confession to make right here at the beginning. I’m a bit uncomfortable with the idea of prayer as a spiritual discipline. Now, I agree that prayer is an excellent spiritual discipline. It is something within our current power to do that can result in our ability to do what we currently cannot. Of course, this effort we exert in prayer is transformative precisely because we are in cooperation with the transforming work of the Spirit of God. Our effort, plus the grace and power of the Spirit of God, brings transformation. So, all that is good. Prayer is an excellent spiritual discipline.
Still, a spiritual discipline is a means. It is something we do for the purpose of some greater good. But when we’re talking about prayer, we’re talking about an activity that is so much more than a means to something else. If we desire to understand prayer as an interactive conversation with God about what we are doing together, as many have argued, then, and perhaps most importantly, prayer is also an end. In fact, prayer becomes the most important activity of our lives. Prayer will quickly become a boring and exhausting activity if it is seen primarily as a discipline rather than the primary way we commune with God and work with Him to accomplish His kingdom purposes.
In light of all this and embracing the intention to make prayer a deeper and more integral part of our lives in this new year, let’s get very practical together. Here are four suggestions on how we can pray that may open up some new encounters between us and God.
Be still, and know that I am God. (Psalm 46:10 NIV)
I suspect that most of us, when we think about prayer, instinctively think about talking to God. And certainly, prayer involves talking to God. But if prayer is a conversation with God, then it’s probably a good idea to create some space where we are simply quiet and listening. So, here’s a very simple and practical thing we can do: Sit quietly and be silent for a set period of time. We will notice that our minds wander almost immediately, often traveling down very random rabbit trails. We should remember in these moments that the silence does not create these thoughts. Rather, the silence exposes them. Our minds are very busy, active, fidgety things. They will rebel against silence. We must learn, with the help of the Holy Spirit, to quiet this noise if we are to commune with God. The trick here is to simply stay at it. Carve out the space. Have a notebook where we can write down the particularly troublesome thoughts, say a short prayer over them, and then enter back into the silence. A wonderful goal would be to learn how to sit in silence for five to twenty minutes every day. There is no need for an agenda. No need to accomplish anything. Just sit in silence and see what happens over a period of time.
Images and Imagination
During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” (Acts 16:9)
Many people have trouble praying for the simple reason that using words in prayer gets tiresome to them. They find themselves spending more time and energy thinking about the words of prayer and they become distracted from the thing they are actually praying about. Imagery and imagination are wonderful practices that address this. I have often been in groups of people where we have spent time in silence and scripture, followed by an invitation for anyone to share any images that came to their mind. Once given permission, people will begin to describe images of colors, shapes, rivers, light, darkness, Jesus, animals, and many strange and interesting things. It is quite liberating for many to discover that working with these images is a marvelous way to pray. This is often how God communicates with us. Throughout the Bible we have images of ladders going into heaven, chariots of fire, sheets of unclean animals, a man from Macedonia, and many, many more. Prayer does not always need to be words. I was recently asked to pray for a friend who was going into a job interview. Instead of stringing together sentences filled with religious clichés and jargon, I simply imagined them going into this job interview filled with confidence in God, detached from outcome, with clarity of thought, and enjoying the favor of the interviewer. Imagery and imagination are wonderful ways to pray.
Pray for the Ordinary
Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6)
It is possible that many people have given up on any regular practice of prayer because somehow we have been taught to believe that real prayer is about big and substantial things: peace in the Middle East, climate change, politics, persecution, famine, people with diseases, people dying, wars – oftentimes things we have little knowledge of or interest in. It is good to pray for big and substantial things, but the way to learn to pray about them is to begin by praying about small and insignificant things that are of great interest to us. We should learn to pray about our car. Our broken refrigerator. Our roof. Our job. Our relationships. We must learn how to pray, honestly, humbly, and sincerely, for the ordinary and for those things that immediately interest us. Because God is at work in these places. He cares about them. When we begin to see God at work in the small, ordinary things that are very close to us, our hearts will gradually grow to include those big and substantial things that are also important to God. But we learn to pray well by praying about the small things that interest us.
Pray with Scripture
They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32)
For many followers of Christ, daily scripture reading is an essential discipline as we pursue our formation into Christlikeness. We read the scriptures in order to hear the voice of the God who speaks to us there. The transforming power behind the inspiration of scripture is the God who never leaves His Word alone. Perhaps our greatest practice of prayer is to read scripture and to pray as we read. We ask God to reveal to us what we need to hear. We confess our sins as we read. We ask God to make true in our lives the truth we are reading. We express gratitude for His goodness to us. We respond in obedience to what we hear Him calling us to do or be. Praying with scripture is a wonderful practice to engage in with others. We read together and then we pray together. We let the scriptures guide our prayers. The longest book in the Bible, the book of Psalms, is essentially a prayer book. The Bible tells the grand and glorious story of God and His redemption of all things. Our identity as followers of the Way of Jesus is formed as we immerse the small story of our lives into the larger story of God. But in this story, written in scripture, we meet God and we commune with Him. The study of the Bible must never be done as a mere intellectual exercise of learning facts. Rather, we read, study, and mediate on our knees, always praying, with humble hearts open to meet the God who speaks to us in His Word.