Prayer is for life, not just for meetings
Pray without Ceasing
It is illegal in Britain to use a mobile phone while driving a car because the attention it requires to hold a phone conversation is significant-enough attention lost from the road and traffic. As Christians, we can give this our wholehearted support. Our duty of care for our neighbour by which we honour God, requires us to give full and proper attention to the task in hand.
The Apostle Paul exhorted his readers to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5.17) in the fullness of time these words inspired monasticism as a means to attempt to do literally what it said as closely as humanly possible by having frequent times for prayer together and alone. Of course that still doesn’t fulfil the literal sense. And if we understand ‘prayer’ to mean something that involves giving a big chunk of attention to God, then the duty of care mentioned in the first paragraph comes into conflict with it. To attempt to pray ceaselessly in a ‘giving God full attention’ way is doomed to failure by the logic of needing to give that attention to other things in order to live and interact with others safely and with generosity of heart.
So what are we to do? Well the first thing is to ask ourselves whether there is a way of understanding the command to pray ceaselessly in a way that doesn’t conflict with loving our neighbour. Paul may have meant his readers to pray as much as they could, whenever they could. However that would be to read a meaning into the text based, perhaps on a sense of realism faced with an understanding of prayer that involves giving God full and exclusive attention. We don’t have to be bound by that interpretation. I’m going to suggest a deeper fulfilment of the exhortation. One that makes contact with Paul’s command to his Roman readers to offer their bodies as living sacrifices to God (Romans 12.1-2). Perhaps Paul was suggesting making life into prayer rather than making prayer into a life which seems to have been the way that the monastic movement took it, in effect. Praying without ceasing could be a bit more do-able if we take it to mean that we do everything for God and from God. This would mean learning to do whatever we do as an act of worship or intercession or confession that is doing ‘whatever’ for God. It would also mean learning to do things because we believe that they are what God wants us to do, either because they are the subject of commandments or exhortations in scripture, or because we have a sense of calling to them.
This is, a bit like full-attention praying should really be. Our praying, at its best, seeks to hear God or to ‘find God’s heart’ either in terms of general revelation or of more specific leading and to respond. Praying ceaselessly, on this understanding, involves applying the principle of responsiveness-to-God in the whole of life and not just prayer times.
Rules as Prayer
One way to build a God-responsiveness into our lives is to develop a ‘rule of life’. The term comes from monastic orders and has found its way into wider usage by way of orders who have members in secular employment and who do not take vows of celibacy, but rather commit themselves to chastity. As part of the connection with the in-monastery order, the everyday-life members would develop a set of rules and guidelines for their lives that were either the same as or derived from the same principles as the main in-monastery part of the order. A rule of life will typically cover things like participation in church life, devotional practice, and wider concerns reflecting the ethos of the communities.
A rule of life is an aid to self discipline and a means to shape various parts of our life and lifestyle so that we live in a manner more in keeping with our Christian faith and we make sure that things that enable, encourage or resource our spiritual growth are a regular part of how we live. A rule of life is a means for making sure that decisions we take before God are given practical and concrete expression A rule of life, if undertaken rightly, is a means for converting living into praying. We might even think of it as the basis for lifestyle prayer.
Many rules for life start out as a kind of checklist for different facets of our lives, including various categories of spiritual practice. The best are fairly whole-life orientated. Many traditional ‘dispersed’ orders such as Franciscan Tertiaries, the Community of Aidan and Hilda and so on encourage their members to work out a rule of life as part of the joining process. Someone interested in joining would usually have a spiritual director or soul friend to help them to do this and a checklist of areas that the order or community consider important to address in a rule of life.
So, for example, the Community of Aidan and Hilda asks people to consider the following areas as they discuss their rule of life (CAH use the term ‘Way of life’ as they consider that ‘rule’ is an off-putting word nowadays). It’s a good, comprehensive, list and so can stand as an example of good practice in way-making.
