A Pilgrim's Theology of Prayer

Early in my seminarian pursuits I read Pilgrim Theology (Michael Bauman).  Although most the concepts didn’t stick, there was one I found to be consistent with my own experience and heart.   Bauman simplistically categorized all who think about God (theologians) into two approaches using Middle Age metaphors: Fortress Theologians (Defender) and Pilgrim Theologians (Explorer).   The former theologians discover Truth about God along the way and because it’s so valuable they are compelled to lay claim to it, build a fort around it, and defend it.  On the other hand, when the pilgrim theologians come upon a sacred and beautiful Truth they worship and rejoice and eagerly continue up the path anticipating even more awe-inspiring revelation.

Marin Headlands (San Francisco, CA) just above Rodeo Beach lies these old cement bag bunkers.

Marin Headlands (San Francisco, CA) just above Rodeo Beach lies these old cement bag bunkers.

I have come to see myself as the later, and because of that I have come to see my relationship with prayer as more of a pilgrimage and less of a formula.

This pilgrimage in prayer has been a love-hate relationship.  Not with God, but with prayer.   And that love-hate relationship, over the past decade and a half, has traversed through seasons of fruitfulness and wild wastelands of nothingness.  

I dug into the problem of prayer when I was eighteen, eager to wield this discipline as my defining skill.  As a young ministry student I prayed almost daily, “Jesus, make me into a ‘Man of Prayer’.”  I thought I knew what I was asking for, but really the request was more about self-differentiation.   I had no ambition for pastoral leadership, neither was I gifted with a conference voice or an author’s words.  I understood the world artistically, but had no art to express how I saw the world.   Admin and systems and organization frustrated me.   So almost daily I prayed, “Jesus, make me into a Man of Prayer.”   I felt I could excel at that since there didn’t seem to be much competition for that position in the church.   

I felt I could excel at prayer since there didn’t seem to be much competition for that position in the church.   

Over the life cycle of prayer I have encountered several problems.  Early on, the problem of prayer was motivation—having no desire to pray.  Once I was motivated, the problem of prayer became information—not knowing how to pray.  Third, the problem of prayer was duration and tenacity—not having the stamina to pray.    Fourth, the problem of prayer was personal development—not having developed the competencies necessary to pray or the skills to use various forms of prayer.   Fifth, the problem of prayer was a misguided understanding of prayer’s purpose and function—a lacking theology of prayer.  

To be sure, I never prayed as though prayer was a problem.   That is, my focus was not on solving the prayer problem; only in hindsight did I became aware that the struggle took on the nuances of varying landscapes and topographies.   There were euphoric and joyous moments along the way, whetting my appetite for more.  Whether I was energized and transfixed by the Father-King's power, or weepy and emptied through repentance to the Savior-Lamb's grace; I kept at it.    Perhaps it was the consistent observation of wholeheartedness that filled days where prayer was present; while contrastively, anxiousness and futility accompanied seasons of prayerlessness. 

What I have come to learn is that God used each season in the life cycle of prayer.  God was not cuffed by my ineptitude or confounded by my theological illiteracy.  Masterfully and graciously he used both my steps and my missteps to lead me closer to him.  Candidly, it seems there have been more missteps than steps, but I never sensed frustration or anger from him.   To be sure, I was frustrated often, but most always with myself.   He was with me when I didn’t know what to say or how to think; and he taught me to be with Him when he wasn’t speaking or directing.  For example, during the stage of self-motivation, my commitment level would wane and my discipline would falter; lovingly he would remind me, “Its’ not about you.”  He endeared himself to me in those moments.

Hiking in Yosemite on the path to Half Dome ascending the subdome granite steps.

Hiking in Yosemite on the path to Half Dome ascending the subdome granite steps.

I have come to appreciate each movement in the life cycle of prayer noticing my foibles and accepting human limitations.  I grimace when I think what might have happened had God not used the steps and stumbles.  Or had he not kept tugging me to pilgrimage further.   

The life cycle of prayer has not come full circle in my life.  There is more, much more to learn and experience.  But over the course of the next few weeks I would like to share some reflections on prayer from the current stage of which I find myself.... Reflections on a little pilgrim's theology of prayer.