Several years ago a friend of mine spent some time with author and speaker Richard Foster. In a car ride to the airport, my friend asked Foster why his own prayer life was not near as full, as rich, or as exciting as the prayer life Foster described in his book on prayer. Foster’s response was something like this: “How long have you been a believer? Because I have been a believer for more than 50 years, and I have had some time to work on these things. When you have been a believer that long, it will make more sense.”
Richard Foster’s response here has made me think about the word ‘practice’. You know the adage, “Practice makes perfect”. Why do we think this should only apply to things like free throws, playing a musical instrument or on the job skills? Why do we not think about practice being an essential part of our spiritual lives? Could it be this practice over time is to what Foster may be referring?
Prayer can be a difficult process to understand when thinking about a God who loves unconditionally, gives freely, and hands out grace in ways that are incomprehensible. Why would there be any need for me to practice anything when it comes to my walk with Christ? After all, he is going to meet me where I am. He is going to work in and through me, even when I fail. That’s the nature of who he is. So, how does prayer as a practice make sense?
The trendy term, spiritual formation, lends itself to the idea that there can be a “becoming” process to our spiritual lives. Not that we could do anything to earn the love or favor of God, but that there might be things we could practice to widen the bridge that exists between our hearts and the heart of God. Spiritual formation is a term given to those collective elements that help us to widen that bridge. Some of these elements include prayer, Bible study, silence, service, worship and giving. Anything that can be used to “practice” the experience of the presence of God can fall under this umbrella.
So, when we think about prayer in these terms, maybe Foster’s response makes more sense. Just like in anything else, if we are new to something, or have not had or not taken the time to practice, we may not be as effective as someone who has. Someone who has spent numerous, careful moments in prayer, and in the study of prayer will naturally have a better and more effective prayer life than someone who has not. That bridge is wider for the one who has practiced.
In my own journey, I have experienced times and places when it seems that my prayer life has been a wide open avenue to the very heart of God, and times when it seems to have been very closed off and dry. As I look back, I can point to my prayer life during a given moment in time as an indicator of how God responded. One time in particular that I think of was a time of uncertainty during one of my wife’s pregnancies. We had been told that during a routine baby check up that there could be a problem with the baby. As you can imagine, we spent a lot of time praying and asking others to pray. I cannot entirely attribute the fact that our son turned out fine to our prayer life, but I can say that during that time, our prayer life was rich and full and meaningful. As we came to terms with the possibilities, God began to show us his presence in surprising and life-giving ways. He showed us wonderful things about community, his provision, and his unwavering ability to use fallen broken people like us to bring about his purposes. The bridge was wide during those days.
Unfortunately, I have many stories when the bridge was not so wide. These are times when marriage was particularly difficult, or when I allowed problems with kids or job or ministry difficulties to crowd out a rich prayer life. The difficulty only seemed to be compounded by my lack of time spent in prayer.
In Matthew’s account of the Lord’s Prayer (in Matthew chapter 6), Jesus taught his disciples by giving them an example of how they should pray. As a part of that prayer, Jesus said, “Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Now, I have never been to heaven, but I can imagine that it is pretty great. Walking and talking God. The whole bit about every tear being wiped away (Revelation 21:4). The worship. The glory of God being revealed. Yeah, I think I can get into all of that. What if there were ways for us to be a part of God doing just what He says can happen in this prayer? All of that coming to the here and now. All the glory, beauty and wonder of all of who God is being experienced in the here and now.
I believe prayer is one way for us to experience God and I believe, in some mysterious way, He responds as we open ourselves up and practice prayer. Foster seemed to have some ideas about this. He seemed to think it has something to do with practice.
Pat Byers lives in Wabash, Indiana, and attends Wabash Friends Church where he serves as the part-time Worship Pastor. He also works for Western Yearly Meeting as the part-time Director of Christian Education. He enjoys having the opportunity to play his guitar and hang out with some wonderful young people. He and his wife Sara have four children: Chaney (age 12), Simon (9), Isaac (6) and Ezekiel (2).