My spiritual director had just told me, “Tear up your prayer list and throw it away.” Why would he give me, a pastor, such bizarre counsel?
There had been a time when praying was more like having a conversation with a close friend, or like sitting at the feet of a great mentor, or being the lead singer in a chorus of praise and worship to Jesus…or running to a loving father and pouring out my hurts, problems and struggles. But those days were gone now, though I wasn’t sure when they had disappeared or why. I only knew prayer had dissolved into talks with someone who wasn’t there.
Bill, my spiritual director, saw what I was unable to see: my religious practices had gotten in the way of a close relationship with God. Prayer had become just one more item in a long To Do list. As I grew more successful as a pastor, I had slowly and imperceptibly morphed into a religious leader with goals, programs, projects and other responsibilities on the outside, but had shriveled up into a dried-out pastor on the inside. I had as much spiritual vitality in me as a raisin has juice from a grape. There was less sitting at the feet of Jesus and more work in the kitchen seeing that everything and everyone ran smoothly. Prayer gradually shifted into being just one of the many things I was supposed to be doing because I was a pastor. I had slowly turned into a 21st century example of Jesus’ message to the Church in Ephesus: “But I have this against you, you have abandoned the love you had at first.” Revelation 2:4
I felt I needed to faithfully pray for people and the needs brought to me as pastor. Therefore, I began to keep a list of prayer requests, with the goal of being able to write next to each request, “Answered.” My record continued to grow more and more lengthy while relatively few answers appeared. I didn’t know how to remove an unanswered appeal without feeling guilty because it hadn’t been fulfilled. My prayer list had become a bondage as strong as the chains that held the apostle Peter when he was shackled between Jewish prison guards.
Prayer is as foundational a part of intimacy with God as is conversation between a wife and husband. The more intimate the communication, the better the marriage. The more intimate the interaction with God, the more intimate the relationship. But prayer had become an empty religious practice for me, devoid of any real sense of intimacy with God as my heavenly Father.
From God to Abba.
Throwing away my prayer list was one of the most difficult things for me to do. Surely I would be failing God and people. But once I destroyed it, a lightness stole into my spirit, a sense of freedom I hadn’t experienced in a long time. I wasn’t responsible for the answers to those prayer requests, nor was I responsible to keep them before God once I had brought them there. I discovered God was not interested in communicating with me only because I had requests regarding his people and his kingdom; he desired to have times of communion with me simply because I was his child. Oh, how religious I had made my life to be. But our heavenly Father isn’t interested in our religion – he desires relationship. Paul put it this way, “But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far-off have been brought near by the blood of Christ… For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father.” Ephesians 2:13-18
Access to the Father! Tossing aside that prayer list freed me to learn how to pray all over again — and God was ready to teach me. This involved important insights I gained over a period of time.
- Prayer is a wonderfully personal conversation with the living God. I didn’t have to impress the Lord with my words or my ideas; I didn’t have to be in a certain place or at a certain time or doing a particular thing in order to talk to him. I could simply converse with him in everyday language. I learned joyfully that Jesus walks and talks with me in the same way he walked and talked with Peter on the beach. “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:20
- Jesus taught us to call God our Father. “Our Father in heaven…” More, even, than just “Father,” he taught us to call God, “Abba.” Mark 14:36 And Paul told us, “God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” Romans 8:15. Abba is an intimate term referring to God as “Daddy.” Daddy? The Almighty Creator God of the universe is my daddy? Yes! As I was learning to simply talk to God, occasionally I called him “Daddy.” It felt funny at first, even strange, and yet good, because the Almighty God had, through Christ, given himself to me as my daddy. Holy, Almighty, One-Of-A-Kind, Sovereign…and yet my daddy in heaven.
- Not only was my Father listening to me, he also communicated with me in one way or another. “Thus says the Lord who made the earth, the Lord who formed it to establish it – the Lord is his name: Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known.” Jeremiah 33:3 True prayer is not pretending God is there, but rather having a genuine conversation with him. For example, I found that I could ask him a question and he would answer. In fact, our Lord Jesus is more ready to answer us than we are to ask him. There’s a lot more to be said about this process, which Brother Lawrence covers in his book, The Practice of the Presence of God. I have read this little book over a dozen times, wearing out two copies and am now on my third.
If prayer has become primarily a religious practice for you with little or no sense of the intimate presence of God, I encourage you to change how you approach our Lord. Try this: be still and fix your mind on the reality of his presence at this very moment. Then use the title, “Father,” or if you dare, the more intimate term, “Daddy,” but don’t just call him, “God,” and tell him that you love him. Or, use the name the angels gave our Lord and do the same: “Jesus, I love you.”
One of the things that helped me was this short paragraph from Brother Lawrence’s book: “In the beginning, Brother Lawrence declared that a little effort was needed to form the habit of continuously conversing with God, telling him everything that was happening. However, after a little careful practice, God’s love refreshed him, and it all became quite easy.” 
 Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, Whitaker House, 1982, pg 15.