The other day I shared on Facebook this post from Samantha Field about her reflections on how prayer operates in her life. It’s a good read that opens up some significant questions about the topic at hand. She starts off by listing out the three most commonly cited aspects of prayer’s function in Christian practice:
I was taught that prayer is a combination of a) something we’re supposed to do for God just because, b) a conversation where two people get to know one another, and c) the means we have for asking our deity for things.
This is stuff that totally resonates with me from my evangelical days. After I converted, a massive part of my spiritual education was built around developing good “quiet time” habits which were split between reading the Bible and praying to God. I was supposed to do this stuff because it was how I got to know God better; the fact that prayer always felt like a one-sided conversation where I had to be the person keeping it up (I am very poorly practiced in sustaining conversations that don’t revolve around a topic in which I take an interest) didn’t especially help my enthusiasm for the activity. Of course, this sort of reluctance was expected from a baby Christian, and my pastor at the time had a saying about it that went something like, “It starts as a duty, turns into a devotion, and eventually becomes a delight.”
He was really thrilled with the whole alliteration thing.
In the whole six years that I was really serious about the evangelical thing, I don’t think I ever got past the “duty” phase with prayer. There was this expectation that when you prayed to God you had to follow a particular format: acknowledgement and glorification of God, thanksgiving, intercession (that’s a fancy word for praying on behalf of other people), and only at the end putting forth any of your own requests. Somehow I internalized from this that prayer as a method of asking God to do things for you was something of a last resort; God’s will was always meant to be the top priority, and since the aim of Christianity as I understood it at the time was to better submit oneself to God’s will, that meant that asking for things was kind of a frivolous exercise at the best of times and downright ungrateful at the worst.
As a side note, I recall this need to constantly express gratitude as a major source of emotional turmoil, because sometimes things just weren’t that great. The constant reinforcement of the idea that people are worthy of eternal punishment just for existing didn’t help matters much either.
So in my experience with prayer I was hesitant make requests, and I didn’t really get the whole “get to know God better” thing because that seemed like a task that was better served through just reading the Bible (keep in mind that this was during a time with my Biblical hermeneutic was still, “what it says on the page is what it means; don’t think too hard about translation and transmission of the text”). I latched on to the idea that prayer was something you could do reflexively while you were reading; God knew all your thoughts anyway, so why not just approach time reading Scripture and reflecting on it as your prayer and be done with the mess?
In my transition out of evangelicalism one of the first casualties (if you want to call it that) was my quiet time habit. Shifting hermeneutics made reading the Bible on a daily basis a challenging prospect (and after my recent attempt at reviving the practice for Lent, I realize it’s just not something that I prioritize), and the discarding of inerrancy only sealed the deal. I lost the one thing that I had been able to hold on to as a way of performing prayer, and I’ve been sort of adrift with the practice ever since.
Field talks extensively about her own practice of prayer in her post-fundamentalist life, and what I find so resonant about it is her emphasis that prayer is most effective in a communal setting. Here’s how she describes what her small group does:
For 15-30 minutes every week, everyone gets to share what’s on their mind and heart with a group of people whose only job is to listen. It’s not a problem solving session, and while common experiences and advice might get shared that’s often absent or not the point. The entire point is that a person gets to share what they care about, or what troubles them without interruption– and they’re doing it in the context of the belief that this moment of vulnerability is sacred. Each week, I’m asking them to care about what I care about, and the response is always unanimous: yes, we care. Yes, we will listen for as long as you need. Yes, we will bring this to God. You’re important, you matter, and not just in a metaphorical sense. We will purposely set aside time and space to listen to your heart.
It’s an expression of prayer as relationship not just between the person and God, but among the community of believers. I find it most remarkable that Field has found a group of people where group prayer doesn’t operate as a way of spreading church gossip (if you’ve ever been in a group that did prayer requests, you’ve probably observed this sort of behavior). She acknowledges that that’s a rare quality to find, and it only works in this setting because everyone trusts one another enough to not talk about personal things outside the group without express permission and to not use sensitive information against people later (I’ve seen both of those violations happen to people I care about, and it’s a huge thing to establish that kind of trust with your group).
For myself, I don’t know that I’ll ever find a place for prayer in any form within the rhythm of my life. I find that faith is something best practiced in community, and absent a faith community that I trust it will probably continue to be a less prominent part of my life. That’s not a suggestion that my identity as a Christian is gone; it’s just not something that receives the same metacognitive attention it did when I was in evangelicalism.