My all-time favorite writing on the subject of prayer is a little article by Wayne Zunkel titled “The posture of the right thumb during opening prayers in morning services during January in leap years” (published in 1956 in Brethren Life and Thought). It begins as follows: “This is a question of profound importance and constant discussion and perplexity among ministers.” This 1,600-word article gives four possible postures: downward, upward, straight forward and the ubiquitous “crossed thumbs.” I found this great piece of satire while I was researching ways to incorporate physicality into prayer, and beyond offering a short break in study, it reminded me to not take my research (or myself) too seriously.
There I was, a graduate of an esteemed Presbyterian theological seminary with a degree that declared me a “master of divinity,” trying to breathe new life into the practice of prayer. My real problem was that I had lost sight of what prayer is, or what it ought to be. For me, the central passage in the New Testament about prayer comes from Matthew 6:7-13, Jesus’ instructions for prayer:
When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.”
I always have a hard time remembering to listen to this passage. I’ve always tried to use big, flowery words in my prayers, both in the pulpit on Sunday morning and at night before I sleep. It’s just something I acquired during my growing up. But Jesus tells us to simply pray the Lord’s Prayer because God knows what we need before we ask. In this little prayer conversation, we bless God, we submit to God’s will and reign, and we ask for a few necessities: for the ability to survive the day, for our forgiveness inasmuch as we have forgiven and for salvation from otherworldly powers. The only physical miracle that Jesus instructs us to ask for is food for the day. Of course, Jesus doesn’t expect us only to use these words, but to pray “in this way,” which many people over many years have interpreted to mean many different things. Here’s one way I understand it: Pray simply.
As Zunkel points out in his backhanded way, Jesus gives absolutely no instruction as to how we ought to use our thumbs in prayer. He also gives no instruction on the issue of whether prayers should be written down, spontaneous, ancient or contemporary. These are not issues upon which our salvation hinges. We are given a guide to prayer, and then we are given freedom.
After reading that illuminating article on how I should hold my right thumb during prayer, I laughed and continued researching. I still had to come up with something. Here are two excerpts of what I came up with:
- Breath prayer.To begin, simply take a deep breath in, and exhale deeply. Concentrate on the air entering and leaving your lungs as you breathe slowly. Now, as you breathe in, think of a name you use for God. Say this name silently as you breathe in. Now, as you breathe out, think of a deep desire of your soul: peace, patience, love, health, joy, comfort. Let your soul guide your passions. Repeat the practice. Ask God to receive the prayer from your body itself, and allow your mind to wander. As you go about your next activities, ask for this prayer to continue, increasing as you breathe faster, becoming more contemplative as you breathe slower. Stay aware of how your body is praying for you, and allow yourself to be continually drawn back into prayer as you notice your own breathing.
- Prayer of confession.Try praying a prayer of confession in worship with our bodies. We close our eyes because we cannot see our own sin, nor can we see what is right. We open our eyes and look at each other because by confessing our sins we seek reconciliation with one another and with God, who moves among us. We lean against the person next to us because we cannot rely on our own selves to overcome sin. We bow our heads because we come to God with humble hearts and humble bodies. [Opportunity for silent prayer.] We lift up our heads because Christ allows us to face God. We clap our hands because Christ does not condemn us but has mercy. We say “amen” because in Christ we all are forgiven. Amen.
These excerpts reveal one of my deep desires: to pray authentically and honestly, as part of my attempt to worship “in spirit and in truth.” (If you’re interested, you can find these in the Youth/Liturgical Resource at activelifechurch.org/resources under “Active Faith.”) And sometimes these kinds of practices are helpful to me, as are many others. Sometimes I need breath prayer, or silent meditation, or a long walk with God, or an old book of prayers or liturgy. But none of these things are what God needs from me. God doesn’t need prayers from the latest devotional or the most ancient sources. God doesn’t need us to have completely clear minds devoid of distraction (see Matthew 26:38-46, and then read 28:16-20)! Prayer isn’t a magic spell that causes God to bend to our will. Prayer is communication. In it, we affirm our faith, ask for what we need and admit who we are.
I believe that prayer changes things: often (but not necessarily always) it changes the one who prays. But it is always, at its heart, a simple practice that anyone can perform. It requires no special knowledge, no advanced education, no extraordinary spiritual enlightenment, no specific position for your right thumb, even in January during leap years. It requires you, your Creator, and your willingness to communicate with God.
ALEX BECKER serves as the pastor of Langcliffe Presbyterian Church just outside of Scranton in the wonderful town of Avoca, Pennsylvania, where you might catch him out for a run, or more likely a walk.