One of my favorite stories that my mom used to tell is about when she was trying to make a dress. She laid out the fabric on the table and pinned the pattern to the fabric. She carefully cut out each piece, but she was having trouble with the dress sleeves. She kept getting two left sleeves. Regardless of how she positioned the pattern on the fabric, she always got the same result – another left sleeve. Finally, my sister, a preschooler at the time, suggested that she turn the pattern upside down. It worked! She got a right sleeve. My mom was a very intelligent woman – she just wasn’t a seamstress.
Working with patterns is how we learn many things. Prayer, for example. Jesus’ disciples asked him how to pray, and he gave them a pattern that we now call “The Lord’s Prayer,” or the “Our Father.” It has become a pattern for prayer that’s repeated weekly, or even daily, around the world. In my church, everyone in the congregation holds hands and sings the prayer together every Sunday morning.
When I was in eighth grade and taking classes to be confirmed as a Methodist, we were taught a variation of the Lord’s Prayer pattern to use when we prayed. It was a basic outline for personal prayer:
1) Praise God and thank God for all the blessings I’ve received;
2) Confess my sins and ask for forgiveness;
3) Pray for the needs of others;
4) Pray for my own needs.
(At least that’s the way I remember it.) I recall serious discussions about whether reading a prayer was actually praying, or if it needed to be completely personal and spontaneous to count with God. (Reciting or singing the Lord’s Prayer was an exception to the spontaneity rule.)
Over the last 50 years or so, I’ve tried several different prayer patterns. One of my favorite ways to pray is to sit down at the piano, sometimes with a hymnal and sometimes with just the hymns in my mind, and talk with God through music.
The actor Kelsey Grammer described this prayer pattern as, “Prayer is when you talk to God. Meditation is when you’re listening. Playing the piano allows you to do both at the same time.”
This year I’m trying a new pattern, using a prayer book, Prayers for a Planetary Pilgrim, by Edward Hays. The prayer book consists of four sets of morning and evening prayers, one set for each season. Each set includes a morning prayer and an evening prayer for each day of the week.
Here’s an excerpt from today’s morning’s prayer:
… As a planetary pilgrim,
I marvel that I have traveled over a million miles in space since yesterday morning.
My personal journey this day will be small in distance,
but I pray that it will be significant and sacred in my drawing closer to you.
As the Earth turns toward the sun, I turn my whole self toward you, my God,
as I now enter into silent prayer.
Period of silent prayer or meditation
Your Word is written large across all the universe,
in the wonders of creation and in holy books,
written by the pen of your Spirit.
Open my heart to your Word as I now pray.
A psalm, spiritual reading, or personal prayer
[Note: I’m working my way through a new hymnal in this part.]
May this morning prayer and all my prayers this day
be one with all this Earth, which you have ordained to prayer…
I dedicate this new day to you and ask that as spring unfolds before me
I may unfold according to your ancient dream.
As I reflect upon my personal needs this day,
I ask this blessing:_______________________
I ask that you look upon my work this day
as a sacrifice performed in solidarity with __________________
who is (are) in need of your grace and assistance.
Imprint upon my body, and upon all that I shall touch,
your sacred signature as I conclude this prayer
in your holy name
and in the name of your Son
and of the Holy Spirit,
One God, forever and ever, ages without end.
Personally, I’m finding this more structured prayer pattern very refreshing this year, and a nice complement to my “piano prayers.” It’s kind of like Edward Hays has suggested that I flip the pattern over to learn new ways of talking with God. Just as my mom finally got all the pieces together for her dress, I’m slowly getting more of the pieces together for learning how to pray.
Philip Yancey, a prolific evangelical author, said it this way, “For me, prayer is not so much me setting out a shopping list of requests for God to consider as it is a way of ‘keeping company with God.’”
“Keeping company with God” – that’s something worth learning how to do! I’m thankful for patterns to help me learn how to “keep company with God.”