Following his reflections on the shortcomings of modern pastoral ministry in regard to prayer, Eugene Peterson turns his attention to how a pastor develops the life of prayer. In a world of quick fixes and shortcuts, Peterson’s starting advice on prayer is perhaps more necessary than ever: “Be slow to pray” (43). Why should we take it slow?
We want life on our conditions, not God’s conditions. Praying puts us at risk of getting involved in God’s conditions. Be slow to pray. Praying most often doesn’t get us what we want but what God wants, something quite at variance with what we conceive to be in our best interests. And when we realize what is going on, it is often too late to go back. Be slow to pray. (44)
How do we slow down? First of all, we must remember that we are not the initiator of prayer. Prayer is our response to the initiative of God. He is always the conversation starter, and we are always the conversation responder. This does not mean that God is not a listener, it simply means that before all – before we took our first breath or every thought to pray – God had already been speaking to us. “Prayer is answering speech” (45).
Because of this truth, the pastor’s approach to prayer must be rooted in the fundamental understanding of prayer as answering. Peterson goes into greater depth with this in another of his books, Answering God, but here he homes in on the work of the pastor to “develop within ourselves the means for a full and continues awareness of its [prayer’s] secondary quality, its answering character” (47). Turning to Genesis for of the initiating word of God in creation and John’s Gospel for the initiating word of God in redemption, Peterson reminds us that, as with learning to speak in childhood, someone else’s word is always previous to our own. In ministry – and in all of our spiritual life – that previous word is God’s word and God’s word alone. When entering into prayer, whether in worship services or at the bedside, at a school graduation or a family dinner, the pastor must always enter with a serious awareness of God’s previous word.
Along with this awareness about prayer as answering speech, Peterson encourages the pastor to enroll in “the great and sprawling university that Hebrews and Christians have attended to learn to answer God, to learn to pray…the Psalms” (50). Taking the psalms as our school in prayer, both as pastors for our own souls and as pastors leading congregations in prayer, helps us to send roots down deep into the richest soil of inspired prayer. The Psalms, often called “the prayerbook of the Bible,” are that rich soil from which our answer to God arises. Peterson masterfully outlines how the fivefold book division of the Psalms (1-41, 42-72, 73-89, 90-106, 107-150) answers the fivefold book division of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), thus visibly displaying how the Psalms exist as an ‘answer’ to the ‘previous’ word of God in the Torah. Here, Peterson urges the pastor toward the vital curriculum of prayer in the psalms:
Too much is at stake here—the maturity of the word of God, the integrity of pastoral ministry, the health of worship—to permit pastors to pick and choose a curriculum of prayer as they are more or less inclined….Prayer must not be fabricated out of emotional fragments or professional duties….Praying the Psalms, we find the fragments of soul and body, our own and all those with whom we have to do, spoke into adoration and love and faith (57-58).
As I read this I could not help but recall two statements I read in Tim Keller’s book, Prayer. “For help, we should turn first to the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the Bible” (Keller, Prayer 3). Just a few pages later, Keller writes about his own changes in prayer after battling thyroid cancer.
I made four practical changes to my life of private devotion. First, I took several months to go through the Psalms, summarizing each one. That enabled me to begin praying through the Psalms regularly, getting through all of them several times a year. The second thing I did was always to put in a time of meditation as a transitional discipline between my Bible reading and my time of prayer. Third, I did all I could to pray morning and evening rather than only in the morning. Fourth, I began praying with greater expectation. (17)
When two great pastors agree on something, it is good to pay attention. When they agree about it because many great pastors from earlier eras agreed about it as well, then we must not merely pay attention, but drop everything and immediately do our best to learn from that in the practical rhythms of our lives.
Pastors, let us learn to pray with the Psalms as our curriculum. Let us not merely talk about it, but let us do it without delay.
[This post continues my reflections on Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity, which began here. You can read all the posts here.]