Friday, August 23, 2013

Do Prayer Formulas Work?

About three years ago, I was leading a small class on connecting with God. Honestly, I had never taught a class like this before. I just knew that I had to teach it. I think I was motivated to learn how to pray better. So I thought I would teach as a fellow journeyman rather than an expert. At first, I thought I would find some grand counsel from a book or resource that would open up the heavens and transport us into a heavenly relationship with God. I assumed that we would talk about a prayer pattern that would be helpful to all of us.

But as I read various books, I came to another conclusion. I realized that most churches do exactly what I assumed that I would teach in that class. They promote and teach one primary way pattern for relating to God. For instance, in the church tradition of my childhood, I was taught the pattern of having a quiet time with God using ACTS, A-Adoration, C-Confession, T-Thanksgiving, S-Supplication. And we were taught that quiet times were best done early in the morning. For years I beat myself up because I was a notorious at rolling out of bed at the very last minute before I had to get to school or to work. And when I did force myself out of bed to spend some time praying, I found myself going back to sleep. Morning quiet times just did not work very well for me.

Later I read Bill Hybels Too Busy Not to Pray—a great book btw—and he shared how he writes his prayers. I then tried to copy his approach, again doing it in the morning.

A bit later, I hear John MacArthur teach on praying through the Lord's Prayer and then I read David Yongii Cho talk about how he used the various articles in the Old Testament Tabernacle as a guide for prayer. I was treating prayer like I would during a calculus test when looking for the right formula to solve a problem. I thought that this was the way to figure out how to make prayer work for me.

Over the last few years, I have learned all kinds of creative ways of praying, ways that have been practiced in various church traditions through the centuries. This has helped me to break free from depending upon a prayer formula and enter into a relationship with God through prayer. Actually that's the real key, relationship. God is a relational God and longs for a relationship with us. As soon as we use a prayer formula to pray, we are relating to the formula not to God. We have to learn to be ourselves with God and commune with him as we are.

Finding Your Way of Relating
Different people pray differently. At least if they have a real relationship with God this is true. When I realized this, I also began to see how the way we connect to God often reflects our personalities. For instance, those who like a lot of structure tend to pray in more structured ways. They make prayer lists or they might prefer to have a book that guides their prayers. They set specific times to pray just like they set specific times for everything in their lives.

On the other extreme those who don’t like structure tend to be more emotional and expressive with their prayers and worship. Their relationship with God is unpredictable. Sometimes they pray everyday. Other times prayer means taking an extended period with God after a few days of not having much time at all.

Reflective people like to sit, ponder and listen. They might have a peaceful time of thinking, reading and receiving God’s love. On the other hand active people like to get up and pray as they go about their day.

When I was a youth pastor at a church in Germany, I was talking to one of the youth workers about how he prayed. He told me that he uses is daily commute as a time of prayer. My immediate thought was, “How can you have a serious relationship with God when you are driving.” But now I understand that when you take into account the fact that he is a very active, communicative person, if you put him in a quiet room with a Bible and journal, he would probably go crazy. He communicated with God in way that fit who he is. He did not need to change how God wired him in order to have a deep connection with God.

Let me say it again: Different people pray differently.

For this reason alone, you need not ever compare your way of connecting to God with that of anther person. We can learn from each other, but we need not judge ourselves or others. We talk about various ways of connecting to God so that we can have our imaginations sparked and we can find ways that really work for each of us.

Different Imaginations Lead to Different Ways of Connecting
Our imagination is crucial when we think about connecting with God. But our imaginations work differently. Some people have a strong imagination. They can close their eyes, envision a place where they can meet with God and even imagine God sitting next to them. Some have a strong visual imagination and uses this approach to prayer quite a lot. But not everyone is a visual thinker. It’s a good thing that God can use our other senses to meet with us.

My wife, Shawna, is moved by music. She can listen to a song and it can quickly touch her soul. I, on the other hand, can hear a song ten times and never even hear the words. She often uses worship music, and even other songs, to help her connect with God.

For others, smells are important to their imagination. Lighting a candle or smelling the fresh air outside can help prepare them for connecting with God.

Touch or physical sensation is another important thing to consider. Some people find it helpful to wrap up in a warm blanket or pray while painting or squeezing clay or Playdo.

Take a few minutes and think about how your imagination works. Do visualize things easily? Are you moved by music? How do smells impact you? Are you a high touch person? If you’ve not thought about this much, try different things and see what works best.

Practices that Can Help You Pray
There are many different things that can help create pathways of prayer. For some reading can help people pray. You might read a book slowly or a devotional guide and then pray what you are feeling.
In a similar vein, I know of others who like to use a pray book to help them pray. They will read a few lines of a Psalm and then allow those words to spark their own prayers. I have found that using a book like Common Prayer by Shane Claibourne to be quite helpful. Some might assume that this is another approach to formulaic prayer, but actually when a prayer book is used well and you reflect on the words as you say them, it actually trains you to pray more honestly and in line with ways that God is working in the world. Other ideas include:

•    Journaling
•    Writing out your prayers
•    Reading a daily devotional book
•    Reflecting on a work of art (See the activity on the next page).
•    Reflecting on nature or a part of God’s wonderful creation
•    Sitting quietly
•    Reflecting on your day or the last week and reflecting on where God is in the midst of it
•    Reading poetry to spark prayers
•    Writing a poem or a story
•    Singing or playing a musical instrument
•    Praying with Friends
•    Physical expressions like clapping, dancing, shouting

Now think about what you like to do. What brings you joy? I love to read. So I am learning to connect with God as I read. If you like to run, can you use that as a time to pray, even if it’s just the first couple of minutes of your jog. If you enjoy nature, how might that be a way of developing a relationship with God?

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