- Life-long learning
- Spiritual journey
- Rhythm of prayer, work and re-creation
- Simplicity of Life
- Initiatives in Intercession
- Care for Creation
- Healing fragmented people and communities
- Openness to God’s Spirit
Here are some examples of how the areas might be fleshed out. under the heading ‘life-long learning’, a community member might have committed themselves to joining a local college course each year and to a programme of reading on particular topics. Under ‘rhythm of prayer’ they might have agreed with their soul-friend to go through a prayer office each day on the train to work and to keep Saturday strictly as a day off. Under ‘care for creation’ they might have agreed to make sure they compost their kitchen waste, fit low power light bulbs and put timers on their TV plugs so that even if on stand-by they are turned off while people are asleep. And so on
Danger, Will Robinson!
We should also be wary of the danger of having rules, particularly if they are shared. It is all too easy for us to find that over time the devices, systems and good ideas we put in place to help us to serve God and neighbour, can become ends in themselves so that we serve them rather than having them serve our purposes and welfare under God. Subtly and slowly the rule that we make to keep us from an occasion of sin becomes absolute and somehow divorced from its original purpose and also becomes a marker of the kind of proper and serious attitude that a congregation or denomination wants to make normal. From there is is an easy slide into judging people for not committing themselves to that rule and to judging outsiders as somehow beyond redemption or close to being beyond it.
Rules or ways of life must be held provisionally, reviewed often and revised as needed. They must not become an occasion for judging others and they must not become a means of attempted self-righteousness. It is important as part of any rule to build in revision time and some means of accountability to another Christian who has a degree of wisdom and compassion about such things. For many people this is a major area of their discussions with a spiritual director, soul friend or spiritual-life coach.
Your Rule come, your rule be done …
While we are talking prayer and rules all in the same paragraph, I want to set a challenge one step beyond. In my book “Praying the Pattern“, I argue that there is something not right about having mnemonics for prayer like ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication) and daily prayer liturgies that ignore the Lord’s prayer or relegate it to a mere recitation. Most responsible exegeses of the Matthew passage (which is the basis for the recitation versions of the Lord’s prayer that most of us know), tell us that the ‘Our Father’ is a framework for prayer not a form of words to be parroted. The book develops this by offering a number of ways we could be creative and practical about making the Lord’s prayer a mainstay of our praying.
What is true of our full-attention praying is surely worth thinking about applying to our lifestyle praying. Therefore, the next proposal is that we consider using the Lord’s prayer as the jumping-off point for drawing up our rule of life. Here are the edited highlights of how that might go.
Our Father in heaven.
The ‘our’ reminds us that none of us is a Christian alone; we are part of the body of Christ; we have been given gifts, some of which are meant for the building up of the body of Christ. ‘Our’ is uttered in a prayer context and so implies that making sure that we make proper opportunities to pray with other is supposed to be part of our rule of life.
In short; ‘Our’ implies that we are intentional about praying with others and developing a quality of relationship that fosters the sharing of gifts in the body of Christ. Our rule or way of life should reflect corporateness and tell us as a general rule how often and in what ways we will aim to meet with other Christians.
‘Father’ speaks of intimacy and so invites us to consider how we live in the light of developing intimacy with God. This is a call which involves us in spending quality time with God; time when we are not doing anything else, just developing our relationship with God. ‘Father’ is also about our being loved by God and hence finding our security and a sure basis for our identity in that being loved. A lifestyle or way of life based on being loved by God is likely to be one marked increasingly by simplicity and disregard to for status or wealth removing status symbols particularly in areas which seem to be rivalling attachment to God, which are becoming idols, siphoning off devotion to God.
The phrase ‘in heaven’ recalls us to forming our life towards heaven in the sense of seeing our lives against eternity, making decisions and setting priorities which are formed by the sense of building on what will last for ever rather than on what is for this life only. This may involve us in fashioning default positions with regard to wealth and relationships, for example.
Hallowed be your name.
