Bishop Mark Hanson: Learning to Pray Never Stops

Learning to pray never stops

Think of it as a positive and a practice

"Lord, teach us to pray, as John taught his disciples" (Luke 11:1). That request by one of the disciples is a constant reminder that prayer is a faith practice I constantly am learning.

I was raised in a family rooted in Lutheran piety and was taught at a very young age how to pray - quietly to myself, openly with family members, publicly in worship. Prayer was as much a part of our daily life as eating and sleeping. Although I was sometimes impatient and restless, I am ever thankful to God for parents, grandparents and siblings who prayed and taught me to pray.

I continue to grow in the practice of prayer. As an extrovert who finds it easier to pray with others, I have learned to appreciate my annual retreat with other heads of denominations at which we are in silent prayer for 24 hours.

Bill Smith, a retired seminary professor, has been a mentor for me and others in the lifelong laboratory of being taught how to pray. Rather than turning prayer into another task on my to-do list, Smith asks, "Mark, how is it with your soul? Where have you experienced God's presence in your life?" He has encouraged me to think of prayer first as a positive and a practice rather than a task to be completed or even perfected.

Prayer, I have learned, is the posture of simply being open to the presence of God. On airplanes, I begin with prayer before turning to reading or writing. I begin by trying to clear my mind and simply be in the presence of God, open to the Spirit's interceding before I pray for my life, our family, this church, the Lutheran World Federation or for our world.

Prayer is an inseparable part of a living relationship with our loving, merciful and holy God. That means prayer - as both my posture in the presence of God and as my relational conversation with God - can be woven throughout my day.

The day begins with reading from the Moravian Daily Texts or praying the Scriptures assigned in the daily lectionary. It includes using the rich resource of prayer in Evangelical Lutheran Worship. I appreciate that my colleague, Wyvetta Bullock, ELCA executive for administration, makes sure that we wrap our conversations and decisions in prayer. The days when I have begun with morning prayer and ended with sung evening prayer are the richest.

Prayer belongs to our life together in the church. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote: "A Christian community either lives by the intercessory prayer of its members for one another, or the community will be destroyed. The face that may have been strange and intolerable to me is transformed into the face of one for whom Christ died."

Prayer is inseparable from our varied vocations and witness in the world. When I am with people in the midst of great suffering, sometimes all we can do is cry out prayers of lament. I have grown to appreciate how vital lament is as a prayer form. In Public Church: For the Life of the World (Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Cynthia Moe-Lobeda asks, "Who is more suited to lament and call forth public lament than a people of the cross ... people who claim trust in God above all else as the essence of faith ...."

Yet there are times when I do not - cannot - pray. As Paul wrote, my sighs are too deep for words. Even then, in the confidence of faith, I trust that the Spirit is interceding for us, according to the will of God (Romans 8:26-27).

In these reflections, I have not adequately expressed how important it is in my life and ministry to know that others are praying for me. I am often told, "Bishop Hanson, I pray for you every day." Thank you - each one of you - for your prayers for me, for the ELCA and for the LWF.

Yes, Lord, continue to teach us to pray.

[From the Presiding Bishop's monthly column in The Lutheran magazine, April 2009 issue, used with permission.]

For more information about and resources by Bishop Hanson, please visit the ELCA website.