In the late 1970s I was inspired by Keith Green’s song “Make my life a prayer to you / I wanna do what you want me to / no empty words and no white lies / no token prayers, no compromise” (as sung by Matthew Ward of the band 2nd Chapter of Acts). Even today, these lyrics bring to mind the attractive image of living for God in such a way that my whole life would be like incense rising up to God (Psalm 141:2 and Revelation 8:4). (My family and I once experienced the all-embracing presence of incense when we were guests at the St. George Coptic Orthodox Church in Surrey during its 3-hour Sunday morning worship service.)
Alternatively, I’ve heard many people speak about prayer as communion or communication with God—a 2-way street of both listening and speaking. More than that, I hear people speak about listening prayer—a way of being with God whereby we become quiet, rest in God’s presence, and listen for the communication of God’s Spirit (John 14:26).
But then I read Dallas Willard’s words in The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God: “The picture of prayer that emerges from the life and teaching of Jesus in the Gospels is quite clear. Basically it is one of asking, requesting things from God” (p.241-2, italics added). Willard goes on to say that many others things that believers do—such as talking to God, praising God, thanking God (Green and Ward would add living for God)—are indeed good, but they are not prayer!
Surprised by Willard’s statement, I did a quick word study, which confirmed that the word ‘prayer’ in the New Testament usually refers to petitioning God. If this is so, to describe my whole life as prayer would mean that in some metaphorical way my whole life would be a petition to God—I’m not sure that was what Green and Ward meant. C. S. Lewis writes that if we stretch a word to mean everything we want it to mean, eventually the word becomes altogether useless (read Lewis’ entertaining analogy here).
What then is listening for God during a silent retreat, or communicating with God about everything in one’s day—are these activities prayer? Or have we expanded the word to the point of it being useless?
For me, an even more important question than how to define the word ‘prayer’ is this: does God expect Jesus’ followers to be quiet with God and to listen for God? (And the corollary: does God expect us primarily to be asking God when we pray?)
Several emphases in Scripture suggest that stillness and listening are indeed meant to accompany our praying. Psalm 131 (a favourite of mine, not least because it challenges my ambitions) addresses the LORD with these lines, “I have calmed and quieted myself / I am like a weaned child with its mother.” As I once heard the Rev. Mike Stewart of St. Matthew’s Anglican Church, Abbotsford comment: in our culture of ambition, noise and busyness, silence with God is one of the most important practices we can cultivate in our congregations.
The apostle Paul recognizes that people often don’t know how to pray; he says that they can then rely on the Holy Spirit to pray on their behalf (Romans 8:26-27). I believe that this kind of weakness includes those occasions when we find ourselves in circumstances of such enormity that we are at a complete loss of words.
Furthermore, Jesus’ followers are taught to “watch and pray”—also translated “stay alert (or awake) and pray.” In Colossians 4:2, for instance: “Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful” (cf. Luke 21:36, Ephesians 6:18). Praying—asking God—needs to be embedded in the silence of stilling our souls, of depending on God to be praying on our behalf to God, and of being alert and attentive to life.
I learned this some years ago, when I discovered that in spite of praying for many people in my pastoral role (e.g. beside hospital beds, during prayer meetings, leading worship services), I rarely felt moved to pray for people in my private prayers. When I told this to a wise spiritual director, he said, “Tell this to God, and just be quiet and wait. Pay attention, and see how Jesus invites you.” In the coming months, as I did this, I discovered occasions when I found myself deeply desiring God’s goodness for someone I knew. By becoming silent with God, I learned how to ask God.
I am convinced that silence needs to be an integral part of our praying—not only when we are alone, but also in our times of praying together. Communal prayer trains us in private prayer (that’s why we’ve been given the Psalms). Therefore, prayerful silence needs to be a normal part of our worship gatherings. And not just 30 seconds of “let’s- pause-for-a-moment-of-silent-prayer,” but much longer intervals of stillness—even minutes long, or more!—since we can’t ‘still and quiet our souls’ in a mere 60 seconds.
When silence and listening become embedded in our practices of praying without ceasing, perhaps our lives will indeed become incense to God.
I recommend the website www.sacredspace.ie for incorporating silence with prayer. This daily prayer site is provided by Irish Jesuits, who emphasize that “when you pray you are not alone. You are part of a global community.” This prayer guide is organized around 6 simple steps: (a) become aware of God’s presence, (b) desire and acknowledge the freedom God gives us, (c) become conscious about oneself with God, (d) meditate on The Word of God, (e) have conversation with Jesus, and (f) conclude with God’s glory. When I use this guide leisurely, allowing for ample silence during and between each step, I have often been refreshed, challenged, invited and renewed by God’s Spirit.
Click here for a meditation on Psalm 131 using the painting at the top of this blog. The painting is by Wilfried Joye, a Belgian missionary in South Africa.
I found the concluding photo at http://www.oodegr.com/english/protestantism/burning_incense.htm