I am thankful to have grown up in a church that emphasized and nurtured a “personal relationship” with God and taught us, as children, to be comfortable just “shootin’ the breeze” with Jesus.
However, Christianity isn’t just a relationship. It is very much a religion.
I am a religious person because I pray.
More specifically, I am a Christian because I pray as a Christian.
But have I always prayed as a Christian?
I think this is a question we should all ask ourselves. How are our prayers different than Hindu prayers? How are our prayers different than Muslim prayers? How are our prayers different from Jewish prayers? What is prayer any way and what makes our prayers Christian?
Many of us simply rehearse our anxieties aloud and call it prayer.
Many of us simply wish for what we want and call it prayer.
As crucial as it was in the early years of my spiritual formation to approach the throne of grace with confidence each day bringing my unique prayers to the God who answers prayer, my prayer life became much richer when I discovered structured prayer and incorporated it into my devotional practices.
By structured prayer I mean prayers drawn from Scripture or written by other people, words that are not my own. For decades the church has said that prayer is merely an expression of your faith so pray however you like. But for centuries the church said that prayer is something that forms your faith so choose carefully.
lex orandi, lex credendi (Latin: the law of prayer is the law of belief).
Put differently, you are what you pray.
That is, the primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what you want him to do, but to be properly formed.
We are formed as Christian people when we pray Christian prayers.
For the last month I have made it a point to begin each morning by praying a Psalm and an excerpt from The Book of Common Prayer.
In times of profound sadness, I’ve discovered words to put to the aches I could not fully name:
As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God.
– Psalm 42
In times of doubt, when I look at the destructive results of sin in the world and ask, “Where is God?” I’ve found my answer:
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night’, even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
– Psalm 139
When I find myself bitter towards another:
O God, the Father of all, whose Son commanded us to love our enemies: Lead them and us from prejudice to truth; deliver them and us from hatred, cruelty, and revenge; and in your good time enable us all to stand reconciled before you; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
– The Book of Common Prayer
When my heart is burdened by oppression and the selfishness that breeds inequality across the globe:
Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
– The Book of Common Prayer
The most beautiful part of learning to pray structured prayers is found in their constant reminder that faith isn’t just about me.
These prayers have helped carry me beyond a merely personal relationship with God to one that is more communal.
These prayers, written down ahead of time, often first spoken long before my birth, remind me to turn my thoughts toward the people I love, to forgive and ask forgiveness, to pray for my enemies, to plead for mercy for “the things I have done and the things I have left undone,” to remember the hungry and the suffering, to “bless the congregation of the poor,” to worship, to thank, to intercede, and to join with the whole community of saints who—this very hour, all around the world, and for centuries past and to come—are praying these prayers with me today.
Every day I am surprised by their simplicity.
Every day I am surprised by their depth.
Every day I am surprised by their holiness.
Every day I am surprised by their stubborn defiance to the individualism that so easily creeps into my thoughts and prayers each day. Much like the Lord’s prayer, they remind me that prayer is not about my wants and desires but rather about seeking…
THY name. THY kingdom. THY will.
OUR Father. OUR daily bread. OUR trespasses.
You cannot be a Christian alone. And these basic prayers of the church that have been passed down through the ages have reminded me every day that I am not in this alone. Even when I want to be.