I have recently finished listening to Tyler Staton’s book on prayer – Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools: An Invitation to the Wonder and Mystery of Prayer. I listened to Tyler Staton preach on the topic of the Lord’s Prayer at a leadership retreat a few months ago. Both his passion for and his experience in prayer impressed me.1 You can listen to these same sermons on the Bridgetown Church’s website. I did not expect this in such a young pastor. In his book, I was further intrigued by his emphasis on the importance of daily set times of prayer. He pointed out that both Jesus and the early church practiced regular times of prayer each day.
Jesus and his prayer life
Over the years, I have noticed that the Gospels (and particularly Luke) often note that Jesus gave himself to prayer. At this baptism, before he begins a busy day of ministry, and before he chooses the 12 apostles, Jesus is praying.2 See Luke 3:21, 5:15-16, 6:12-13. After a full day of teaching and then feeding a massive crowd of 5000, he climbs a mountain to pray rather than getting some sleep (Mark 5:44-46). What we often miss is that the Transfiguration happened when Jesus took his 3 closest disciples on a prayer retreat (see Luke 9:28-29). In fact, this prayer retreat was only about a week after another prayer retreat with his disciples (Luke 9:18-20).
A couple of chapters later, Jesus is again praying, and this time, the disciples ask him to teach them to pray (Luke 11:1). His example in prayer is so striking that the disciples want to learn to pray like that. By the time we get to Gethsemane, we are not surprised that Jesus insisted on praying until the very moment of his arrest (Luke 22:39-46).
Clearly, Jesus was a man of prayer. Major events in his life were framed by his times in prayer. He prepared for major decisions, important questions and the crowning crisis and triumph of his life on Golgotha through extended times of prayer. As Paul Miller observes, Jesus demonstrates his dependence on the Father in a remarkable way through his regular times of prayer.
When Jesus tells us to become like little children, he isn’t telling us to do anything he isn’t already doing. Jesus is, without question, the most dependent human being who ever lived. Because he can’t do life on his own, he prays. And he prays. And he prays. Luke tells us that Jesus “would withdraw to desolate places and pray” (5:16).Paul E. Miller. A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, loc. 653.
Three times a day
In “Praying Like Monks”, Staton says that godly Jews would pray three times a day – in the morning, at noon and in the evening. The Psalmist references this pattern in Ps 55:17. This was Daniel’s practice, even in exile in Babylon (Dan. 6:10). Staton believes that Jesus observed a similar daily prayer rhythm, and that the early believers copied this practice. Tyler Staton points out that the book of Acts mentions times of prayers at certain times of the day. Look at these examples:
One day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the time of prayer—at three in the afternoon. Acts 3:1
Cornelius replied, “Four days ago I was praying in my house about this same time, three o’clock in the afternoon. Suddenly, a man in dazzling clothes was standing in front of me. He told me, ‘Cornelius, your prayer has been heard, and your gifts to the poor have been noticed by God! Acts 10:30-31
The next day as Cornelius’s messengers were nearing the town, Peter went up on the flat roof to pray. It was about noon. Acts 10:9
Three o’clock was a scheduled prayer meeting at the temple, apparently for all Jews in Jerusalem. Peter and John went to the temple at that time, as part of their daily fellowship with other believers (Acts 2:42, 46). It seems likely that Cornelius, a Roman centurion living in Caesarea and a “God-fearer”, had also adopted the Jewish practice of praying at 3 o’clock each day. While praying, Cornelius sees a vision of an angel. The angel tells him that God has heard his prayers, and that he should send men to Joppa to get the Apostle Peter.
Praying while hungry
Peter was also a man of prayer. This was a priority that the apostles had agreed was more important than serving tables (see Acts 6:1-4). Even when Peter was away from Jerusalem and couldn’t go to the temple, it seems that he continued to have regular set times of prayer. Acts 10 finds Peter in Joppa and Acts 10:9 says that at 12:00 pm, Peter climbed up to the roof of the house where he was staying in order to pray. Noon was one of the three typical Jewish times of prayer. Clearly prayer was a priority for Peter. But the fact that the time of day is mentioned suggests that this was a regular set of prayer for Peter, rather than just a “spur-of-the-moment” prayer.
