Learning to Speak 1 (A Series of Ramblings on Prayer)

I can’t remember my first word. I don’t know many people that do. I can, however, remember the times I have heard someone else say their first word. One of these times was when my wife’s little cousin, Riley, said hers. We were at a wedding and everyone was trying to get her to say things like “Papa” or “Mama.” But this isn’t what happened. To my great delight and everyone else’s great shock, Riley’s first word was “Adam.” Now, despite what you may think (especially if you saw the sly smile on my face when it happened), I didn’t orchestrate this in any way. She heard my name, and she said it. That was it. And we’ve been buddies ever since.

Prayer is one of the more mysterious things that we do. Unpredictable as a child’s first word and just as mind bending, to pray is a strange practice. And its hard to tell sometimes if we’re talking to God, to others (who may or may not be there), or just ourselves. Growing up in church, I heard lots of prayers. Lots. After a while, I began to pick up on a few staples that seemed to make a good one. Among these were such dynamic wordplays like “guide, guard, and direct,” “let the speaker have a ready recollection,” and “bring us back at the next appointed time.” On a side note, I always wondered what would happen if the speaker didn’t have a ready recollection. Thank goodness we never had to find out. But I always had this feeling in the back of my mind that we just said things sometimes because we heard other people say them. But in church?! Nah, that can’t be right.

It wasn’t until college that I began to actually read the Bible. Seriously, I didn’t know that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were telling the same story (but in very different ways) for the longest time. I read a lot of the Bible then, but the book that most captured my imagination was the Psalms. I read and reread the Psalms. I was fascinated. These didn’t seem like the kind of prayers we prayed in church. These prayers were like blood and sweat turned into ink; passion, anger, fear, and praise turned into words. THIS is how I wanted to pray.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer says this in his book on the Psalms, “It is a dangerous error, surely very widespread among Christians, to think that the heart can pray by itself.” When I first read that, I wasn’t sure how to feel. Isn’t prayer about opening up your heart? Isn’t the very foundation of prayer intimacy with God? Yes. But I think what Bonhoeffer stumbled upon is the dangerous and very true tendency we have to use God instead of talk to Him, to try and bend Him to our will instead of being conformed to His. If we believe in Sin (with a capital “S”), then at the very least we have to acknowledge that we live in a world that has little idea what intimacy looks like, and we may not have a lot of authority to speak to that.

Bonhoeffer goes on to say this, “And so we must learn to pray. The child learns to speak because his father speaks to him. He learns the speech of his father…repeating God’s own words after Him, we begin to pray to Him.” Think about the truth of these words. Children learn to speak by listening. Yet, we think we’re learning to pray when we start talking first. Eugene Peterson puts it much better than I could when he says, “Prayer is NEVER the first word; it is always the second word. God is the first word. Prayer is answering speech” (45, Working the Angles).

Let’s look at the American church for a minute. We have more resources that we’ve ever had, more scholars, and more programs than in any other time in history. Yet, the places in which Christianity is on the move (Asia, Africa) have little to no resources to speak of. What they do have, however, is the Spirit of God. And their activity of choice, more often than not, is prayer. The bottom line is this, they pray because they have to. For them, if this isn’t real, if God isn’t at work, then they are risking their lives and their families’ lives for nothing. What’s even more interesting is what they pray for. They pray for their enemies, for God to bring their neighbors to faith, for protection, for healing, and yes, for the things we pray for too. In light of this, I don’t think it a stretch to say that the average American church is at the very least malnourished, if not anemic, in terms of our prayers. Prayer, at most, makes up a small percentage of the average worship service, and hardly ever manifests itself in pleading with God for our neighbors to come to Christ or a great deal of time spent in blessing our enemies.

Now, there are several reasons one could propose for this lack of prayer, but here’s my main one: WE DON’T KNOW HOW. I include myself in this. The hard truth is that we haven’t learned how to speak to our Father yet because we’ve been listening to every other voice but His, including, maybe primarily, our own. Enter the Psalms.

Is it a coincidence that the OT is arranged in such a way (historically and in the text itself) that the Psalms precede the Prophets? That prophetic speech and action in the world are rooted in the Psalms? Most of us would agree that we want to be able to say something meaningful to both God and our neighbor, but we’re not sure how. The Psalms are the language school for prophets, the place Christians learn to walk so they can run, the voices that reignite our sleeping imaginations. I really believe this. So here’s what I propose: pick up the Psalms before you pray. Read them. Allow them to set the tone for your prayers. I personally like to read a psalm through all the way, and then go through the psalm line by line, praying in between each line. This is but one way, there are several ways and tools to pray the psalms (see below), explore them, try them, and, after a while, you might notice your vocabulary changing, your words transforming. This means you’re on the way.

But why do this at all? Why bother learning how to pray again? Does God still hear my prayers? Yes. But God wants more for you and the world than to just answer our prayers. He wants to talk. And He wants us to talk to the world. Few would argue that we are in desperate need of prophets today. Men and women who are so rooted in the truths and language of God that when they speak, people hear God. In a world that prefers the image over the word, prophets are the people that call us to listen again, and to hear the clanging emptiness and shallowness of most of what we do and say. But prophets aren’t made overnight, they start out weak, like little children learning to crawl, they listen, they observe, and when they’ve heard enough, they stand, and they speak.

 

Yours for the cause of Peace and Brotherhood,

 

Adam Daniels

Campus Minister

Georgia Christian Student Center

 

Resources for praying the psalms:

Leave A Comment