To hallow God’s name is to appreciate and praise God. There is a link between appreciating God and appreciating things in general (not that God is a thing) for their excellences. We understand God, in as far as we do, by analogy and/or difference from things in our experience. In appreciating good things in life and experience we are laying a foundation both to appreciate God better and to become more grateful people which in turn helps us to develop character more marked by humility and wonder. I would suggest then, that it is important to build into our routines, activities that enable us to grow in our ability to think and appreciate noble and excellent things (Paul wrote “whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”). For some this might mean making time for painting or writing poetry, for others perhaps going to the theatre or football or a concert. Others may find walking hills or running part of cultivating appreciation.
We might consider too how we specifically grow our appreciation of God. This will mean taking notice of what actually does specifically build up our appreciation of God in any particular phase of our life. Fairly basic for most is likely to be the study of scripture, either ‘straight’ or with study aids such as Bible reading notes or commentaries or discussions or some combination of such things. For some people, reading biographies of notable Christians is an appreciation-building activity as they see how God acts in their lives and how they are changed by God’s grace. Other people find contemplation of nature helpful. For some people more serious study of theology is appropriate while for others simply being with others who are worshipping with them is vital. Once the appreciation-builders are identified, we need then to turn them into regular parts of our lives. How regular will depend on factors to do with our personalities, circumstances and the availabilities of opportunities.
Your Kingdom come …
Part of praying ‘your kingdom come’ with our lives is to be aware of the ways that God weaves the divine purposes into the ebb and flow of order and chaos in existence and to become part of those purposes positively. Co-operating with God’s purposes means trying to order our lives well in relation to the themes of peace, justice and the integrity of creation. We know that these are things that God wants and we know that they serve the needs of our neighbours and so are part of loving them.
I suggest that this firstly involves informing ourselves of the issues of peace, justice and the integrity of creation in our communities, cities, nations and in the global community. We need to do this if we are then to make good decisions about appropriate ways for us to respond to the issues and indeed where and how to start, and our way-rule should normally deal with study and training as an ongoing aspect of praying our lives. Then there is the actual doing of the things we identify as part of our response to the divine calls to do justice, seek peace and respect all that God has made.
Then too, we might take in God’s will ‘that everyone may be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth’ (1 Timothy 2.4) and think about our support for evangelistic and other mission work as appropriate to our situations and our personalities and gifts. I know that there is a lot written and talked about evangelism and I won’t add to it here except to say that perhaps, thinking lifestyle, we should take on board the fact that Christians tend to end up with no significant relationships with others who don’t share our faith. Perhaps we should be making it our rule to do things regularly that are not church-related and involve us in other people’s lives to some extent.
I would also like to commend building time for silence into the Rule or the way. The cultivation of silence has a positive role in refashioning our inner world towards God and away from both our inner drives and compulsions and also from being fashioned by the world; the world being, in this context, human society with its preoccupations which all too often in our experience pull us away from God.
Give us today our daily bread
It is not ‘my’ daily bread but ‘ours’. The others included in this are the other people who claim this prayer as part of their heritage. If you and I pray for our daily bread, then a lifestyle implication of that is to recognise that some of the people praying for ‘our’ daily bread may actually need you and me to be part of the answer. Our rule may need to include some kind of statement or position about voluntary redistribution of our wealth.
Our livelihood as means of provision is also a way to pray for God’s will. That’s not at all to say that only ecclesiastical livelihoods are properly Christian, rather that our livelihoods should be shaped or be becoming shaped by our commitment to God’s kingdom and righteousness.
An interesting sidebar to this section arises from noting that a lot of Christians have, historically, interpreted ‘daily bread’ with reference to the Eucharist. That interpretation may seem a bit fanciful to us. However, many rules do encourage prospective community members to have made a decision as to how often they might take communion. Other Christians have spiritualised the notion of daily bread further in relation to the scriptural saying that Jesus picks up from Deuteronomy, that human beings “will not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God”, which is presumably part of the reason for Scripture Union to name one of their series of daily notes for Bible reading ‘Daily Bread’. Again we might want to use this as our cue for making sure that our rule includes Bible reading and takes in anything that we will use to help us in reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting scripture.
