Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Structure of Prayer

Many Christians commonly assume that lack of structure in worship and prayer leads to freedom. If we could just be spontaneous enough, they argue, if we can just allow ourselves to be taken wherever our feelings lead us, then we will truly follow the Spirit. By contrast, the use of structure, ritual, and (God forbid) liturgical prayer are nothing less than the way to kill the Spirit and make void the word of God with the traditions of men.

Many flaws may be found in such thinking. For instance, is it really true that God cannot work through a form that we create? Do hymns or choruses—which are structured and ordered by very definition—crush God's ability to speak directly into our hearts? Furthermore, is there such a thing as totally unstructured worship or prayer? Don't we all have to plan our services ahead of time? And finally (and most importantly of all) who says that our feelings are a trustworthy indication of the Spirit's voice anyway? How many churches have come to grief because they were misled by the collective emotional impulses of their congregations?

The fact is, structure is crucial to a healthy and happy existence. Parents know that children are most contented in a familiar environment with good routines. Left to their own devices, they become aggressive, restless and anxious. Because they never know what to expect, they are always on edge and afraid. By contrast, kids whose parents have established good routines for them feel safe, and therefore happy. They grow into well-adjusted adults who themselves maintain healthy structures around eating and sleeping, playing and working.

If structure is essential for our psychological development as human beings, it is perhaps even more essential for our spiritual formation. The collective experience of Christians through the centuries has shown that when prayer is ordered within a daily framework, we can stand before God in peace, free from the anxiety of reinventing the wheel, while the familiarity of our habit liberates us to open our hearts to His transforming Presence.

What does the daily structure of prayer look like? In the Scriptures, we see that the Jewish practice of prayer was built around the hours of the day and night. The Psalms speak of prayer seven times a day, at midnight, evening, morning and noonday. (see Psalms 55 and 119) The habit of praying at particular hours of the day did not end with Judaism, but carried over into the practice of the Apostles and the early Church. (see Acts 10:3,9 and 16:25)

Throughout history, Christians continued to maintain this daily structure of prayer in their worship. The “prayers of the hours” began with Matins, before the dawn. Dawn itself was marked by the first hour, nine o'clock the third hour, noon the sixth hour, three o'clock the nine hour (the time of Jesus' death). Sunset was marked with the praying of Vespers (which just means 'evening' in Latin), followed by Compline (which means 'completion' to signify the end of the work day) and Nocturn (which is the midnight hymns that we see the Apostles Paul and Silas praying in Acts 16:25). In short, Christians punctuated the entire 24 hour period with prayer.

What the Apostles and early Christians actually prayed during those hours is a subject for another article. My point here is that it's time for Christians to rethink some of our assumptions about what makes for meaningful worship, and frankly, build a more regular structure into our prayer lives. We can only benefit from a little more focus and intentionality in following the teachings and example of the Apostles and the early Christians, not to mention the generations that followed them. If it worked for them, why can't it work for us? With their 'Spirit-killing' formality, they brought the Roman Empire to its knees. With thousands of denominations devoted to 'Spirit-led' worship, modern western Christians are rapidly losing members to unbelief or non-Christian religions, at least one of which insists on a daily structure of prayer five times a day...

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