I have a confession to make. I don’t find it easy to pray. I know that this is surprising, coming from a pastor. I share this with you because I believe it can be good for other Christians to know that minsters struggle to live by faith.
I would read stories about Luther literally praying for hours at a time, and I would be embarrassed. After all these years, I can’t pray for more than ten minutes. I take solace in Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not keep babbling like the pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask Him.” In the end, it’s not the length or the eloquence of our prayers that matter; it's the goodness and graciousness of the One who hears them.
I take inspiration from one of my favorite saints, Brother Lawrence. Nicholas Herman was born to peasant parents in seventeenth century France. Poverty forced him to join the army, which provided for his meals, along with a small salary. It was during his years as a soldier that Herman experienced a transformative moment. In the dead of winter, he saw a leafless tree. Not only was the tree barren; it was helpless as well. All it could do was wait for renewal in spring. Herman saw himself in the desolate tree. God’s restorative powers would soon bring him newness of life; he was overwhelmed with wonder at the extravagance of God’s grace and his unfailing providence.
Later, Herman was injured, necessitating his retirement from the army. He tried working for a short while as a simple footman, his life seemingly a failure. He proceeded to join a monastery in Paris where he was given the name, Brother Lawrence. He was quickly assigned to KP duty in the kitchen. There, scrubbing pots and pans, Brother Lawrence began to practice the presence of God. He would later write about this: “There is no manner of life in the world more sweet or more delicious than continual conversation with God.” Brother Lawrence and his continual conversation with God has comforted and aided me greatly in my prayer life.
So have the Psalms. It has taken me a long time to appreciate this unique book in the Bible. For years, these ancient prayers were archaic to me; dusty pleas and praises from an age and culture so unlike our own. It wasn’t until I became a pastor that I realized the invaluable treasure that the Psalms truly are. The powerful intensity of the Psalms made my prayers seem so faint and half-hearted. On top of this, the bold and blunt honesty of the Psalms, while disturbing at first, are refreshing. I realized that if the saints of old could literally let God have it, so could I. The Psalms have helped me immensely, both in praying for myself, and for the people that I serve as an under-shepherd on behalf of the Good One.
A JESUIT PRIEST
There is another valuable lesson that I’ve learned from the communion of saints when it comes to prayer. This lesson was taught to me by none other than a Jesuit priest. And not just any Jesuit, but the founder of the order, Ignatius of Loyola.
A decade or so ago, I came across the following quote from Ignatius: “We should not fix our desires on health or sickness, wealth or poverty, success or failure, a long life or short one. For everything has the potential of calling forth in us a deeper response to our life in God. Our only desire and our one choice should be this: I want and I choose what better leads to the deepening of God's life in me.”
Loyola’s insight helped me greatly with my prayer life. Most of the time, my petitions came from the second half of the Lord’s Prayer. The overwhelming majority of my pleas were of the 4th – 6th petition variety. As I prayed for myself, loved ones, and neighbors, I asked for daily bread. I also prayed that we would be forgiven and forgiving. I prayed for help against temptation, and for deliverance from evil. What I so often failed to do was to pray the first three petitions of the prayer that Jesus taught. Ignatius’ words reminded me of these petitions. What I want most for myself, for my family, and for you is a deepening of our life with God.
A FINAL LESSON
There is one last lesson which I’ve learned about prayer over the years. Decades ago, I would tell someone that I would pray for them. I would then be ashamed when I next saw the person, inwardly convicted for failing to keep my promise. My solution? Alaine and I started a prayer list, which we use at night as part of our pre-bedtime routine. Over the decades, many of you have been on it at one time or another.
I will close with an old, simple, but wonderful petition of the Church:
Help, save, comfort, and defend us, gracious Lord.