Learning To Pray
by Amy Schifrin
from LF Spring 2015
A baby makes her entrance into this world needing to be held close, and then bathed, and then swaddled. She may have been handed from midwife to young assistant to father before she is at last embraced at her mother’s heart, a short distance from where she had been clothed in the perfect love of amniotic fluid, held in a holy suspension where every need was met by her creator, Who designed it all. Now in this world, we will hear her cry and soon see her reach out with arms flailing until her needs for comfort, sleep, and nourishment are met.
At the end of this life she will need the same delicate care. Someone will wash her clothes and help her to wash her body. Someone will hold her hand and sing of her home to come until the first breath she took in this life becomes her last, and her resurrected life is beyond our mortal sight.
We were made to need God, and in His wisdom we were made to need others, others whom He in His holiness has appointed to care for us on His behalf. We were made to be dependent upon others so that even our ever-growing strength finds its truth in kindness, mercy, generosity, and most pointedly, humility.
At the beginning of life and at its end, our needs and desires are expressed in non-textual, non-linguistic ways through our bodies and our voices. Anyone who has ever spent the night in a hotel room with a baby suffering from an as-of-yet to be diagnosed earache cannot forget the piercing cry of unremitting pain (grammar and syntax being made superfluous). Anyone who has held vigil at the bed of the dying and who has heard what was once a steady breath become no more than a hollow rattle can never forget how there is only so much pain that a body can take.
From the Order of Service for Holy Baptism to the Order for Christian Burial, from birth until death, all that we are and all that we are called to be is framed, rehearsed, shaped, embodied, incarnated, made manifest in the body that is Christ’s, so that all that we are and all that we do may give glory to Him Who is our Lord. Permeating each gathering of an assembly in the name of the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is prayer—prayer that gives human words to a baby’s first cry of dependence, to a mother’s tears of joy, to a father’s roar of praise; prayer that gives human words to a dying man’s sigh that leads from one life to the next and to his wife’s ragged inhalation of sorrow. When the community, driven by her need for God, is gathered together in the breath of His Holy Spirit, it is this most holy connection that calls us to the future as it heals the pain of the present. For not only does prayer by its very action declare that we are not left alone with only that which is visible; prayer in its very essence is the continuing work of God in making us who He intended us to be, homo adorans, the worshipping human: children, women, and men who worship Him alone.
We are all dependent upon someone or something, our affections rightly or wrongly ordered. Prayer to the Father, through the Son, in the power of the Spirit discloses the truth of our dependence, as well as its beauty, as it moves us away from all that we think we can do on our own to the glory of what only God can do for us. Lord, teach us to pray, the disciples ask, and not only does he give them words, he gives them his body, so that their bodies, through prayer, will be shaped by his, soon to be crucified and risen from the dead.
Between our inchoate cries to God and the prayers through which our liturgies supply our words, we live from day to day and our need for (communion with) God does not go away. We use words to express all sorts of things that we need throughout the day. We ask questions and we answer others’. We ask for directions or seek clarification. We tell our spouses that we love them. We tell our children to put on their coats when we’re cold. We speak with kindness or anger, nastiness or penitence. And while at times we whimper like a dog, coo like a dove, or snort like a buffalo, the Lord God Almighty has given us words with which to express our love for Him and for one another. When we use our words wrongly, that is, against Him or to wreak havoc on one of His children, He promises that our words will be our own destruction (Genesis 11:4–9). But when we use this gift of language rightly, for prayer, praise, and thanksgiving, and when our gestures and deeds are congruent with such words, we discover why it is that He gave us language to begin with: so that His name may be hallowed on our lips and in our lives.
When we are gathered together in this life Sunday after Sunday, from our baptism to our burial, we learn many types of prayer and many things about prayer. There are structures to the prayers we voice in the assembly, patterns that give meaning and order to our existence. The rhythm and cadence of these liturgical prayers work to form us in faith, from the psalms of lament (My God, my God why have You forsaken me, Psalm 22:1a) or confession (Against You only have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight, Psalm 51:4), to the hymns by which we rejoice in the triumph of our God (The Strife Is O’er, The Battle Won, lbw 135) and the doxologies that would make even the stones cry out (Through him, with him, in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all honor and glory is Yours, almighty Father, now and forever, Amen).
All of these become part of our vocabulary and can serve to give us words for the daily prayers of our hearts: the words that we need to pray for a friend who lost her job, the words to pray with our husband for a son who is deployed, the words to pray with our niece and nephew who came for a visit with their beautiful newborn, the words to pray with our neighbors at a Thanksgiving feast, the words to pray when our best friend from childhood has just come home after thirty days in rehab, the words to pray when the faithful are martyred under a brutal regime. Sometimes we can say everything essential with a glance, a gesture, a hug, or a sigh that is ever-deeper than words, but sometimes words serve as a vehicle both to remind us of the presence of God in all that has already been and to light the path for the future into which He is guiding us.
