Teach Us to Pray
A guest post by Paul Willingham
Praying with a Limp
A few months ago I was enjoying a late breakfast with my dad at the local Perkins. Our table was near the front entrance so I was in a position to observe as diners entered and departed. Several middle-aged African-American women were leaving. As they passed, one of the women asked her companion if she had injured her leg. She seemed to favor it as she walked.
“No”, she replied. “I always limp after I’ve been to prayer meeting.”
The uninitiated, overhearing her comment, probably would not have caught that her prayer life included being on her knees. But what a testimony for the initiated that this woman and her prayer partners spent part of their prayer time on their knees, not seated around a table.
I suspect that in this day of compartmentalized Church Life/Christianity and a desire for comfort (air conditioned buildings, heated baptistries and padded pews) that there is not as much prayer that takes place on the knees of the supplicants. I’m neither denigrating the prayers of the sincere today (the effective fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much), regardless of the position of their physical bodies. Nor am I suggesting that prayer is more effective when offered up while kneeling.
What the Knees Do
But her comment reminded me of my youth, back in the day when churches met on Sunday morning (Saturday services were anathema in those days) for worship and Sunday school, Sunday night for evangelistic services and Wednesday night for Bible study and prayer meeting.
Thus, when I was in high school, Wednesday evening was spent at prayer meeting. My parents were from the old, old school (I’m only old enough to be plain old school) that dictated that when services were scheduled, you were there. In those days, unless you were physically impaired or had some health issue, prayer time was spent on your knees. It was down on a wooden floor or cold concrete. If there was carpeting back then, it was limited to the aisles and/or pulpit area.
After the pastor had noted the week’s prayer requests, it was not unusual to spend 20 to 30 minutes on your knees as sister Mary opened the season of prayer and then Deacon Wilson, after a suitable pause to ensure that all who wished to pray audibly had had opportunity to do so, offered the closing prayer.
God’s hearing doesn’t improve when our petitions are voiced while on our knees. Nor do our prayers jump to the top of his prayer in-box or get priority/special delivery treatment because they come from hearts and voices closer to the floor.
But I do believe that it makes us much more aware of the master/servant, creator/creature relationship when we pray from this position of humility.
There is something very humbling about kneeling for prayer in that it helps us recognize that we are asking God for his help, not filling out a wish list for some cosmic Santa Claus. I have no idea of the history or origin of the practice of praying on our knees. Perhaps it grew from a reading of the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican in Luke 18. It certainly does serve to help us focus on who is really in charge.
We’re Still Praying – We Just Can’t Always See It
Most churches no longer have Wednesday night prayer meetings and the place of prayer in the Sunday morning worship service has evolved over the years. When I was a lad the various prayers were listed in the bulletin and thus were very predictable.
The service included an invocation or opening prayer, prayer for the offering, prayer at the Lord’s Table (we observed communion every Lord’s Day), a congregational prayer that shared the needs, concerns and praises of the body, a prayer prior to the sermon, a prayer at the close of the sermon and a closing prayer or benediction.
The responsibility for the various prayers was not restricted to the pastor but usually involved other church leaders. Back then, many churches also included the congregation reciting the Lord’s Prayer and/or the Apostles Creed sometime during the service.
I’m not sure the church of today is praying any less. It just seems to be less visible, less predictable, and more in the background.
The transition to a contemporary service has introduced an aura of informality and reduced structure. Like so much of our social and religious activities we have streamlined, compartmentalized and organized prayer (and Sunday worship) in the name of production values and maximum efficiency. Thus, we seldom if ever have church-wide prayer meetings.
Instead, we have small group Bible studies and accountability groups that lift up each other in prayer on a regular basis. We have prayer chains that pass on prayer requests to regular prayer warriors by phone or more likely, email. Parishioners are encouraged to note prayer requests on the back of attendance/registration cards that are subsequently made a part of weekly church staff prayer sessions.
Some churches have designated prayer rooms or chapels and often have individuals or prayer teams (after all, we live in an era of specialization) available to pray with those who wish to make use of these specialized opportunities and facilities. And Wednesday night, while still a church night, is given over to youth and children’s programs, not prayer meeting.
These are not wrong but I think that in the name of efficiency and time management the church has sacrificed an important element of corporate congregational church life. Much like congregational hymn singing, prayer as a group has an intrinsic unifying value for the body that may be hard to define, describe or quantify but is greatly beneficial.
Following Peter’s Day of Pentecost sermon and the Billy Graham-like response, Luke records in Acts 2:42, “And they devoted themselves to the apostles teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (ESV).
From the first day of the church, prayer, both private as well as corporate, was important in the life of the Christian.
“One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer, at three in the afternoon.” (Acts 3:1 ESV)
“Brothers, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:3-4 ESV)
“So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.” (Acts 12:5 ESV)
“On the Sabbath we went outside the city gate to the river where we expected to find a place of prayer. We sat down and began to speak to the women there.” (Paul in Philippi. Acts 16:13 ESV)
“Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.” (Romans 12:12 ESV)
“And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18 ESV)
“Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.” (Colossians 4:2 ESV)
“Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” (Philippians 4:6 ESV)
“I want men everywhere to lift up holy hands in prayer, without anger or disputing.” (I Timothy 2:8)
These snippets are isolated, non-exhaustive and lifted from longer texts but they demonstrate and serve to reinforce to the church today the important and critical place that prayer played in the early church, from Pentecost through Paul’s missionary journeys and subsequent epistles.
A Church that Doesn’t Pray Together Isn’t the Church
Blogger Blake Coffee (Church Whisperer.com) wrote recently on church unity but what he had to say applies to the church and prayer generally.
“Let’s face it. God has not promised anything to the people who do not pray. A church which does not pray together is, well…not really the church. Being in right relationship with each other requires being in right relationship to God. And being in right relationship to God requires prayer. It is not rocket science. Scripture makes this one easy to understand.”
On the wall of a Baptist church in small town in South Dakota is a simple piece of art work that includes the words “Men ought always to pray, Lord teach us to pray”. That is pretty good advice.
Paul Willingham is an occasional guest poster here at A Different Story, always challenging me with his reflections. He’s also my dad.
You can read more of his posts here. Photo: the front of a little church in small town South Dakota where I worship.