Faiths tend to build expectations for prayer, which can almost be thought of as a form of manners. Breaking the prayer form is impolite. God, of course, can handle impolite prayer. Still, even the lightest way in which we shape our prayer has something mannerly about it.
We pray in ways we’ve been taught, ways that feel comfortable to us, and when we start exploring a new type of prayer, it can feel a little transgressive at first. Imagine choosing to sing rather than talk to a spouse or close friend. It would be weird until you both got used to it, and then it would feel normal. It would probably still seem weird to other people. But if everybody around you sang rather than talked, talking would seem weird. So our prayer is shaped by the expectations of our culture and communities, even if it is a private conversation with God.
Once we begin to elaborate on prayer forms, we find that we’re not just using prayer as an expression of our covenant with God. Our covenants with ourselves and with our neighbors are present in our prayers. Indeed, these covenants are active even in the simplest prayer. To pray for some personal need to be met is to express some version of the self. To pray for someone in need is to express some commitment to them and their wellbeing.
Most Christian prayer has a threefold shape. A prayer starts with an invocation, moves to a petition, and ends with a benediction. An invocation invites God to join you in conversation. It names God in some way. A petition allows you to express your needs and desires. As I said in the last post, the purpose is to allow you to see these needs and desires clearly. They may not be met with any direct action on God’s part, but they will be enveloped in a sense of peace that clarifies or dissipates them or leads you to action. A benediction names and affirms your relationship with God. It might incorporate some insight gathered from the previous parts of the prayer, or it might be an expression of the covenant that abides between God, neighbor, and self.
In the next three posts, I will be elaborating on invocation, petition, and benediction.