I talk a lot about prayer in my life, and you may talk a good deal about
prayer in yours. But let’s be honest: we’re pretty lousy at praying, at
least in the fullest sense of the term. I don’t mean this as an
indictment of some rich spirituality that is in us. Our prayer lives are
just so far from what they could be.
In one of the most famous sermons ever delivered, John Donne described the challenge of retaining concentration during prayer. The year was 1626. The occasion was the funeral sermon for Sir William Cockayne.
The parish liturgy committee decided to adopt the contemporary version of the Lord’s Prayer for use during worship. From now on, at least at one of the services, we’d be “sinners” instead of “trespassers.” The next Sunday a distraught man cornered me. “You’ve taken the Lord’s Prayer away from us!”
Week after week, day after day, Christians pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” But the kingdom doesn’t come. If heaven stands for the realm where God’s shalom reigns fully and freely, then the gap between heaven and earth never closes, and at times it only seems to widen.
Prayer serves many functions: it brings our attention to the fact that God is present. It makes the spot of ground on which we stand holy ground. It quiets and focuses the mind, clarifies intention and awakens the imagination, opening up the heart and lungs as we breathe more deeply and relax into this most intimate of encounters. As a communal practice, praying creates consensus and convergence of focus, teaching us how to be the body of Christ, and how to speak with one voice and one hope.