Prayer is an effort of the will.
-Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest
Prayers are not tools for doing or getting, but for being and becoming.
-Eugene Peterson, Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer
Tool: anything used as a means of accomplishing a task or purpose (dictionary.com)
The thing about a tool is, you have to pick it up and use it. It does you no good laying on the table.
I spent 2017 entirely in the Psalms, studying/reflecting on them for my daily quiet times, listening for sermons/talks about them, and reading books related to them. (Here’s a summary of what I shared.) I expected the year to be about praise, but it quickly became more about prayer than anything else. The Psalms, more than any other book in the Bible, talk to God as much or more than they talk about God.
I didn’t finish the books I’d planned to read last year, but I try not to let deadlines stop me from completing things on my list. (Anyone else?) So recently, I picked up Peterson’s Answering God and returned to reflecting on the Psalms.
I wish I had read this book first, like in January of 2017. Then I could have used it throughout the year as my guidebook, so to speak, for prayer. Also, Peterson has an incredible way with words—a poet’s heart. I read the whole book (not so big, actually) with a pencil in hand.
Peterson repeatedly returns to the everyday-ness of prayer. Maybe, like me, you don’t think much about praying as you go about your everyday tasks. If so, these words will challenge you.
“Prayer is not a second language; it is the language at the core of what we already are and are becoming.” (pg. 40)
Prayer requires no special language, but it’s deeply personal. Sometimes, I think we try to put too much language on it, to explain everything or make the ugly parts more palpable. There’s a rawness to the Psalms that show us we don’t need any “dressing up.”
“We are not launched into the life of prayer by making ourselves more heavenly, but by immersing ourselves in the earthy.” (pg. 27)
“Biblical religion cannot be lived apart from matter—the seen, felt, tasted, smelled, and listened to creation. … Creation is our place for meeting God and conversing with him. … We take box seats in this creation theater when we pray.” (pg. 71)
Prayer takes place on earth, in the ordinary rituals and observations of life. For example, in observing a tree, we find something God’s glory in it, perhaps through its beauty or perhaps as an example/analogy of something else (e.g. Psalm 1). Jesus did this:
“The moment Jesus picked up something it was clear that it was not alien but belonging, a piece of God’s creation that was a means for meeting God. Jugs of water at Cana, the sound of the wind in Jerusalem, Galilean sea waves, a paralytic’s pallet at the Bethzathan pool, the corpse of Lazarus. Things.” (pg. 78)
Jesus Himself was part of earth.
“The Word did not become a good idea, or a numinous feeling, or a moral aspiration: the Word became flesh and went on to change water into wine, and then wine into blood.” (pg. 72 – He’s talking about John 1:14.)
David wrote many of the psalms in response to what was happening in his life.
“David was a lay person. … His entire life was lived in the sacred ordinary that we are apt, mistakenly, to call the secular.” (pg. 50)
I love that phrase, “sacred ordinary.” David didn’t wait until he got to church (if there had been church) or until bedtime as he knelt by the bed. His prayers sprung out of his experiences, often as they were happening. Our prayer can be the same.
This kind of praying doesn’t often happen with our heads bowed and our eyes closed (a cultural constraint anyway). It’s kataphatic prayer (pg. 79 – I just learned this word). It’s about looking around us—feeling the breeze, watching the sun through the leaves, crying out in heart pain—and praying based on what we are experiencing. It’s prayer-walking, if you’re familiar with that term, through all of life.
“When we pray we do not rise above the commonplaces of the material, but embrace them, and in embracing them find intimacy with the one who made them. Materiality is affirmed as precious.” (pg. 76)
One more thing—a little prayer practice, if you’re up for it.
“We cannot breathe out what we have not first breathed in. The breath that God breathes into us in daily pentecosts, is breathed out in our prayers.” (pg. 60)
There’s a simple meditation (not original with me) I’ve done from time to time. It’s based on our breathing pattern. As I exhale, I confess—maybe sin but more often something about my need for God, my inadequacy, my status before Him. Then, as I inhale, I ask the Holy Spirit to abide in me. Exhale what I want less of in my life, inhale what I want more of in my life. Trying doing this three times before you pick up your phone at a traffic light.
There’s much more to Peterson’s book, and I’m not trying to write a book review here. I’m just sharing some of what I learned. Prayer is a tool for us, and the Psalms show us how to use this tool, how to move our prayer life out of our prayer “closet” into everyday life.
“We are not launched into the life of prayer by making ourselves more heavenly, but by immersing ourselves in the earthy.” -Eugene Peterson. My #prayerlife is #NotAboutMe via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)
Which quote strikes you most deeply here? What are your thoughts on praying throughout the day, on learning to turn everything into prayer? I’d love to have your input in the comments below!