Perhaps any conversation about spiritual formation includes prayer. My personal prayer life has been influenced by my faith tradition. We have encouraged prayer while seated, while standing, and while kneeling. Prayer is encouraged as both an individual act and as a corporate act. Of course, sometimes prayer seems to break out unexpectedly and during unlikely activities. However it occurs, I hope to view my daily schedule as a context for prayer. While some space is specifically set aside for the purpose of prayer, I hope for prayer to become as natural as walking or breathing. Perhaps this is what the apostle had in mind when he writes to “pray without ceasing.”
It is not enough to carve space for prayer. Prayer itself is not the goal, but a tool to help us grow in God. An activity that often unexpectedly becomes prayer for me is reading. Sometimes this is the reading of scripture but not always. I often find myself in dialogue with an author and God becomes part of the conversation. Currently, my reading tends to include an assortment of theology, nature, and some classics. As I write, I am thinking that reading authors who are more contemplative might benefit me on my journey. I can benefit from those who have walked with God and have shared their experience about intimacy with the divine. I have already made plans to read more from Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and Richard Rohr. I plan to acquaint myself with Dallas Willard and Richard Foster. I would also benefit from re visiting some of the works that have shaped my spiritual life in the past. I am intrigued that John Wesley in “Letter to a Friend” emphasizes reading as a means of nurturing the soul. “Whether you like it or not, read and pray daily… Do justice to your own soul; give it time and means to grow. Do not starve yourself any longer.”
Eugene Peterson suggests that we have been given an old prayer book known as Psalms. In fact, he claims these are the best tools for working on our faith. Just as a gardener picks up a rake or a hoe on the way to the vegetable garden, he claims people of faith should pick up the Psalms. I will read the Psalms multiple times in multiple translations during the coming year, all the while listening for the voice of God. I will be open to prayer in new ways by listening to these old prayers.
But my reading of scripture shall not be limited to the Psalms. I shall read from the whole canon. I will read texts from the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. I will read the New Testament narratives and the Letters. I will read them to be caught up in the ongoing story of God. This is not only to strengthen preaching and exegesis, but to listen to the voice of God and find my role in that story. We have tendencies to try to fit God into our stories; it is time to start looking for ourselves in God’s story.
It is easy to become content driven, what J. K. A. Smith calls “brains on a stick.” It is even easy for worship to become a cognitive exercise. But, it is not enough to articulate a position; I want to taste the sweet word of God even when it leaves me with a sour stomach (Revelation 10.9-10). Systematic statements may smooth out some rough edges, but we are a people who live on the edge. We want to acknowledge the rough parts and embrace them as important parts of the story. I will listen to the biblical writers talk about walking with Jesus. I will read out loud in order to hear differently. I benefit when I read scripture not as a scavenger for practical purposes, but in order to listen for the voice of God.
This conversation about prayer is only a beginning. I desire that prayer become something more, something like Robert Mulholland once described “prayer is not what we do, it is what we be.” It is important to know that prayer is more about becoming than it is about getting. Again, I am reminded of Mulholland who said, “it is one thing to be in the world for God, it is quite another thing to be in God for the world.” The former seems so “activist” while the latter takes us into unknown territory. My prayer is that I will follow Jesus into the unknown whatever we find out there.