A Conversation Menu
Conversation with good friends runs the gamut of human experience: you laugh, you cry, you listen, you lament, you enjoy. It’s one of life’s greatest delights. Remarkably, you can have this same level of conversation with a two-year-old and an eighty-two-year-old. And yet, when God joins the conversation (prayer), everything stiffens up. It’s like your mom has just walked into a sleepover. The giggling stops and everyone gets quiet. Why do we shut down our hearts when we begin to pray together?
This “prayer chill” is made worse because often no conversation thread holds the prayers together: requests multiply and prayers bounce from subject to subject.
So how do we talk to our heavenly Father like we might to good friends? Quite simply, what does it mean to become human again as a group? Many people have found their ability to pray together enriched by the “prayer menu.” It uses Jesus’s three patterns of relating as a model for the richness of human interactions. This prayer menu will help expand your prayers outside their usual ruts.
Every week, I create a “conversation menu” for my daughter Kim. Because of her autism, she struggles to vary her conversation, so I write seven conversation starters in her speech computer. I try to capture her “voice” and her interests. We’ve saved many of them, and she’ll often go back and rehearse them. Kim is fully human, of course, but people don’t know it until they hear her heart. Think of the prayer menu as a series of conversation starters for our tendency to autistic-like praying. There is some complexity to the prayer menu, so I ask you what I ask Kim: “Be patient as I explain this.” It will enrich your prayer life. First, an overview.
An Overview of the Prayer Menu
On the left side of the table, you see three sides to the person of Jesus: his compassion (care for people), his honesty (care for truth), and his dependence (care for his Father).1 The richness of the person of Jesus offers us a way out of our prayer stiffness. It allows us to become human again.
Across the top of the chart, you see three perspectives: me, my world, and God. That is, What’s going on in me? What’s going on in my world? What is going on in God’s heart? This creates nine boxes or windows, each one a way of being human in prayer. Each invites questions to ask ourselves in order to prompt new ways of praying.
Row 1: Compassion
The first row guides us in caring for the person.
This window prompts us to ask ourselves, How am I doing? or How are we doing? Devout Christians can be reluctant to ask this, because they are aware of living in a self-obsessed culture, where compassion is directed inward. And yet, if we shut down how we are feeling, our feelings will leak anyway or we will withdraw. The psalmist asks himself,
Why are you cast down, O my soul,
and why are you in turmoil within me? (Ps. 42:5)
When we come to our Father, we need to be ourselves, which includes our feelings. This can be hard in prayer meetings, and yet, sharing your broken heart energizes praying together. The real you needs to meet the real body of Christ.
The most frequently mentioned emotion of Jesus in the Gospels, compassion involves stepping into another person’s shoes, but we can jump from need to need and forget to pray about the person who feels that need. The antidote is also asking God to meet people in their fear or anxiety. By slowing down and lingering over a person, prayer becomes a conversation among those who are praying.
Now we direct our gaze upward to our Father. I call this “Enjoy” because if we don’t enjoy the giver, then thanksgiving withers into mere duty. As a child, I memorized in our Westminster Shorter Catechism that our chief end is to glorify and enjoy God. So in one prayer meeting we were rejoicing over the baptism of a young Arab man in Europe that Mafdi had been discipling. We enjoyed how God had worked during the crisis in Syria through German chancellor Angela Merkel’s welcome of Arab refugees. Her welcome was rooted in her faith and the example of her father, a Lutheran pastor. If our requests look to the future, enjoyment reaches into the past. When God helps us in our community—as he does continually—we can remember in our prayer time the people who made it happen. This morning we were celebrating our largest See Jesus workshop ever, and I reflected on the work of our trainers. We began by celebrating people. When we do this in prayer together, it makes praying fun, decenters us, and lifts other people up, which makes room for the Spirit of Jesus!
Row 2: Honesty
The second row, which helps us care for truth, is weaker than the other two in community prayer.
This window prompts us to direct truth at ourselves. For example, this morning I asked our staff to pray for me concerning my email habit. I stay on top of hundreds of emails by answering them quickly, but as can happen with all good things, checking email has become an addiction. And last week in my morning prayer time with Jill, I lamented how I’d subtly boasted the previous day. (At least, I thought it was subtle!) I needed Jill’s help. As Paul says, “I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ this will turn out for my deliverance” (Phil. 1:19). That’s a help we overlook. We’re comfortable with the generic “sinner,” but we don’t like getting specific. The shame stings. And yet honesty about besetting sin energizes a prayer meeting. It’s something we all struggle with. It’s real life.
This window directs truth outward. It guides us in praying for justice. I will often pray, especially for political problems, Jesus’s promise that what is hidden will be revealed. I pray that because unless we know the truth about something, justice is hindered. Praying for justice and truth also means relinquishing our demand for justice. When we forgive those who sin against us, we acknowledge and then release our demand for justice. Realizing that we ourselves need forgiveness tempers our demand for justice. The result is patience.
God is weaving a story—so it is essential to conform our prayers to his will.
This directs our honesty to God. As I mentioned in chapter 19, because of the influence of the gnostic mind on the church, public laments are exceedingly rare in prayer meetings. And yet the Psalms are filled with laments, where the psalmist is in God’s face. For example:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me? (Ps. 13:1)
Jesus laments on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46). A lament is something that breaks your heart. Laments feel disrespectful of God, and yet they are actually faith-filled because they take God seriously
Row 3: Dependence
The third row is about our will in relation to God’s will.
Much of the substance of a good prayer meeting is giving space to people’s desires, what we routinely call prayer requests. Jesus prays in Gethsemane: “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me” (Mark 14:36). In our prayer meeting, I work to stay in touch with people’s desires. Usually, our desires are too small. Jesus’s repeated command in John 14–16 to ask anything is immensely clarifying. This is where praying big can help our desires to come alive.
This window expands our praying beyond ourselves by praying, “Your kingdom come, your will be done” (Matt. 6:10). Jesus’s remarkable promise about the power of agreeing in prayer often fuels our faith and encourages us to pray daring prayers: “Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven” (Matt. 18:19). It is important not to overthink Jesus’s words. Just ask.
Now we ask: What is God doing? What is the story? This window integrates all nine windows into a coherent whole. Here, we slow down to see the patterns of God’s work and connect the story threads. God is weaving a story—so it is essential to conform our prayers to his will. This is when we pray the second half of Jesus’s Gethsemane prayer, “Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). In dependence on God, our wills come together. But we need to begin with the simplicity of what we want, which, in time, can mature into what God wants.
- These three sides of Jesus match the three ancient offices of Israel: the priestly office (compassion), the prophetic office (honesty), and the kingly office (dependence on God and submission to him). I explain these three sides in depth in Paul E. Miller, Love Walked among Us: Learning to Love Like Jesus (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 2001), pts. 1–3.
This article is adapted from A Praying Church: Becoming a People of Hope in a Discouraging World by Paul E. Miller.
We tend to think of prayer as primarily a solitary and private activity, but the Bible tells a different story.
Behind our busyness and wealth is a philosophy called secularism, which doesn’t just deny God’s existence but denies the existence of any spiritual world.
The church is a spiritual force. It is animated by the Spirit of Jesus in our midst. So, if we want to see the church brought back to life, we have to make room to listen and be led by the Spirit as a community.
We pray because we should, or worse, because we think we have to if we want to experience God’s blessings. A quote from John Calvin in his commentary on Matthew 6:5–6 helped me understand prayer differently.