by Scott Sutton
“Scott, would you close us in prayer?”
I still remember the first time I was asked that question. I was about 16. An atheist. Invited by a really cute girl to join her church group on a week-long hike through the New Mexican wilderness. But going required several weeks of attending prep meetings with the whole trek team. I didn’t want their Jesus. I didn’t want their prayers. I just wanted an excuse to be with the girl and hike.
At the first prep meeting, I discovered that I was the lone “outsider” of the team; though, to their credit they never made me feel like an outsider for a moment. They didn’t know my background, so they assumed that because I was at a church event I must know what to do when someone says asks the customary, “Would you close us in prayer?”
But I didn’t.
They asked. They bowed their heads. I froze. Silence. For thirty seconds. In the scheme of the history of the universe, thirty seconds is nothing. In a group prayer, thirty seconds may as well be eternity. Try it. I dare you. After five seconds of silence, people think, ‘whoa, we’re in for a really emotional prayer!’; ten seconds, people start to get uncomfortable; thirty seconds, the train has clearly gone off the tracks with no hope for recovery. That was me.
Someone bailed me out. I lived to tell the tale, even to be able to laugh about it. The trip was awesome. Nothing came of the girl…which was for the best, really (I mean, have you met my wife?!)
But a little over a year later when I did end up falling madly in love with Jesus, prayer was something I realized I needed to learn, a discipline I needed to build.
Ultimately, prayer is an act of two-way listening – us listening to God and God listening to us. We should always approach prayer that way. This may sound a little lofty, so I’ll focus on three practical areas where we can intentionally approach God in this way.
1) Words. This is what tripped me up when I was asked to close that group in prayer. I didn’t have words. I didn’t know what words to even say in a prayer. I had only heard two prayers before in my life: the Lord’s Prayer (of which I only knew a couple of lines which I didn’t even understand) and a rote grace that was occasionally recited over our family dinner table which I raced through so I could get to the business of eating. Outside of those two, I had no context for what one was to say during a prayer. Maybe you are past this point. But if anyone reading this is where I was not so long ago, let me relieve you of the burden of words. Just talk. You are talking to the God who created the universe and holds it together, so there is nothing you can say that is too big, too heavy, too shocking. You are also talking to the God who loves you more deeply than anyone else is capable of loving you, so there is nothing you can say that is too trivial, too intense, too raw. There’s no formula. No checklist. No faux pas. Prayer reveals our heart to God and draws us closer to him…use whichever words come to you that lead to that end.
2) Posture. The customary thing people do when they pray is bow their heads and close their eyes. Why? I think the general idea is that closing our eyes blocks out distractions and bowing our heads is a physical act of reverence toward the one to whom we are praying. The idea is that altering our physical posture can also have the affect of orienting our state of mind when we pray. What is your state of mind when you are praying on your knees? Lying flat on the ground? Jumping with joy? Walking around an area over which you are praying? In the darkness? On a literal mountaintop? The point isn’t that we should overthink or “fake” the state of our heart by assuming a “reverent” posture; the point is that our posture can help us proclaim what is on our heart or focus us so we are more in tune to hear what is on God’s.
3) Timing. Today, this is probably the thing I struggle with most. Paul talks about praying continually. Praying in all situations. It becomes a part of us that is more similar to breathing than it is to having conversations. If it helps to block off specific times of the day to pray as you build (or rebuild) this discipline, do that. No shame at all in that. But strive to build toward a heart and mind that are constantly listening to God and constantly expecting that God is listening to you.