“Life of Nichiren: A Vision of Prayer on the Waves” by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, ca. 1835. Nichiren was a 13th century Buddhist priest and iconoclast. In this image, Nichiren has a vision of a prayer that would serve as a cornerstone of his group’s devotion. The prayer begins, “Praise to the Sutra of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma.” Public Domain.
"The Prayer" By Rudyard Kipling
My brother kneels, so saith Kabir, To stone and brass in heathen wise, But in my brother’s voice I hear My own unanswered agonies. His God is as his fate assigns, His prayer is all the world’s, and mine. --- “Prayer is a small fire lit to keep cold hands warm. Prayer is a practice that flourishes both with faith and doubt. Prayer is asking, and prayer is sitting. By Pádraig Ó Tuama, In the Shelter
Anthropologists believe that the earliest intelligent modern humans practiced some form of prayer dating back at least 20,000 years. Archaeologists have found written prayers dating back at least five thousand years. Throughout the millennia and present in nearly all religions today, the ritual of prayer is practiced in some form. Depending on one's religious tradition, prayers can be addressed to a deity, ancestors, spirits, lofty ideas, or powerful people.
The Bible contains many prayers. It also has a lot to say about prayer. In the first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul exhorts the faith community to “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.”
In Abrahamic faith traditions (Christianity, Islam, and Judaism), there are different types of prayers:
Petitionary prayers ask God to do something.
Prayers of supplication asking God for something.
Prayers of thanksgiving thanking God for something some benefit bestowed.
Prayers of praise and adoration praise God for being God.
Prayers of Confession acknowledge sin or injustices in our world and ask for forgiveness.
Prayers of invocation invite God’s presence into a situation or life.
Most of the time, when we pray individually or in community, several of these types of prayers are woven together.
In the last few weeks, some have asked by about praying during the pandemic. Specifically, they’ve asked, “How do we pray during the pandemic?” It’s not lost on me that the disciples asked Jesus how to pray as well. His response was what we today call the Lord’s Prayer.
Perhaps the question of “how” is a symptom of how many of us think about prayer. Depending on the faith tradition of your upbringing, prayer could be very ritualized or very personal, so confusion abounds. Maybe we believe prayer is done by the very spiritual, and well trained. Perhaps we think that prayer is wasting the time we should be using to act. Maybe we read “pray without ceasing” or sing “sweet hour of prayer” and think we don’t have time for this form of spiritual devotion.
A 2014 Psychology Today (linked here) focused on five scientifically supported health benefits of prayer.
Prayer improves our self-control.
Prayer makes us kinder human beings.
Prayer makes us more forgiving.
Prayer increases our trust.
Prayer offsets the adverse health effects of stress.
These are a few reasons why we pray, but we are still left with the question of “how?” There are many ways to pray. We can follow a prayer book or use our stream of consciousness prefaced with something like “Dear God” and ending in “Amen.” Here one way, the way I often write prayers for congregational worship and think through my private prayers:
Adore. Start by saying something good about God. Many prayers in our Scriptures begin in adoration and words of gratitude. Describe some way God is active and present in your life or the world.
Confess. Mostly, my confessions right now are about being a grump with my family during all of this togetherness. I sometimes confess a social injustice here as well. The pandemic affects people very differently, and we do well to remember that folks on the margins are affected the most and that we (human beings) have created those margins.
Petition, Supplicate, and Invoke. Ask for God’s blessings, actions, and presence in this world. I usually work from big to small, praying for world needs, then going down the line to church, nation, community, family, and friends, and my individual needs and desires.
Be Silent. Make some space where your mind can slow down and wander a little.
Wrap it up. Prayers do not need to be lengthy. Even if you pray several times a day, saying “Amen” provides closure to a time that could be difficult.
May God bless you and keep you safe and healthy during this time. And may you find time for prayer.