...and the disciples asked, ‘Teach us to Pray’
The Rev. Tom Albin
"Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start," sings Maria as she begins to teach the Von Trapp children in "The Sound of Music" the foundations of vocal music.
In a like manner, the Rev. Tom Albin, dean of The Upper Room Ministries and ecumenical relations, and the Rev. Kathy Noble, editor of Interpreter and Interpreter OnLine, exchanged some basic questions and answers as we ask again, "Lord, teach us to pray."
Interpreter: What is prayer?
Tom Albin: Prayer is a universal human desire and experience. Every culture in the world has some form of prayer. As a Christian, I believe this is because God created us, and we naturally desire a relationship with God.
Simply stated, prayer is communication with God. It is two-way communication—speaking and listening. Prayer can involve spoken words, inward thoughts or sighs too deep for words. It is an act of love that draws us closer to God.
Biblically speaking, prayer is relationship. Adam and Eve enjoyed a close relationship with God, walking and talking with God in the garden (Genesis 1—2). The Old Testament prophets and priests were people of prayer. Prayer is central to Jesus' life and mission. The same is true for the apostles and the early church.
John Wesley, Methodism's founder, defined prayer as "lifting the heart to God." He taught that everyone could pray because a sincere desire is an authentic prayer. And, he went so far as to assert, "God does nothing apart from believing prayer."
Prayer is so simple that even a young child can pray—and so challenging that the holiest men and women struggle to pray at times. That is why it is important for us to learn and practice new ways to pray.
The disciples were with Jesus every day, watching, learning and following. Why do you think they asked Jesus to teach them to pray?
Young people in Uganda clasp their hands in prayer.
UMNS/COURTESY STAN AND MICHELLE CARDWELL
It is interesting that the first disciples did not ask Jesus to teach them to preach after the Sermon on the Mount. We have no record in the Bible that they asked him to teach them to work miracles after the feeding of the 5,000 or the raising of Lazarus. When we look at all four gospels, prayer is the one thing the disciples asked Jesus to teach them. I wonder why. Perhaps it is because they knew, and we need to be reminded, that all of Jesus' teaching and preaching and healing came from one source—his life of prayer. And if this is true, surely we should join in this same request, "Lord, teach us to pray...." (Luke 11:1-2).
You spoke earlier of prayer as a human desire. Is praying something we do naturally or do we learn to pray?
Actually, I believe prayer is both natural and learned. Anthropologists tell us that some form of prayer can be found in every known culture in the world; therefore, it seems reasonable to say that it is part of human nature. We also know that Jesus responded positively when his first disciples asked him to teach them to pray. So it is important to ask and to learn.
I am convinced that human development and spiritual development are similar processes. Just as earthly parents want to encourage learning to walk and talk, God desires to help us grow and mature spiritually. If we are willing to learn, God will teach us through the Bible, people and literature.
In addition to my family and the church, one of the joys of my early Christian life was to discover Andrew Murray's classic book With Christ in the School of Prayer and Bishop Rueben Job's Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants. Recently, I have been learning new prayer practices from Daniel Wolpert's Creating a Life with God. In fact, our primary mission at The Upper Room is to help others learn to pray.
Say more about prayer as a relationship.
A delegate prays before voting during the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
I am convinced that God desires a relationship with us even more than we desire a relationship with God. We were created for relationships, and communication is an essential part of every healthy relationship. As a parent, I looked forward to the day my children would learn to talk and we could begin to share their lives. God, who is more loving than any earthly parent, delights in us and in our relationship.
Is there a right way to pray?
There is no right or wrong way to pray. All our communication with God and one another is imperfect. We do not expect or demand perfection from our children when they are learning to walk and talk. God will receive our attempts to pray with love and divine understanding. Perhaps you have heard the saying "Pray as you can, not as you can't."
The Holy Spirit will teach you to pray in your own unique, personal way. When you pray in the way God gives you to pray, you will find freedom and joy.
Sometimes, we are afraid to pray. Why? What makes it difficult to pray?
The Rev. Matthew W. Kelley places a prayer between stones of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.
COURTESY MATTHEW KELLEY
Let me begin with the positive. Romans 8:9-17 reminds us that every Christian is a child of God because "the Spirit of God dwells in you." We have the desire and ability to pray because we are beloved children of God. We communicate with God in loving confidence because "there is no fear in love...perfect love casts out fear" (1 John 4:18).
Fear, anxiety and self-condemnation come when we critique, judge or compare ourselves and our prayers with those of others. Have you ever said to yourself:
"That was a terrible prayer. It is not nearly as good as our pastor's prayers."
"I have no right to ask or expect anything from God because I have not been good enough, or faithful enough, or prayed enough."
The congregation at Rising Hope United Methodist Mission Church in Alexandria, Va., forms a prayer circle around young people traveling along the east coast to raise awareness of immigration issues.
UMNS/COURTESY OF RISING HOPE UM MISSION CHURCH
Self-condemnation is a major obstacle to prayer. It is hard to let go of negative self-talk. However, this is something we can and must do with the help of the Holy Spirit, our teacher, comforter and guide. The Bible tells us clearly: "There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 8:1).
To whom do we pray?
We pray to God, following Jesus' example in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13 and Luke 11:1-4), with the help of the Holy Spirit. Some Christians speak directly to Jesus in their prayer, and that is OK as well because Jesus said, "The Father and I are one" (John 10:30).
What happens when we pray?
Because prayer is primarily a living relationship with the living God, it is spiritual and mysterious. Through prayer, we experience the presence of God; we are nourished and strengthened in ways we cannot always explain or express. Prayer is oxygen for the soul; we cannot live without it.
What happens when we pray for others?
Praying for other people is an act of love. We pray for others because we care and we know that God cares. This form of prayer, called intercession, is a healthy, normal part of Christian faith and practice. It is always right to pray; and, God always answers these prayers. Sometime the answer is "yes," and there is immediate change. Sometimes the answer is "no," and it may be years before we can understand why. And sometimes, the answer is "wait." No matter what the answer or result, we know that God hears our prayer and that we are not alone in the situation—and neither are those we lift to God in prayer. Something real and spiritual happens to us and to those for whom we pray.
People sometimes say their prayer life has become routine without much meaning. They are searching for ways to deepen their relationship with God. Any suggestions?
The Rev. Tom Albin (left), dean of The Upper Room chapel, joins now retired Bishop Timothy Whitaker and Frances Jennings, prayer ministry co-chair, to dedicate the Prayer Room at the General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla.
My first suggestion is to ask God for help. Have the courage to ask and seek and knock (Luke 11:9); then the answers will come and the doors will open. Things will not get better until you get moving. Second, read and experiment with the prayer ideas you will find in every issue of Interpreter and at the "Teach Us to Pray" website, www.umc.org/pray, this year. I know from personal experience that, if you will invest five minutes or more each day in these prayer practices, you will begin to build a habit of prayer. In doing this, you begin to enjoy a life of prayer, the life for which you were created. I invite you to join prayerfully in this request, "Lord, teach us to pray."
© 2012 Thomas R. Albin