In my younger years I grew up praying spontaneous, extemporaneous, non-liturgical prayers. These were primarily prayers of praise and thanksgiving to God, as well as prayers of intercession: my interceding for others, as well as for myself, asking God to help me be and do better at whatever. Not to mention prayers of repentance for my sinfulness. And of course such a way of praying is not only appropriate but necessary, certainly for a Christian, limited as it may be merely to one’s own understanding and awareness.
Later, as an adult, I learned to “pray the Psalms” from the monks at nearby Mepkin Abbey. They pray/sing from the Psalter seven times a day, and when I would go on retreat at Mepkin I would join them. Over the years, I have added other portions of scripture from both the Hebrew Bible and our Christian witness in the New Testament, continuing to include even other selections which I practice memorizing to offer as what I’ve come to understand as “praying.”
Examples? Psalm 34: 1, Isaiah 26: 3, the “fruits of the Spirit” in Galatians 5, Psalm 139, the ancient Christus hymn (Philippians 2: 5-11), Ephesians 6: 10-17, Psalm 90, Romans 12: 1-2, the Beatitudes in Matthew 5, Psalm 23, Isaiah 40: 31, II Timothy 1: 7, Romans 14: 7-8.
I also include hymns (or parts of) I know from memory. That is after all what Paul and Silas are doing while in jail in Philippi in Acts 16—they’re singing hymns—“prayers” (?).
One of my favorite hymn-prayers--“Melt the clouds of sin and sadness/Drive the gloom of doubt away; Giver of immortal gladness/Fill us with the light of day”—when I think of Whoopi Goldberg’s (Sister Mary Clarence’s) kids singing and dancing to this classic, “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee,” in gospel-rap-hip-hop style in the movie, “Sister Act II,” it always lifts my spirit and causes me to smile.
If you see a theme running through these various scripture lessons and hymns as prayers, it’s because I’m thoroughly neurotic. Which means I’m always worrying about something or other. I call it having my frequent “anxiety attacks” or “nervous breakdowns.” Worrying is obsessing. Obsessions (thoughts) and compulsions (behaviors) are like addictions. You can’t stop them. You have to replace them. Hopefully with less de-structive, more con-structive thoughts and/or behaviors.
That’s what they teach in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Instead of drinking, you replace such destructive behavior (“stinkin’ thinkin’”) with such devotional exercises as Reinhold Niebuhr’s famous prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I’ve actually shortened the first part of Niebuhr’s “serenity prayer,” which I offer in my weakest, most vulnerable, confused, frustrated, overwhelmed, defeated or disappointed moments—or for that matter, even when I think I know what I’m doing and things are going my way—“I give it to you, God, I give it to you.”
The best replacement for anxious, addictive thoughts and/or behaviors is of course physical exercise. As in William Glasser’s classic 1976 book, Positive Addiction (i.e. running). Even as what I’m recommending here is a way of praying that I consider “replacement therapy” for all the destructive, non-productive, non-constructive ways we can find ourselves consumed with and trapped in.
In I Thessalonians 5: 17, Paul admonishes both them and us to “pray without ceasing.” So when I’m going throughout my day praying such portions of scripture or hymns as I’ve described, that’s what I’m doing. Not just in anticipation of inevitable crises as they emerge, but in response to such subsequent stress as well.
Some years ago I memorized a penetrating Pauline passage, II Corinthians 4: 8-9. As a young person, I think I could have memorized those two verses in a few tries, but as an old man I had to practice for several weeks. Morally and spiritually, not to mention emotionally, it was worth the effort:
“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed. Perplexed, but not given to despair. Persecuted, but not forsaken. Struck down, but not destroyed.”
Monty Knight is a Charleston, SC, Pastoral Counselor (www.drmontyknightcounseling.com). He holds clergy standing in the Christian Church (Disciples) and the United Church of Christ.