As you begin to explore your own prayer life, a good place to begin is with how you learned to pray. Those early lessons, whether in childhood or later, are the foundation on which your present prayer life rests. You may not have thought about learning to pray or you may not recall how you were taught or who taught you to pray. But somewhere in your history, someone introduced you to God. Do you know who it was? Do you remember the circumstances such as the place, who else was present, or the words that were said? Maybe you were taught by example as you watched parents or grandparents pray, listened to their words at table grace, or sat with them while they read the Bible. Everyone has a story to tell, even if it is a story about how they cannot remember, or how no one in their early years taught them about prayer. These stories are rich and varied, filled with images and feelings, and make for a lively conversation in a group gathered to prepare their hearts to learn about prayer.
My own memories of learning to pray are filled with contradictions. My parents did not pray at home, or if they did, they did not pray in front of me or tell me that they were praying. They were, however, faithful churchgoers, and I was taken to church at an early age. But my church did not seem to be about prayer. I do not remember receiving instructions on how to pray, but I did receive in church a powerful early image of prayer. Our minister was a large handsome man who had contracted polio as a teenager and who propelled himself around on old wooden crutches. When he prayed during the church service and everyone else’s heads were bowed, I watched him stand in the pulpit, his arms outstretched, his face turned upward. He had a look of such joy on his face that I knew I wanted that experience for myself. The longing for a prayer life came alive for me. But, at the same time, this wonderful man prayed in poetic language, the words rolling out with such resonance and beauty that I thought I could never do what he was doing. I was just a little girl. I did not know all those big words. So at the same time that my desire was stirred, I believed that prayer was beyond me.
Recently, when my sister and I were talking about our family, she dropped a memory of her own into mine. She is three years older than I, and when we were little we shared a bedroom. She told me that she had always been surprised and a little awed that I would sometimes ask Mother to pray with me at night. She related how Mother would sit on the side of my bed while I told God about friends I was having trouble with, questions that were bothering me, or things I hoped God might give me. I am so grateful for her telling me this story of prayer, for through her memory something I had lost has been found and returned to me. I talked informally to God in those early years. I now realize I have been praying longer than I thought.
Over the years I have heard beautiful stories of children and young people learning about prayer from the adults in their lives. One woman told the story of how every night of her young life, she would run up the cold back stairs to her grandmother’s room, climb in bed with her, and snuggle up under a homemade quilt while her Nana recited her prayers in German. “I didn’t know what she was saying,” she told the group, “but her words seemed full of love, just like her arms around me.”
A man said that his parents had taught him the Lord’s Prayer and the words to a song that the family sang at meal times. One day at church a Sunday school teacher told him that those prayers were wonderful but then asked whether he knew he could also just talk to God as he talked to his best friend. “That made God seem so close and so interested in me and my life,” he said. “I still carry on casual conversations with God.”
Some memories and stories about learning to pray are not positive. A man told me how he was punished for not getting the words of a memorized prayer right. A woman said that she was told that God would not love her if she did not pray every night on her knees. Another woman shared that her family ridiculed her for believing in God and wanting to communicate with God through prayer.
How did you learn to pray? Who taught you? Do you have warm feelings about the experiences, or do you feel angry or afraid? Remembering your own history of prayer is important as you seek to grow in your prayer life. Some of us were taught to pray as children, others not until later in life. Whenever you received instruction, those earlier experiences are likely to influence how you pray today. Maybe you no longer pray as you were taught; maybe you have found forgiveness and moved beyond some unhappy memories; maybe you wish to reclaim some teaching from an earlier time. Those first experiences of prayer, whenever they occurred, continue to influence the way we pray and the way we teach others to pray.
God Taught Me!
In addition to remembering how we were taught to pray, we need to affirm the many ways people discover to pray on their own. Children in particular often have a natural instinct to pray, and they offer prayers in a variety of ways. Preverbal children seem to express awe, wonder, and gratitude with their entire beings. As children learn to talk and if they have been introduced to God, they will soon begin to fashion their own prayers. They may tell you that they have secrets with God and ask you to witness their whispered conversation. They may surprise you with a spoken prayer as they sadly bury their pet mouse.
One mother told me how her daughter liked to chant thanksgiving to God for all the beautiful things that she saw as she rode home from school. She confessed that those prayers got a little tiring to her as trees and dogs and yellow cars were all mentioned, sometimes for as long as 10 minutes. “But I didn’t tell her to hush,” she said. “In fact, I was glad that she had so much to be grateful for.” Another mother told me how her four-year-old son climbed up on his chair at dinner one evening as the family began grace. Instead of chastising him, she asked him what he was doing. “I’m standing on my chair,” he said, “so that I can be closer to God.” A father told me about his two-year-old son, who offered as a dinner prayer one night: “This is the feast of victory for our God! Alleluia!” That proclamation is the beginning of one of the hymns of praise in the Sunday liturgy the family sang regularly. No one had “taught” him the words or suggested they had anything to do with dinner, but he knew!
How you were taught to pray as a child, as well as the stories of how other people learned to pray at any time in their lives, can help you become a wise teacher to others. Remember the delight in some of your lessons, and find ways to share those with your children and others who come to you with questions about prayer. Be mindful of painful experiences, and vow to avoid passing those on. But in addition, as you ponder the best way to teach others to pray, you might be comforted by the wisdom of a 10-year-old who, when asked by his mother who taught him to pray, responded, “Well, Mom, God taught me!”
Adapted from A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice copyright 2005 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce, go to our permissions form.
Small Groups: Connecting Our Stories to a Larger Story
A Praying Congregation: The Art of Teaching Spiritual Practice by Jane E. Vennard
“I believe that God is calling all of us into deeper prayer and is longing for our congregations to become places of prayer,” writes Jane E. Vennard. Pastors and others who want to develop their skills as teachers of prayer and spiritual practices will find in this book not only wisdom for themselves but easily accessible lesson plans, so that they can share Vennard’s insights with others while infusing the activities with their own spirit and creative ideas.
Listening to God: Spiritual Formation in the Congregation by John Ackerman
In this insightful book, John Ackerman outlines ways congregations can promote members’ spiritual growth toward a greater intimacy with God. This book is about the whole system—individuals and small groups, lay leaders and clergy, worship and education—everything we do in a congregation to form us more fully into the body of Christ and to become aware of Christ in us.