Friday, July 10, 2015

Fixed Hours of Prayer

Have you ever noticed how a busy day can disappear and you wonder where God has been in your day?  How can we be more conscious of what God might be saying to us and doing around us when there are things that demand our full attention?  In Jewish Culture and through the early church, people practiced fixed hours of prayer.  Christians today are rediscovering the value of ordering their activities around prayer at regular times of the day.

Ruth Haley Barton has written about this practice noting that Psalm 55:17 points to it.  "I call to God and the LORD saves me.  Evening, morning and noon I cry out in distress and he hears my voice."  Daniel prayed three times a day, even when it threatened his life.  In Acts 3 Peter and John were going up to the temple at the afternoon time of prayer.  In Acts 10 Peter went up on the roof at noon to pray.

The idea is that at regular times during the day, morning, noon, afternoon, evening, we pause to pray, ideally gathering with one or two others.  There are Christian communities around the world who follow this practice.  Our ministry team have followed this pattern on retreat, and we prayed together at lunchtime on our last day of prayer and fasting and found it uniting and powerful.  This is especially helpful during times of planning, discernment, or significant change.

Traditionally these times of prayer might contain various elements, although there are no rules!  Like all spiritual disciples, this are tools to help, not rules that must be followed.  Possible components include:

  • A recognition that God is with us.
  • A psalm or a prayer based on the psalms
  • Sometimes another Bible reading.
  • Possibly the Lord's Prayer and/or a creed so people can affirm their faith.
  • There might be some moments of silence.
  • A hymn or song might be sung (or played on CD or phone)
  • A closing blessing.
If you are at work, it may only be possible to pause briefly, but you can still recognise the time of prayer.  Sometimes you will be able to do this with others. 

In his book, Praying with the Church, Scot McKnight wrote, “We are formed together as we learn to pray together. Ancient Jews and Christians uttered sacred prayers together. They did this every day—together. These prayers established sacred rhythms to their days and lives as a community. And they can do the same today. For us. As the Church. As a community of faith.”

Churches like East Taieri are often sceptical of pre-written prayers and traditions, regarding spontaneous prayer as more "spiritual".  It is certainly true that over history fixed prayer routines have sometimes become a meaningless habit that people carried out by rote.  Jesus warns us about babbling away in prayer without our heart being in it. (Matt 6)  However, in addition to spontaneous prayers, we can benefit from praying the great prayers of scripture and the church and really mean them!

Ruth Hayley Barton offers the following as examples of pre-written prayers that her Christian community - the Transforming Centre - have used:

Morning Prayer. In the morning, we begin with praise, affirming and celebrating God’s presence with us, receiving his loving care towards us and committing the work of the day to him.
O God, open our lips and we shall declare your praise.
God said: Let there be light; and there was light.
And God saw that the light was good.
This very day the Lord has acted!
Let us rejoice!
Praise the Lord!
God’s name be praised!

Mid-day Prayer. At mid-day, when tasks and to-do lists are pressing in and human effort is at its height, we stop to renew our awareness of God’s presence, to rest in him for a few moments and ask for his peace and guidance regarding those things that are concerning us. The opening prayer/invocation is always our heart cry:
O God, make speed to save us.
O Lord, make haste to help us.

Oftentimes mid-day prayer will contain some sort of a prayer for wisdom such as this Collect for Grace, which is one of our favorites in the Transforming Center.
O God, by whom we are guided in judgment,
And who raises up for us light in the darkness,
Grant us, in all our doubts and uncertainties,
The grace to ask what you would have us to do;
That your wisdom may save us from all false choices,
And in your straight path we may not stumble.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

If you pray that prayer with any kind of sincerity at all, it is guaranteed to change the trajectory of your day!

Evening Prayer. In the evening as the sun sets and the natural light fades, we acknowledge God as the source of our light and greet one another with expressions of peace.
You, O Lord, are my lamp.
My God, you make my darkness bright.
Light and in Jesus Christ our Lord,
Thanks be to God!

In many communities, evening prayer is the longest of the prayer services, offering us the opportunity to place the cares of the day in God’s hands as we make the transition from day to evening.

We praise you and thank you, O God,
For you are without beginning and without end.
Through Christ, you created the whole world;
Through Christ, you preserve it
Through Christ you made the day for the works of light
And the night for the refreshment of our minds and our bodies.
Keep us now in Christ, grant us a peaceful evening,
A night free from sin, and bring us at last to eternal life.
Through Christ and in the Holy Spirit,
We offer you all glory, honor and worship,
Now and forever. AMEN.

Evening prayer typically includes the Gospel reading for the day and may include a brief reflection or homily. Later on in the evening prayer service, we offer up general intercessions for ourselves and others, bringing our own specific needs and the burdens we are carrying for others to God. The fact that the intercessions are written for us relieves us of the need to be so wordy in our intercessions—a helpful discipline given the fact that this is another place in the spiritual life where human striving and fixing can so easily take over. As our personal spiritual journeys lead us to a greater capacity to be with God with what is true about us and to rest in him with our own lives, so we are able to hold others and their needs quietly in God’s presence as well.

Written intercessions (also called Prayers of the People in some settings) allow us to join together in lifting up our shared concerns to God and then to agree together by praying in unison,
Lord, in your mercy.
Hear our prayer.

Night Prayer. When we are together on retreat, we end the day with night prayer in which we celebrate God’s presence during the day and ask him to grant us the rest we need.
May God grant us a quiet night and peace at the last.
AMEN. It is good to give thanks to the Lord,
To sing praise to your name, O most high;
To herald your love in the morning.
Your truth at the close of the day.

Night prayer might also include a time of examen in which we are able to confess our sins and receive God’s forgiveness as an important aspect of letting go of the day, receiving God’s gift of rest, and preparing to receive the new mercies that God will have prepared for us when we awake.

Since these prayers are written, there is nothing for any of us to figure out. Scriptures are taken from the lectionary—a reading schedule that follows the Christian calendar—and are read without comment, giving God the opportunity to address us directly through his word in whatever moment we are in. The Gospel readings in particular help us to stay connected to the person of Christ as the model for our life and work. As we pray the hours in community, the Spirit has access to us throughout the day and we are constantly amazed at how God meets us, giving us perspective, assurance, and guidance as we need it far beyond human orchestration.

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