by Katie Stringer
“How do I pray?”
Has anyone ever asked you that? Have you ever thought it yourself? I was asked it just recently by a new friend who’d been praying alone. Talking to God can feel like the most natural thing in the world, especially when life’s tough. But my friend wasn’t confident she was doing it ‘right’. “I’m talking to him all through the day - I say, “Help me, God, please help me!”” But she had her doubts, “I’m thinking there must be more to it than that.” The only thing I could think of at the time was to pray with her and for her. And to encourage her to keep coming to church and Bible study, to hear others pray. And then one quiet morning at group it was just me and her. And for the first time, I heard her pray. She began with the words, “Here goes!” And proceeded to pray a beautiful heartfelt prayer. Feeling buoyed by that achievement she felt confident to comment on my prayer: “Wow!” she said, “That was long and rambling! Is it ok to pray like that?” I burst out laughing and thought both, “Yes” and, “No”. “Yes”, because God is my heavenly Father and I can put all my concerns before him, and it’s ok if I bumble at times. And, “No”, because God is in heaven and I’m not. (Ecclesiastes 5:2) So I should keep my words short.
A book in season
Keller has plenty to say on this topic and it has been a book in season for me for a few reasons. Firstly, I can see how the teaching in it can and is helping my own prayer life. Secondly, I can see how I might respond to that question a little differently, or more fully now. Thirdly, I can see how my instincts were right. We need to ‘do prayer’ together if we are to do it well alone. After all, we pray to ‘our’ Father, not ‘my Father’. Fourthly, I can see things that were missing in my own prayer life, in particular repentance. And fifthly, I now have an excellent book on the why, how and hope of Christian prayer to offer my friend.
I should point out that this book isn’t a ‘how to pray’ for a new Christian though. This is mostly a book for someone who has been a Christian a while and needs fresh fuel - inspiration and ideas - to get their prayer life flourishing. That’s not to say that Keller doesn’t consider the new Christian or not yet Christian, he certainly does, but it’s not primarily aimed at them.
Keller begins his book by outlining the necessity of prayer (something which many of us - including my friend - feel instinctively) and goes on to provide his own story about how this became a burning issue for him through a cancer diagnosis. Even so it still takes his wife, Kathy, pleading with him that if they didn’t start praying together every night she didn’t think they were going to make it. “I’m certainly not,” she says. “[Because of all we’re facing] we have to pray, we can’t just let it slip our minds.” (p. 10) And that is surely the point. Most Christians know it’s a good idea to pray, to have a daily discipline of Bible reading and prayer. But we are chronically prone to let it slip our minds. When God throws up difficulties that makes us feel, like Kathy felt, that we are ‘not going to make it’ without daily dependence on God, what do we do with those feelings?
This is what Keller did:
“In the summer after I was treated successfully for thyroid cancer, I made four practical changes to my life of private devotion. First, I took several months to go through the Psalms, summarizing each one. That enabled me to begin praying through the Psalms regularly, getting through all of them several times a year. The second thing I did was always to put in a time of meditation as a transitional discipline between my Bible reading and my time of prayer. Third, I did all I could to pray morning and evening rather than only in the morning. Fourth, I began praying with greater expectation.” (p.17)
And he didn’t miss a night of praying with his wife. That was twelve years ago. The rest of the book is an exploration of what he learned along the way.
In search of a deeper prayer life
Encapsulated in the title is the essence of what this book is all about: experiencing awe and intimacy. Keller is keen to show that an active and strong prayer life that is Biblically grounded will be peppered with times of rich experience when we get to see glimpses of God in his glory. Keller thinks we could be doing a better job of ‘quiet times’- if we do them at all - by making them more holistic to the day, by having more than one set time for prayer, and by devoting time to meditation as part of our private devotion. To achieve this Keller advocates a return to old paths.
Treading Old Paths
Keller’s great gift, as always, is his amazing ability to distill large amounts of information and research into readable and digestible chunks for the modern reader. Keller purposely eschews modern books on prayer to search the old paths. In particular he mines for spiritual insight from preachers of the Reformation. He takes us back to Augustine, Luther and Calvin and spends time carefully laying out their teaching on prayer and reminding us of their great Biblical wisdom on the matter.
At this point it is worth saying that it can be difficult for the modern reader to get their hands on the writings of these Christian forefathers as many of them are locked up inside weighty tomes such as Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, and unlikely to be on all but the theological college student’s shelf. Hard copy excerpts can be difficult to come by and many are out of print, though plenty is freely available on the internet, how much of which is read is anyone’s guess.
Why we need this book
Keller is strongly of the opinion that we need to be standing on the teaching of our forefathers. Praying the prayers of great Christians, the benefit of whose ministry we still enjoy today! Indeed to have those roll off our lips and realign our hearts would do us much good for their thinking on the matter was immensely Biblical and informs much of the doxology still used in many traditional and modern church services today. Knowing our history, how these men prayed, helps us pray well today. It is part of our inheritance and Keller is engaged in worthy service bringing these men to our attention today.
Christian thinking doesn’t occur within a vacuum. The thoughts of the day are actively shaped by writers, (of books, blogs, songs) we need Keller and people like him to be writing about prayer because in the age of the instant and the soundbite (facebook, instagram, twitter) prayer and Biblical meditation run the risk of becoming a lost art. But it is our lifeline to God. As Keller writes, “Prayer is our eternal treasure.” We have to rediscover not just is importance but its absolute necessity for living a vital Christian life.
Next week we will look at Keller’s thoughts on Christian meditation.
About our contributor: Katie is married to Andrew and they have three lovely children. Together, they serve at their local Anglican church in Sydney’s inner west, a short walking distance from their house. Katie is an occasional writer, singer and baker. Looking after the kids full time is by far the best job she has ever had.