When I was seven years old, my parents bought me my first bicycle. It was glorious—a yellow and red bike with a banana seat and tassels coming off of the handlebars. The best part about it was the big Spiderman shield attached right on the front of the handlebars. It was a Spidey bike! And I loved it the minute I set eyes on it.
The problem with a present like your first bicycle is that to really enjoy it, you have to learn how to ride it. And that took awhile. I used to get my dad to go outside into the driveway with me after he got home from work. I would get on and start peddling, and he’d hold the metal ring at the back of that banana seat, walking along behind me and keeping me upright.
It took awhile before he could let go of the back of my bike without me toppling over. And it took even longer before I could hop up on the bike and start peddling down the driveway without a second thought about my balance. But eventually that’s what happens with riding a bicycle: you get to the point that you can ride it without thinking about what you are actually doing. Balance, peddling, and steering all just get integrated into your experience to the point where it becomes second nature.
Prayer is not terribly different from learning to ride a bicycle. It can seem difficult at first, even unnatural. It can certainly help to have someone more experienced offer a guiding hand. Of course, it requires practice. But over time, it becomes more and more familiar until doing it becomes second nature to daily life. It will help us now to look at what “second-nature” prayer looks like, as well as some of the ways we can think about adopting prayer into our daily discipleship.
One of my favorite descriptions of prayer comes from the early church father Clement of Alexandria, who said, “Prayer, to speak somewhat boldly, is converse with God. Even if we address Him in a whisper, without opening our lips, or uttering a sound, still we cry to Him in our heart. For God never ceases to listen to the inward converse of the heart.” I think this description fits with my own experience with prayer, which is that sometimes I don’t feel like I have the right words to speak to God to describe the deep longings of my heart. In fact, it is often at the times I feel the need to be closest to God that I have the trouble finding the language to pray.
In Romans, Paul said, “We do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). In this way, God searches our hearts and hears our longings even when we don’t know how to speak them aloud. I find great assurance in this point of view, because it tells me that God is often closest to me when I am in the midst of my greatest struggles.
Clearly, we need to practice how we pray. If we want to become a people of prayer, then we need to engage in prayer both daily and in a variety of ways. Wesley believed in both written prayers and prayers of the heart. He thought it was essential for Christians to pray together in worship, but he also believed strongly in the value of personal prayer time. He also valued what he called “family prayer.” He counseled people to pray “every morning and evening,” by which he meant upon rising in the morning and before going to sleep at night. (Large Minutes) He encouraged them to pray to God in such a way that they “lift up thy heart to him, to pour out thy soul before him.” (“Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, VI,”) In other words, he believed that the true Christian life was a life of prayer. The Wesleyan approach to prayer should lead us to think about a number of possibilities for the practice of prayer in our own discipleship. Let me offer three:
1. We should approach the kind of prayer we do in worship services seriously. When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we should remember that this is the prayer Jesus has taught us to pray. When we confess our sins before God with the rest of our congregation, we should focus on the words we say, recognizing that there is great value in lifting up our confessions together as the body of Christ. And when our pastors offer prayers for us, we should pay attention to what is actually being prayed, remembering that this is a collective prayer that we are all offering up together.
2. We should make private prayer a daily habit. Wesley’s advice about praying upon waking in the morning and praying before going to bed at night is helpful. Such times of the day are excellent points to remember with thankfulness all that God has given us. Praying in the morning prepares us for the day and helps us to adopt “the same mind that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5 NRSV). Praying at night is a way to recollect the day we have just spent, examining ourselves and offering up our adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication to God.
3. We should make a concerted attempt to engage in family prayer, both at mealtimes and at a set-aside time with our spouses and children. In my experience, this is one of the most neglected opportunities for prayer that is before us. It is too easy to allow a mealtime blessing to become a perfunctory prayer, when in fact it is a time for the family to offer its earnest thanksgivings to God. Children also should be taught the practice and discipline of prayer, and their parents are by far the best people to do that. A time for family prayer in the evening should be a staple of any family’s devotion. It is something that can become a building block for faith in the young.
One of the types of prayer that I was introduced to some years ago is called a “breath prayer.” It is a kind of prayer that I pray often now, and it has helped me to pray much more regularly in general. In a breath prayer, a simple prayer of only one or two sentences can be said over and over until it becomes a rhythm. One breath prayer that I pray when I am in the shower, driving to work, exercising, or mowing the yard, goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” I’ve found that this prayer draws me to Christ and helps me to internalize the practice of prayer in a wonderful way.
Wesley once said, “In souls filled with love, the desire to please God is a continual prayer.” (A Plain Account of Christian Perfection) This should be our aim in practicing prayer as a means of grace—that our entire being would become a prayer offered up to God. By embracing prayer in this way, we can come to know the kind of spiritual life that Wesley talks about. We can come to know the presence of the Holy Spirit as close as our own breath.
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