The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America


What is prayer?

Prayer is living in God's presence, not an activity done a certain way at a set time. It's opening the soul to God, keeping the door ajar for God to enter.

Prayer is the song we sing as we hike. It's turning to Jesus as we toss in the night. It's letting a hymn play in our minds until it fills the heart.

Because prayer is communion with God, it centers on the word. We pray best when we read and study the Bible daily — not to understand ancient history but to see God's presence among his people.

Prayer is personal because it opens our whole being to the divine. But it doesn't cut us off from others. It moves toward others. Family, friends and associates, yes, but also people unknown to us. Prayers rise at TV reports of great catastrophes, or when our leaders are embroiled in conflict, or when we hear of human suffering. When I feel cut off from the world, I say brief prayers for strangers passing by on the street. Prayer makes all of the world's people my brothers and sisters.

Martin Luther once said that when he didn't feel like praying, he stopped at the nearest church, recited the catechism and prayed psalms. He forced his attention away from himself and on to God. It's good to just page through a hymnal and sing the hymns that touch our souls. Soon we're back in touch with God.

Prayer practices vary from person to person and from one stage of life to another. It helps to keep specific times for prayer, like the morning "quiet time" or prayer at meals. Holding hands with the family bonds us together. You can even do it in restaurants — it extends the hand of faith to others. Just now in my family we are reading about the "saint for the day." It helps us outgrow denominational bias and being imprisoned by our age. And, of course, bedtime prayers (reviewing the day's activities, praising God for blessings, cleansing the soul with forgiveness) lead to wholesome sleep. I find it's helpful to pray out loud and not imprison my prayers in the ether of the mind.

Above all, prayer is listening for God's voice. No prayer practice will satisfy the soul if it's not attuned to the divine voice. That voice may come from the outside, like a stranger's, forcing its way through our preoccupation with self. It may seem like a conversation in our head. The easiest way to pray is simply to address your thoughts to God, saying, "God, you know that ...." Sometimes the answer comes in feelings of uneasiness with ourselves, making us rethink our plans. Or in the words of the Bible. Or through another person. Don't limit God's voice. Let God speak as he wills. Or perhaps you prefer the pronoun she. We can't force God into human preconceptions of gender, time or place. God is beyond comprehension.

So prayer is more a direction than an activity — the "upward call of God in Christ Jesus." It's taking the lid off our lives so they're accessible to God, "lifting up our hearts unto the Lord," opening ourselves to another dimension, the divine dimension, unseen, but closer than our very breath. It's making God our best friend, our true lover, our one preoccupation. 


Ronald Marshall

Ronald Marshall

Posted at 4:31 pm (U.S. Eastern) 11/26/2013

I would like to add to Pastor Schroeder's article another line from Luther about prayer: "[Prayer] is a constant violent action of the spirit as it is lifted up to God, as ship is driven upward against the power of the storm" (Luther's Works 25:460). So if prayer is like this, what are we fighting against when we pray? In one of Luther's sermons he says that "we are our own greatest enemies" (Sermons of Martin Luther, ed. Lenker, 4:344). If that's so, then when we pray we fight against the agreeable life we're trying to wrestle away from God to make our days easier. No wonder, then, that the disciples didn't know how to pray (Luke 11:1) --- or just plan couldn't (Romans 8:26)!


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