The Surprising Spiritual Discipline that’s Changing How I Look at Prayer

I’ve always said I’m not very good at prayer. I have a prayer journal that I don’t always remember to open and refer to. Sometimes, I write my prayers in a Word document or in a Moleskine, and sometimes I pray out loud. I pray before dinner but never remember before breakfast or lunch. When I try to pray early in the morning or at night before bed, I nod off before I feel like I’ve gotten anywhere.

Along the way, I considered every incomplete thought, every unchecked box on my prayer list, every skipped mealtime a failure.

As if God sets a threshold for the amount of communication he expects, rather than rejoicing at each and every conversation. As if prayer is even something you can be good or bad at.

When Paul suggested we “pray continually,” he wasn’t giving a new, impossible command. Instead, he was suggesting that we can live our entire lives as if they are a conversation with God. It’s not easy, certainly, but also not as clear-cut as an item to cross of my to-do list. Did I pray without ceasing today? Check yes or no. This is not something at which we can fail or succeed, like a college course.

Prayer is simply another way of looking at and interacting with God and the world around me. 

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I recently heard Shauna Niequist on The God-Centered Mom podcast, and she talked about centering prayer, which was a practice totally unfamiliar to me. On the podcast, she explained how this practice has impacted her own spiritual journey, but she goes even further in her new book (which I loved and highly recommend). Shauna explained that in centering prayer, you focus on an image. When your thoughts wander, you just let them float by like a discarded flip-flip down a river, and return again to your image. The image Shauna focuses on during centering prayer is a big, red, kindergarten-style heart. Heather said that her image was her and Jesus, sitting on a swing together.

What could my image be? I wondered. I only thought about it for a moment when a new and rather unexpected idea struck me: a loaf of bread.

The image in my head was so random and so crystal clear, I can only describe it as having come from Jesus. But there it was: a warm loaf of yeasty, crusty bread, the top dusted with flour. A loaf of country bread, is how I imagine it would be labeled on our local bakery’s shelf. I could practically smell it.

When the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, He included the phrase “Give us today our daily bread.” It was his way of teaching them them to ask for enough. He told crowds to consider the birds and the lilies, which are always given just what they need. We can trust the Father to provide for us.

And of course, at the Last Supper, Jesus didn’t just suggest they pray for bread. He said he was the bread. He has spent the rest of history proving it to be true.

So, I’m trying this centering prayer business. It’s a new spiritual practice for me, and it’s transforming the way I look at God and look at what’s happening in and around me. I haven’t yet figured it out. I’m not in the habit of praying this way right when I wake up in the morning or before I go to bed. It’s an intermittent, once-in-awhile thing.

But this practice is reminding me that my perfectionism, achievement-driven tendencies aren’t helpful in my prayer life. I can’t just keep checking boxes; prayer is meant to be a conversation, a reflection of relationship, a way of life. This practice grounds me—centers me—back on Jesus and the way he provides and nourishes.

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You can read all the posts in my series on spiritual disciplines here.

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