Forgive … as we forgive
The most obvious implication of this would be to have some pattern of confession and self-examination as part of a rule. Many rules and ways of life have this as a central, core task. the Lord’s prayer pattern suggests that we should make sure that we also make space for reflection on our grudge-bearing tendencies and identify our pockets of unforgiveness in order to renounce them and begin, at least, to forgive others.
Being forgiven by God is really about entering into an ‘economy’ where grace and generosity are the main drivers rather than costing and payback. So I want to encourage us, at this point, to think about how we generate ways of living and general rules of life that embody generosity and grace rather than indebtedness and payback. By that I mean getting away from the kind of social interactions where we keep count of whether people reciprocate our gifts or our hospitality, you might want to check out Luke 14.12-14.
I am intrigued too by the use of the words ‘debt’ in the Scots version of the prayer as a way of talking about sin. ‘Credit” (ie debt) ties us to having to earn certain sums of money until the debt is serviced and in so doing it limits our room for manoeuvre, our availability to God kingdom and righteousness. Of course, we have to balance that with God’s provision: a mortgage for a house may be the best way of ‘claiming’ God’s provision for shelter and security, for example. The upshot of considering debt is that we may do well to include in our way of life rules, something about not incurring too much debt and trying to live debt-free in certain areas of our lives. We may also want to consider other forms of finance that help keep money circulating in the local economy such as credit unions or more mutual help such as building societies.
Save us …
Do we need to avoid certain kinds of shops in order not to end up buying things that we really should not buy? Do we need to have rules in place about spending time with our families so that we do not become so tired that we alienate them by our grumpiness and lack of attention? It may be that we need to make it part of the way we live that we buy food in smaller amounts at more regular intervals to minimise the temptation to over-eat.
This clause requires us to take stock regularly of our lives in order to identify the susceptibilities we have. It is probably best to do this in conjunction with the self-examination so that as we identify patterns of turning away from God’s purposes we can also think about the implications of those patterns of un-rightness for changing our pathways through life.
This clause commits us to taking seriously a proper rhythm of life, especially the concept of sabbath; rest itself -which is what the word ‘sabbath’ means most fundamentally. We should take seriously the idea of a rhythm of rest and work. When the disciples came back from going about on a mission tour for Jesus, he told them to get some rest and thereby endorsed the need to have a proper rhythm of rest and work. The story of creation in Genesis chapter one points us in the same direction. It is important to consider this as part of reflecting on living our lives in relation to the clause ‘lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil’ because it seems to me that the failure to get the rhythm of work and rest right is actually a contributory factor behind quite a lot of moral lapses and ethically dubious judgements. If we are praying with our lips “Save me from the time of trial…” but living with our lives in a way that is unbalanced with regard to a good and healthy rhythm of rest and work, we are actually a walking contradiction. Part of praying “deliver us from evil” with our life is to be paying proper attention to our recuperation and re-creation. To do otherwise seems perilously close to putting God to the test by expecting the angels to save us from our own deliberate risk-taking (see Matthew 4.5-7 for further reflection).
Before the end
There are almost certainly lots of good ideas about ‘lifestyle praying’ that are not covered in what is written above or in the book that they are an excerpt from. I imagine too that there are further dimensions of the meanings or implications of the clauses that are not represented in what is already written. That’s alright, since the aim here is not to be exhaustive. I wrote this article and the book as a provocation to take the Lord’s prayer seriously and to experiment further. If you end up doing either or both of those things, then I am pleased. To help with the sharing of further ideas, practice and support, I set up a wiki to follow up the book and encourage the development of the use of the Lord’s prayer as a primary source of reflection and inspiration in spirituality.
I hope that you will take away from this the possibility that you might develop a rule of life and that the Lord’s prayer could be at the heart of that rule as well as your ‘full attention praying’.
Of course I’d love it if you also bought the book!