From the Shepherd’s Nook: Prayer

Quoting Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, EHP writes, “A pastor should never complain about his congregation, certainly never to other people, but also not to God. A congregation has not been entrusted to him [or her] in order that he should become its accuser before God and men.” Bonhoeffer and Peterson do not believe that pastors should turn a blind eye to the needs and challenges inherent in shepherding their congregations. But they both believe that the primary ministry of pastors is to pray for their congregations and to teach the members of the congregations to pray.

What have you, pastor, learned about prayer in pastoring?

In The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson writes, “The primary language of the cure of souls, therefore, is conversation and prayer. Being a pastor means learning to use language in which personal uniqueness is enhanced and individual sanctity recognized and respected. It is a language that is unhurried, unforced, unexcited—the leisurely language of friends and lovers, which is also the language of prayer. … I began to comprehend the obvious: that the central and shaping language of the church’s life has always been its prayer language. Out of that recognition a conviction grew: that my primary educational task as pastor was to teach people to pray” (emphasis added). Don’t you find it intriguing that the disciples asked Jesus, “teach us to pray,” not “teach us to spin out fascinating parables”?

“Preach the Word” cannot be reduced to “educate the congregations in the data of the Bible.” “Preach the Word” must mean at some significant level “train the people to pray the Bible back to God.” The former fosters the accumulation of biblical knowledge (which is not in itself a bad thing), while the other initiates a people-to-God conversation within the sphere of King Jesus Gospel realities and within which deep life-transformation occurs. As pastors pray and teach people to pray, they “share and participate in [God’s] untiring grace and unrelenting purpose to complete the work of love in his people.” Using the Book of the Song of Songs for biblical grounding in pastoral prayer, Peterson compares prayer to love-making. Prayer “is not passive or detached, but active and committed. The language of sexual passion put to the use of prayer shows the intensity…which goes into whole and intimate relationships.”

Like little children in a sandbox playing with a loaded .45 caliber handgun, Peterson suggests we have scant awareness of prayer and its potentials and possibilities and of the dangers prayer becomes in our hands. “The plain fact is that we cannot be trusted in prayer. Left to ourselves we become selfish—preoccupied with our pious feelings, our religious progress, our spiritual standing.” EHP suggests, “We require an alert theologian at our right hand. … Peter Taylor Forsyth is just such a theologian.” EHP counsels, “The reason we who pray need a theologian at our side is that most of the difficulties of prayer are of our own making, the making of well-meaning friends, or the lies of the devil who always seems to be looking after our best self-interests. We get more interested in ourselves than in God. … But prayer has primarily to do with God, not us….And the theologian’s task is to train our thinking, our imagination, our understanding to begin with God not ourselves.” P. T. Forsyth’s book is titled The Soul of Prayer. Peterson confesses that Forsyth helps us “re-establish the primacy of God in our prayers….In Forsyth’s company we are aware of both the glory and the gravity of what we are doing when we go to our knees in prayer.”

Thankfully regarding prayer, we do not have to start from scratch. We have the whole curriculum from “the school of prayer”—the Psalms. We have access to fixed time prayers in The Divine Hours series and to motivating books like Scot McKnight’s Praying with the Church: Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today and Eugene H. Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. “Prayer is the development of speech into maturity, the language adequate to answer the one who has spoken comprehensively to us. Prayer is not a narrow use of language for special occasions, but language catholic, embracing the totality of everything and everyone everywhere.” Let us pray.

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  • Chad Smith

    Bonhoeffer, even more the EHP, emphasizes the necessity of understanding rightly the work of the Messiah in prayer. Bonhoeffer begins his Prayerbook with the narrative of the disciples asking Jesus to learn to pray. After spending time with Jesus, the disciples, discover they do not know how to pray. They must be taught. Bonhoeffer says, “It can become a great torment to want to speak with God and not be able to do it—having to be speechless before God, sensing that every cry remains enclosed within one’s own self, that heart and mouth speak a perverse language which God does not want to hear.” However, Bonhoeffer speculates, if there were someone upon whose words we could be carried along in prayer to God, it would be a great help. Jesus is that Someone. Bonhoeffer says, “We can pray only in Jesus Christ, with whom we shall also be heard.” God not only provided the way to pray in Christ, but, as well, provided the words to pray in Christ. Bonhoeffer submits, “The words that come from God will be the steps on which we find our way to God.” It is by these words one can truly pray. He says, “Thus all prayers of the Bible are such prayers, which we pray together with Jesus Christ, prayers in which Christ includes us, and through which Christ brings us before the face of God. Otherwise there are no true prayers, for only in end with Jesus Christ can we truly pray.” By this is understood the intersection in Bonhoeffer’s thinking between the person of Jesus Christ as the one enabling prayer and the word of Holy Scripture as the means of that enablement. I am ashamed that it is only recently that I have understood that prayer is not something that comes from me, but something I am given.

  • Tim Atwater

    Thanks for this good post, John Frye, and the whole series…
    thanks for the comment also, Chad

    the congregations i have served always pastor and shepherd me as much as i them…
    we teach each other how to pray…
    and/or the Holy Spirit teaches us all to pray through each other…

    grace and peace