Our lives will never be as neat and orderly as a liturgical order that has gone through centuries of practice and refinement, but for that very reason the patterns that undergird our liturgical prayers can help us find the language that we need to express our needs, our longings, our joys, our desire to make amends, our distress—for that is where our prayers have their origins, in people trusting that the God Who made them intends to sustain them and carry them to the future He is preparing for them. Prayer does not begin with a text but with a voice, with human beings speaking to God about everything from birth to death, about everything that is human. Prayer is an act of the body. Writing prayers down is a secondary action, and the words of our prayers are only written down so that they can be voiced again, where two or three or thousands are gathered, as well as in the nighttime silence of our hearts. Even when we do not speak the words of a prayer aloud but pray them silently, they are not uninflected.
The cadences of liturgical prayer will not lesson the intensity of emotion that rises in our hearts; in fact, the cadences are borne from those same human affections. When these ancient patterns become as natural and as unobtrusive as our breath, we then come to find ourselves capable of a communication that is greater than our timid and sometimes tentative hearts. Just as putting our everyday words into sentences that have a subject and predicate give us a way of speaking to those around us, so knowing the grammar of prayer helps us to speak aloud in the presence of others who may also need words to order and to heal the thoughts of their hearts.
So if you haven’t been able to voice your prayers in the presence of your family or neighbors—which by no means is an indicator of lack of trust in God, but simply of needing to learn a way to do so—here is a well-worn pattern that is used in the Collects of the Church (also known as the Prayers of the Day) that is marked by clarity, simplicity, and brevity. It’s a place to start or to grow into.
1. Name the one to Whom you are speaking, usually the first person of the Holy Trinity: Almighty God, or Gracious God, or God of Wisdom, or Father in heaven, or O God of every blessing, or simply, O God. In naming God, not only do we honor Him as we have been commanded, but we express our faith that there is only one God, eternal and everlasting. The one we address is same one Whom Jesus called “Father,” the same one Who called Abraham to venture beyond Ur, the same one Who told Moses to take off his shoes.
2. Say something about the power or attributes of God, what He has done for you or why you believe Him to be trustworthy: You Who made the heavens and the earth, or Strength of all who suffer, or Giver of all that is good, or You Who led your people out of slavery into the freedom of the promised land, or You Who have watched over me since the day of my birth. You will see how even through prayer He is shaping you as you remember His steadfast love and His eternal promises, for remembrance itself is a form of praise.
3. Request, petition, plea. What are you asking of God? Name the concern that is filling your heart or keeping you up at night. If you’re praying with a friend or neighbor, what have they shared with you that you can now frame for them in an address to God? If you happen to be praying for your own life, do not be surprised that you, yourself, may be stunned as you begin to voice your own supplications. When you are alone or within a trusted relationship, this is the place where whatever has held you in shame or fear will work its way into sound. Once these words are released to God, Whose love is a thousand times greater than your shame, ten thousand times greater than your fear, they will begin to lose their power over you. God has heard them, and you are still breathing.
4. Consequence, outcome, effect. We never know the manner in which God will answer our cries, but it is more than appropriate to voice this desire, a sign of trust in which you may discover that He has more to give you than you ever imagined. If we hold on tightly to what we think we own, we may never know what God intends for us, but when our hands, our hearts, and our voices are open, He will fill them with gifts beyond our ability to measure.
5. Doxology. We learn from the Psalms that even the deepest laments end in praise and that each word that gives glory to God is a proclamation of the resurrection. We believe in the Holy Spirit, as professed in the Apostles’ Creed at baptism and again and again ever after, and this also means that we believe in the works of the Holy Spirit, the one Whose power brings our prayers into the heart of the Holy Trinity. Speaking a doxology also serves as remembrance for all who hear, for indeed all that we are and all that we do is intended to give glory to the one Who has made us for His own glory. God is shaping our faith through the very words that we pray, moving our bodies to a posture of trust, a position in which life is ever a gift to be received. Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen (Revelation 7:11).
While Scripture and liturgy give us many other examples and patterns of prayer, let the pattern of the Collects also become part of your repertoire. In moments of great distress you needn’t worry about form,  but as you take time throughout the day to reflect on your life and the life of the world, how you know in your very body that all life is dependent upon God, bringing your requests to God through such a disciplined pattern will help you to be a vessel for prayer with those whom God has set around you. In the mystery of that great love that binds one human to another within Christ’s body, your voice in prayer will be among His favored instruments by which He makes His holy presence known.
Amy C. Schifrin is President of the North American Lutheran Seminary and Associate Professor of Liturgy and Homiletics at the Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania.
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1. The full range of our Sunday liturgical prayers, from confession to eucharist, or of the prayers of the Daily Offices, is a wider discussion than this essay permits, but careful analysis of such patterns will also benefit us as we seek to lead prayer in our homes and communities.
2. I remember the only prayer that came to me the day my suv rolled a half dozen times on a California highway was “O God, please don’t let me die. Please don’t let me die.” In retrospect, it seems to have been quite sufficient.