Jan6WedJanuary 6, 2021
Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. That's when ready-made prayers are helpful.
Growing up Baptist had some definite advantages for my spiritual life. The clarity and importance of personal repentance and faith in Christ alone for salvation remain paramount. Add to that the emphasis on singing in worship and participation in choirs. The songs I sang then still bubble to the surface today. And eventually, personal Bible study, the conversation with God one develops when digging deep in the word, became important. The fried chicken (aka gospel bird) wasn't bad either.
But among the things that my spiritual development lacked was a robust prayer life. We Baptists were great at potlucks. But if prayer is like chicken, we were getting the skinny bird every time. "Lord, we just want to praise you for this. And Lord, we just want to ask you for that, and Lord, we ask you to bless so and so." That kind of praying will leave you spiritually hungry after a while.
The prayers of the Bible are much meatier, as are the prayers of many other denominations. For example, the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (1928 edition) has some wonderfully deep and theologically robust prayers. But as a young believer, I thought written prayers were for people who lacked a real heart relationship with God. They can be abused. Reciting a written prayer will not save an unrepentant sinner or deepen a spiritual life through the mere repetition of elegant prose. But that doesn't make them useless.
That became clear when I learned that scripture contains many formal prayers and praises. Everyone is familiar with the Psalms and The Lord's Prayer. But it happens in other places in the New Testament as well. 1 Peter 1:3-5 is a good example. With the help of his friend Silas, Peter begins with an expression of praise that is almost identical to the wording of 2 Corinthians 1:3 and Ephesians 1:3. 3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. Push on down through verse 13 of Ephesians 1, and you find the same themes Peter stressed: Election or choseness, redemption through Christ's blood, our spiritual inheritance, and hope in Christ's return.
From that foundation, Peter builds out his prayer and links it to his readers' specific situation. So he isn't just repeating empty words. He is taking a form of praise widely used in the Church and building it into his prayer and exhortation to his readers.
As I got older, I realized that C.S. Lewis's experience on this topic, provided in an essay whose title I borrowed, reflected mine. Some days my mind is scattered as a caffeinated squirrel, and my heart is as flat as a pancake. Trying to pray spontaneously on days like that was "counting on a greater mental and spiritual strength than I really have," he said. I was making "what Pascal calls Error of Stoicism; thinking we can do always what we can do sometimes."
The latest news headline or political crisis will always loom larger if we let it and have us praying about only those things instead of the strategic mission of the Church. And, left to the vagaries of our weary minds and momentary emotions, we can easily drift into some pretty shallow spiritual puddles. Praying the ready-made prayers of scripture and the great traditions can help us stay on the right path.