“Give us this day” (some thoughts on structured prayer)


by Rachel Held Evans Read Distraction Free
'Angel's Prayer' photo (c) 2010, Bruno - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

I am thankful to have grown up in a church tradition that emphasized the importance of nurturing a “personal relationship” with God.  From an early age, I had a deep and active prayer life, comfortable shootin’ the breeze with Jesus about whatever was on my mind—my friends, my sins, my hopes, my questions, my fears, my obsession with that boy. Jesus heard it all. 

But as precious and important as it was to march before the throne of grace with such confidence each day, my prayer life became much richer when I discovered structured prayer and incorporated it into my devotional practices. 

By structured prayer I just mean prayers drawn from Scripture or written by other people, words that are not my own. These prayers have helped carry me beyond a merely personal relationship with God to one that is more communal. I found these prayers in the Psalms, in the Book of Common Prayer, from church history, through the Daily Office, and in the writings of other followers of Jesus from a variety of church traditions. 

A single blog post could never do justice to the impact structured prayer has had on my life.  

In times of profound sadness, the prayers of fellow travellers, often worked out over decades of trials and faithfulness, have put words to the aches I could not fully name.  

As the deer pants for streams of water, so I long for you, O God. 

In times of doubt, when I don’t feel like praying, my brothers and sisters provide the prayers for me. 

Come, my Light, my Feast, my Strength!

Where my imagination is limited, prayers old and new bring fresh images and ideas to mind. 

Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go.  Flood our souls with Your spirit and life.  Penetrate and possess our whole being, so utterly that our lives may only be a radiance of Yours…

When I am in need of higher thoughts and ambitions, I learn from what great Fathers and Mothers in the faith prayed. 

I am no longer my own, but thine. Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt. Put me to doing, put me to suffering. Let me be employed for thee or laid aside for thee, exalted for thee or brought low for thee. Let me be full, let me be empty. Let me have all things, let me have nothing. I freely and heartily yield all things to thy pleasure and disposal…Thou art mine, and I am Thine.

And just when I start to buy the lie that my schedule is the most sacred thing on the planet, I am interrupted by a reminder to stop, acknowledge the time, and read the appointed prayer for this appointed day on this appointed hour. 

Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to the beginning of this day: Preserve in us your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purposes; through Jesus Christ. 

But most of all, structured prayer reminds me that faith isn’t just about me. These prayers, written down ahead of time, often first spoken long before my birth, remind me to turn my thoughts toward the people I love, to forgive and ask forgiveness, to pray for my enemies, to plead for mercy for “the things I have done and the things I have left undone,”  to remember the hungry and the suffering, to “bless the congregation of the poor,” to worship, to thank, to intercede, and to join with the whole community of saints who—this very hour, all around the world, and for centuries past and to come—are praying these prayers with me today. 

Glory be to the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now And ever shall be, world without end. Amen. 

It’s been nice sinking back into the habit of praying the Hours now that I'm home for a few months after a long season of travel. But even when I can’t, the one prayer I try conjure up at least once a day—no matter how depressed or doubt-riddled or frantic I may be—is the one Jesus taught his disciples to pray: the Lord’s Prayer. 

Every day I am surprised by its simplicity. 

Every day I am surprised by its depth. 

Every day I am surprised by its holiness. 

Every day I am surprised by its stubborn defiance to the individualism that creeps into my thoughts and prayers each day. 

Our Father, Who art in heaven,
Hallowed by Thy Name. 
Thy Kingdom come. 
Thy will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, 
As we forgive those who trespass against us. 
And lead us not into temptation, 
But deliver us from evil. 

Thy name. Thy kingdom. Thy will. 

Our Father. Our daily bread. Our trespasses. 

It can feel a bit strange praying this prayer outside of church, alone on my back porch in the morning or rushed and frustrated as I get ready for another busy day. But maybe that’s how it’s supposed to be. Maybe it’s supposed to jolt me out of the selfishness  with which I would pray were it not for the guidance of these words. 

I pray not only for my own bread, but for ours. I ask forgiveness not only for my own sins, but for our sins. I ask not merely for my own protection and guidance, but for the protection and guidance of the whole Church. 

You can’t be a Christian alone. And this most basic and universal prayer of the faith, the one Jesus taught us to pray, reminds me every day that I’m never in this alone, even when I want to be. 

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If you’re interested in incorporating structured prayer into your devotional life, I recommend starting with The Book of Common Prayer, a Psalter, and Phyllis Tickle’s The Divine Hours (there is one for each season). You might also like Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals by our friends Shane Claiborne, Enuma Okoro, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Lately I’ve also been enjoying the prayers found in A Book of Hours by Thomas Merton and the devotional readings and blessings written by Jan Richardson in In the Sanctuary of Women.

You can also find some beautiful prayers at Everyday Liturgy.  

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