When I was a child, prayer came naturally. Like most children, I just spoke with God.
But then I became a sophisticated teenager. Relationships suddenly became vast forests of mystery and complex interactions. Every conversation was pregnant with both pitfalls and opportunities. I discovered, as we all do when we leave childhood behind, that people are far more perplexing and demanding than we ever expected.
I could hardly figure out how to talk to girls. How could I talk to God?
I needed guidance. Not just with girls – that much was obvious (and my wife might say that guidance is still sorely needed).
I needed guidance with God.
In Christian-ese, we call that guidance ‘discipleship,’ the process of learning what it is to know God as a person: what are God’s expectations and promises. And one of the first things that they teach you in Christian youth groups is how to pray.
I learned a formula. ACTS. Every prayer should have Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication. In other words, praise God, tell God what you did wrong, thank God for all the good things in your life, and ask God for whatever is on your mind. The formula was helpful for a while. Just plug in the components and move on.
But formulas, after a while, feel stale.
Don’t make the mistake of thinking formulas are wrong. They help up to a point. And when I am stuck, I find it comforting to go back to the old formulas. But formulas aren’t supposed to be checklists – they are frameworks.
Kind of like a Jazz standard.
One element of Jazz is improvisation. In a live performance, the artists groove together for a while on a musical theme, the structure provided by a familiar melody. There comes, however, a time for each performer to launch into solo improvisation. When he takes his turn, the musician pulls upon all his years of expertise with his instrument; the true masters draw on their inner fire to blend melody and the mood of the room into a musical alloy.
A Jazz standard is a melody that is well known and provides the framework. The hope in any given performance is that the musician not follow the melody slavishly, but to use it as an aid, a help in producing the art. John Coltrane and Julie Andrews can both perform “My Favorite Things” and take the music in entirely different directions.
So I started to think of prayer as Jazz improvisation. All those formulas were simply standards, and I was invited to do these long jazz riffs on them. I began to approach the Psalms that way – praying the words of a given verse as a starter, but then improvising off that verse to speak from my own heart and speak about my present situation.
I found this way of thinking about prayer to be liberating. Prayer feels like it did when I was a child – free. Why not give it a try? Trust me, God won’t laugh. And it might help you feel more free in your prayers.
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