In the Elementary School of Prayer

As old as I am (52 years), as many years as I’ve had in pastoral ministry (25), when it comes to learning how to pray, I feel like I’m still in elementary school.

I went to confirmation at a little Lutheran church in western Nebraska with a pretty rigid and guilt-inducing pastor. He was determined to instill in us the discipline of regular bible reading and prayer. He was fond of reminding us that we weren’t really Christians if we didn’t read the bible and pray regularly. So began my odyssey of trying to cultivate the discipline of prayer.

In those junior high years, I can’t tell you how many times I started reading the bible cover to cover. Usually I didn’t get out of Genesis. Sometimes I actually made it to Leviticus. I don’t think I ever got through Leviticus. Somewhere along the way, I think I read a couple of the shorter letters in the New Testament, but can’t remember if I ever got through one of the gospels.

And prayer. I was told that I should pray, but was given precious little guidance about how to pray — or at least that’s the way I remember it. In my home, we prayed regularly before and after meals, and occasionally had family devotions. I said, “Now I lay me down to sleep. . .” with my mother when I went to bed, but my daily prayer was nothing more than that. As a freshman and sophomore in high school, I got involved with a group of students from a variety of churches and traditions who gathered every morning in the home of a retired high school teacher across from Bridgeport High School. But I was with a group and could rely on the “pray-ers” in the group and didn’t have to work on my own prayer life.

My college years were pretty dry as I think back about my prayer life.  In the seminary, I tried again to cultivate the regular habit of prayer and failed. As a young pastor, I bought every prayer book around, used all of them for a short time, and could never develop the habit. Typically, I have been good with the parts of being a pastor that use my mind. Not so good on the spirit, or whatever part of me from which rises the impulse to pray.

And so here I am at 52 years old and 25 years in the ministry, still feeling like a novice at prayer.

A couple of years ago, I enrolled in Grace Institute, a two-year program of spiritual formation connected to Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. I can’t say that I’ve loved it. But it has been good for me. I’ve learned about the many streams of prayer through the centuries of the Christian church. And I’ve been given the opportunity to practice them. I’m still working on the practice part, still getting better at it, and still with a long ways to go. But for the first time, I’m finally developing the regular discipline.

At the Grace Institute, the two year program of 8 retreats includes readings in the particular discipline of prayer and practice that we are introduced to. I’m the kind of person that rarely meets a book I don’t like or at least one that I can’t give a fair hearing. So, I’ve kept up with the readings pretty well; still I’m still always on the lookout for other fellow pilgrims who are much more practiced than I am and who can help me on the journey.

I recently finished a little volume that I wish I had read a long time ago: Creating a LIfe with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices, by Daniel Wolpert. After an introduction to the life of prayer, he includes chapters on a variety of standard prayer practices, including Lectio Divina, the Jesus Prayer, the Examen, and a whole lot more. The explanations are detailed enough to give an idea of what it’s all about without burdening the reader with an academic treatise on the practice.

As much as the descriptions were helpful review for me, what I appreciated most was the tone of Wolpert’s writing. He doesn’t set himself up as an expert, but shares instances of his own learning and struggles to learn how to pray. It feels real. I came away from my reading not with the burden of how little I have learned about prayer and how much I have struggled to develop a life of prayer, but with the encouragement of a fellow pilgrim that prayer is work. Sometimes it feels a little easier and sometimes it feels very difficult. But the journey is always worth the effort. And for the first time, I feel like if I never get out of elementary school, at least I am praying. And that is growth for which I am grateful.

2 thoughts on “In the Elementary School of Prayer

  1. Bob Burke

    Jim: I’m 74 and am 1 year away from the 50th anniversary of my ordination. I resonate deeply with what you have said. My prayer life during all this time has been less than scintillating. I wish I had taken more time earlier in life to do what you have obviously found to be a helpful “remediation” for your prayer life.
    Thankfully, the Holy Spirit has been present to offer the petitions to our Father that I’m not even aware that I should be offering.
    Thanks for your openness.


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