I can still picture the house. The small, white house on a traffic circle beautifully landscaped with a rose garden and benches in the center. Afternoons spent sitting in the living room, surrounded by my mother, my grandmother, and cousins Myrtle and Inez. Some days I’d sit there as they played a game of bridge. Other days they just visited over cups of coffee. It often sounded like they were talking about their favorite soap operas, sharing the news of marriages, children, vacations, deaths, illnesses, and other struggles of more family members than I could keep track. Periodically they’d pause to try to explain to me who the people were, but I couldn’t keep up. Most I’d never met, although I’d seen their letters and photos passed around.
My mother and I were both only children, but her mom was the youngest of 13, with as many children in her aunt’s family, too. Most had stayed in our small town and were a close-knit bunch. We frequently saw even the ones who’d moved away. In my memories, this large extended family seems idyllic, but the truth is these family visits often felt tedious to me. I didn’t like getting dressed up to go sit in an elderly cousin’s house. I didn’t like giving up my afternoon to listen to the women visit. It was all obligation and duty to me.
To my mother, though, these times together with her family were a privilege. Sure, she was duty-bound to her family, but it went far deeper than obligation. She had invested in these relationships over the course of her life. She knew and cared for each person they mentioned. These weren’t gossip sessions, but more of a group prayer, sharing their concerns and joys for each family member. She truly loved keeping in touch with her family, whether through in-person visits like these or handwritten notes or phone calls to the ones further away.
Privilege or Obligation? Your Perspective Changes Your Desire.
I didn’t like visiting because my perspective was one of duty and obligation. I’d go because I was a good daughter and did what I was told. I behaved nicely and carried on polite conversation to meet my mother’s expectations. But, I never went on my own, just because I wanted to.
My mother, on the other hand, chose to make her family a priority because she viewed this time together as a privilege. Sure, she had other things on her to-do list, but she made time for the most important people in her life. I know the aunts and cousins could feel the difference, too. She visited out of desire, not an obligation, and that came through in the genuineness of the conversations.
These women supported each other through marriages, deaths of husbands and children, infertility and adoption, cancer, and so much more. They were more than relatives, they were friends.
Why Prayer Is a Privilege, Not an Obligation
Sometimes prayer feels like an obligation. We pray because we’ve been told we must. Prayer becomes a chore, an item on the to-do list, another expectation we’re not quite meeting. It can feel as stiff as those family visits. Aren’t we supposed to follow a particular body position (on our knees, hands clasped, head bowed) and use formal “prayer words” like they say in church or follow a prescriptive format?
Yet, truly, prayer is a privilege, an opportunity to develop a friendship with God. What a gift that the God of the universe wants to spend time with us and develop a personal relationship! How much more will we desire prayer if we first invest in developing a relationship with the one to whom we pray? How much more meaningful will our time in prayer be if we view that time as a privilege, instead of an obligation? Oh, how God desires to be there for us through our joys and struggles, but first we have to develop and nurture the relationship. We have to move beyond time spent out of duty-bound obligation and come to cherish and desire that time together.
“The man who misses the deep meaning of prayer has not so much refused an obligation; he has robbed himself of life’s supreme privilege – friendships with God.” ~Harry Emerson Fosdick, in The Meaning of Prayer
Prayer Doesn’t Have to Be Formal
Let go of your expectations about what prayer looks like. You don’t need fancy “thees” and “thous” or other special “church-y” words. You don’t have to use a formal prayer posture or say specific words. Simply open your heart to God and share what’s most heavy on it. The more you pray, the more your prayer language will grow and you may find various prayer postures amplify your prayer experience, but as you get started the most important thing is to simply engage God in conversation.
Prayer Doesn’t Have to Be Scheduled
Prayer doesn’t need to be reserved just for bedtime or early morning. You don’t need to only pray during specific, formal times for prayer. Pray anytime, anywhere. Build prayer into your daily routines and stay engaged with God in conversation throughout your day. That said, however, if you’re just starting to develop a habit of prayer and need to build some consistency in your prayer life, it can be helpful to schedule time on your calendar. This will help to preserve some time on your schedule and help you keep prayer as a priority.
Prayer Doesn’t Have to Be Prescriptive
You don’t have to follow a prescriptive format or outline for prayer. You don’t have to cover all the prayer topics in each prayer. Prayer is a conversation to develop a relationship so talk to God about what’s on your heart. Share your concerns, your burdens, your joys, your questions, your failures, and the decisions you need to make.
Prayer Doesn’t Have to Follow the “Rules”
Prayer doesn’t have a rulebook, so don’t feel like you have to follow specific “rules” to get it right. The only requirement is that you enter into prayer and open the conversation. All the other “rules” you may hear are only intended to help you develop consistency in your prayers, but that will come on its own as you develop the relationship with God and make the shift to viewing prayer as a privilege, not an obligation. As you desire to spend time with God in prayer because you value the relationship, you’ll develop a habit of regularly praying. As you develop a habit of prayer, you’ll desire to learn more about prayer and thus expand your prayer language and styles.
“The privilege of prayer to me is one of the most cherished possessions, because faith and experience alike convince me that God himself sees and answers, and his answers I never venture to criticize. It is only my part to ask. When I can neither see, nor hear, nor speak, still I can pray so that God can hear. When I finally pass through the valley of the shadow of death, I expect to pass through it in conversation with him.” ~Sir Wilfred Grenfell
Will You Allow Prayer to Be Your Life’s Greatest Privilege?
A meaningful prayer life begins with opening the conversation with God, not following a prescriptive rulebook. Prayer shouldn’t be a chore to check off your to-do list, but instead an opportunity to spend time with someone who loves you more than anyone else in this world. As you begin to shift your perspectives that prayer is a privilege, not an obligation, you’ll find your desire to pray will increase and your time in prayer will become more meaningful to your life.