The Ancient Ways – Part 2

Analysis of a prayer

This week, we will be engaging with the first of our ancient practices, fixed-hour prayer. But I want to start by giving us a prayer to consider and see what we can learn. The prayer was prayed in a Krystal Restaurant some years ago. It has stuck in my head and remained an example of what honest prayer looks like. It goes something like this,

Dear Lord, we thank you these here gut buster hamburgers. We know they’re not good for us, but we thank you for providing them anyway. Bless them so maybe we don’t feel too bad after we eat. Amen.

If you have had the privilege—and some may see the use of that word as an exaggeration—of eating Krystal hamburgers, you understand the reality of this prayer. I have rarely eaten at Krystal that I did not enjoy it going down and regretted a few hours later, though I would probably eat there frequently if I lived near one. Apparently, as I have gotten older, God is trying to safeguard my health by having me live in places that are two to three hours away from the nearest Krystal.

All that aside, there is something to be said for the prayer above. It recognizes the situation for what it is, speaks to God directly and with reverence. It is honest, especially about the intent of the one praying and the circumstances they are about to put themselves in. It also speaks with the familiarity of a close friend, a loved one, someone for whom this kind of language is appropriate. But let’s look a little deeper into this idea of prayer and see how we can not only engage in prayer, specifically the idea of fixed-hour prayers.

What is prayer?

Here is a comforting quote from Christopher Hall on prayer,

What a strange way God has designed and ordained for us to communicate and commune with him. I speak to God, yet I don’t see God. I’ve never heard God respond audibly to my prayers. On my worst days I wonder, is God really there? Is God listening? Can God make any sense of my babblings? Am I talking too much? Does the Lord wish I would just quiet down a bit? Isn’t prayer supposed to be a two-way conversation? If it is a dialogue, how do I know when God is speaking to me? How can I discern God’s voice and distinguish it from the lingering effects of last night’s pizza? And my goodness am I distracted. The moment I sit down to pray I feel as though 10,000 bumblebees are flying through the atmosphere of my brain. So much interference. So much static. Things I haven’t thought about in years suddenly bubbled to the surface of my consciousness. The to do list for today that I’ve been ignoring for hours suddenly becomes a high priority. What is one to do?

I say this is comforting because I know that I have felt that way and I have talked to others who felt that way as well. Prayer is not always an easy thing to nail down when it comes to practice or definition. Through the centuries—there have been various ideas and definitions of what prayer is or should be. Some of these things involve very technical terms like supplication or intercession. Some of these things are much simpler like gratitude or presence. The early church father, Clement of Alexandria, said prayer is a conversation, a definition that I use most often when describing prayer. It is a time to speak to God about the things that are on our minds and a time to listen to God in response.

You might wonder, “If God already knows what I’m going to say, why say it?” Clement and Augustine and others considered this question light of the idea of an all-knowing God. The answer: because love likes to be asked. God, like a loving parent, already knows what is in our hearts—our hurts, our desires, our thoughts on anything—and likes for us to share it with him. It does two things when we do. It strengthens our relationship and the bonds of love between ourselves and God and it acts—when we are honest—as a sort of self-confessional, a way to admit to ourselves as we admit to God what we are actually feeling. Prayer is in short, a way to be open and honest with God.

What do we mean by fixed hour prayer?

Fixed hour prayers are prayer times—four each day at morning, noon, evening, and night—that are made up of psalms, scriptures, and prayers, known also as an office. The idea of fixed hour prayer was born with our Jewish forebearers. It is rooted in the Psalms, specifically Psalm 119:164 which says, “I praise you seven times a day for your righteous rules.” While the Christian community has adopted a slightly different version of this, it is nonetheless, rooted in the practice of praying throughout the day. “For thousands of years, the daily office has been a primary way to hold ourselves in closer communion with the one who made us. It is a way to sanctify our days and our hours, our work and our love, our very life itself.”[1]

Fixed-hour prayer starts at the time that you wake up in the morning. You would simply take a few moments to begin your day with the office or prayer vigil—reading Psalms and scriptures and praying either ‘off the cuff’ or using written prayers that others have written. Some people shy away from the idea of written prayers as inauthentic or not personal enough. But consider this, every week, we pray together with millions of the faithful over the world, the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6:5-13, one of the oldest written prayers in Christendom and comfort to many in times of trouble and crisis.

After you pray first thing in the morning, you take time to pray again around noon. For most people, if they get up around 6:00am, this means praying at six in the morning, noon, six in the evening, and before bed. At first, this may look like a Herculean task and may seem like a chore. But like all things in life, it is a matter of perspective, not a have to, but a get to; not a chore to be done and checked off, but an ongoing conversation with a friend throughout the day.

Putting things into practice

When it comes to starting out with the process, I think a good way is to use a some of the tools that we already have. For instance, there is an order for the daily office in the UM Book of Worship and the website umcdiscipleship.org has a version of the daily office you can download and print. The Upper Room is a version of the hours, though most people only use it once it once a day. You can even put together your own version. Perhaps when you start your practice of praying the hours, pick a section from a Psalm, a section from the rest of scripture (maybe something you really like), a few of your favorite songs, and a few prayers that you are comfortable with either reading or memorizing. Some of my favorites to use are prayers I have used on our morning prayer time online from people like St. Francis, St. Augustine, the Book of Worship, the Book of Common Prayer, methodistprayer.org, and many others that people have found to be comforting, challenging, and Spirit filled. Alternate prayers and scriptures with songs and you have a basic order for a prayer time.

“When our churches are schools of practice, they make—and change—history. Otherwise, they simply write history and argue about it, and of course, in so doing they tend to repeat it.”[2] “The purpose of the ancient way and the ancient practices is not to make us more religious. It is to make us more alive.”[3] I plan on reading these quotes several times during this series as reminders of what we are hoping to accomplish with this series. When it comes to the practice of fixed-hour prayer, it is a matter of doing it until it becomes part of who we are. Praying several times daily is an act of illumination where God speaks through the Holy Spirit to reorient us to the Way of Jesus. This is a way of making recognizing the working of the Spirit in our lives in every moment of every day, not just on Sunday and not just at a gathering.

And it is a practice, you must do it day in, day out to get the benefit of it. It is in the doing that you find yourself drawn deeper and deeper into the presence of God until at last, you simply want nothing more than to get from one prayer time to another.

References

Benson, Robert. In Constant Prayer. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Hall, Christopher A. Worshiping with the Church Fathers. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2009.

McLaren, Brian. Finding Our Way Again. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008.


[1] (Benson 2008, 9)

[2] (McLaren 2008, 145)

[3] (McLaren 2008, 182)

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