Learning to talk to God
We all know that prayer is an essential practice of the Christian life. We also know that it doesn't necessarily come naturally. Learning to pray takes time and effort and discipline, and for many Christians it becomes a source of shame that they have not been more concerted and regular in the practice of prayer.
Take heart: even when you and I fail to pray, our Lord Jesus is alive and continues to make intercession for us (Hebrews 7.25). The Holy Spirit "intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words" (Romans 8.26). So great is the gift of prayer, we receive its blessings even when we don't open it.
Fortunately, God has made provision for us in his Holy Scriptures to teach us how to pray.
The Prayerbook of the Bible
Dietrich Bonhoeffer points out what a surprising thing it is that this prayerbook—which is what the Psalms is—should be included in the Bible. "The Holy Scripture is the Word of God to us," he writes in his little book on the Psalms. "But prayers are the words of men. How do prayers then get into the Bible?"
Think about how children learn to talk. It is through others, principally their parents, speaking to them. Then, children learn the speech of their mothers and fathers; by being spoken to they learn how to speak for themselves.
This is like what we have in the Psalms: our Heavenly Father speaks to us, modeling for us how we are to speak to Him. Bonhoeffer writes, "Repeating God's own words after him, we begin to pray to him."
You may have already sensed this about the Psalms intuitively. I want to encourage you to practice this intentionally.
The Psalm-Praying Challenge
I challenge you to devote the month of June to a deep reading of the Psalms. Here is a Psalm calendar for reading the whole book across 30 days (I've taken it from the excellent Treasury of Daily Prayer from CPH).
Let me offer a few more practical tips:
• Consider splitting the Psalms up between evening and morning (the calendar easily lends them to this kind of organization). This is a great bracket to your day.
• Don't rush your reading; even a leisurely pace for the day's allotted portion won't take more than 15 minutes or so. Think of it as sucking on a lozenge, not gulping a soda.
• Begin with a brief prayer for illumination. A verse from the Psalms is of course appropriate; I recommend Psalm 119.18: "Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law!"
• Don't stress out if you miss a day or two—it happens. Just pick up at the current day ("make up work" isn't necessary) and continue on.
• Conclude your reading with a few moments of "reflective" prayer, reflecting back to God what you have heard and prayed in his Word.
There are no silver bullets or short cuts in these matters.
The paradox of prayer is that it's undeniably simple—as simple as resting in the arms of Abba—but it's also unutterably profound—a discipline that calls for a life's work of learning.
If you devote the next 30 days to a regular and reflective reading of the Psalms, though, I can assure you that you will be well on your way to learning to pray, or to pray with greater richness. You will find your mind and imagination animated with the language and images of the Scriptures. You will start to sound more like your Heavenly Father.