But while praying, Peter got hungry. So he went downstairs to ask his hosts to prepare lunch for him. Room service coming right up for the visiting apostle! But Peter went back up on the roof. Why? I believe that he continued praying. As he continued to pray, God spoke to him and prepared him for his momentous encounter with Cornelius.
Prayer changed Peter
While praying – and experiencing hunger pangs – Peter saw his now-famous vision of various unclean animals descending down to him in a sheet. A voice from heaven told him to kill and eat the animals presented before him. Peter strenuously objected that these animals were unclean and he had never eaten anything unclean. But in the vision, the Lord rebukes him for calling them unclean when God had made them clean. Just to make sure Peter got the point, the same thing happens again – and then once again. Peter has already had some painful experiences with thrice-repeated messages. So this powerful message is one Peter will remember. It prepared him to accept the “unclean” Gentiles that were about to knock on his door.
What would have happened if Peter had not been praying and listening to God on the roof at noon that day? What if he had stopped praying due to his hunger and gone downstairs to wait for lunch? The servants from Cornelius would have arrived at Peter’s lodging but Peter’s heart and mind would not have prepared by this very unusual vision. Would Peter have refused to go with Cornelius’ servants? Maybe he would have gone with them but with a great deal of reluctance and refused to enter the house where a crowd of Gentiles was waiting. Would Peter’s attitudes toward Gentiles prevented Cornelius and his friends and family from hearing the Gospel? Or hearing it as good news for them?
Preparation through prayer
The story of Peter praying at noon is an illustration of how important the early church considered prayer to be. But as someone who has lived for years among the Gospel-impoverished, I find this story very inspiring and challenging on a different level as well. Peter’s prayer time was what prepared him to bring the Gospel across the boundaries of culture and religion. While in Joppa, Peter was visiting believers and evangelizing Jews. He was not planning strategies to present the Gospel to Roman centurions. In fact, I don’t believe he had seriously considered that as a part of his apostolic responsibility.
But because he was a man of prayer, God got his attention and changed his thinking. He left Simon the tanner’s home with Cornelius’ messengers and with a different mindset than what he had when he had entered. This change happened during a time of prayer, probably a scheduled time of prayer.
Pray before we engage
I recently helped to edit a document for SEND International which describes the steps to open a new field. Not surprising, Step #1 is “Prayer”. When deciding whether or not to engage a new people group with the Gospel, we must commit to prayer. Then we must pray. The document tells the survey team to be disciplined in prayer. Do prayer walks through the cities and communities that one is surveying. Pray specifically for people under the influence of spiritual forces. While they pray, they must be listening to what God is telling them about the needs and hurts of this unreached people group.
Prayer is essential for preparing us to engage a new unreached people group for the purposes of the kingdom of God. It is also essential for preparing us on a daily basis. God has prepared opportunities for us to demonstrate Christ’s love and share Christ’s message. What will we miss – or do with the wrong attitude – if we do not spend time in prayer each day?
Is praying at regular set times legalistic?
Having set times of prayer throughout the day has not been part of my Christian practice. My church tradition taught me to do “daily devotions” but did not teach me to pray at certain times of the day. Setting times of prayer throughout a day reminds us of the Muslim requirement to pray 5 times a day. So we may object to establishing set times of prayer as legalist or ritualistic. Somehow it seems more spiritual to pray when you feel the Spirit prompting you to pray rather than stopping to pray at a set time of the day.
But according to the Didache, all Christians in the early church observed regular morning, midday and evening times of prayer. 3The earliest nonbiblical document we have from church life is called the Didache, which, among other things, details the morning, midday, and evening prayers observed by all Christians in the early church. Staton, Tyler. Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools (p. 196).
So is praying at set times throughout the day just a legalistic ritual? Or is it something that can strengthen and enhance our prayer lives? Tyler Staton argues that this practice is not only a good idea, it is desperately needed.
The modern church is in desperate need of one of the church’s most historic practices—one that has been largely forgotten in our time—a daily prayer rhythm. We can’t merely look back and romanticize another time. The invitation is to live it now. Prayer, to return to where we began, is more practice than theory. If we want a biblical experience, we must live biblical lives, taking on biblical practices in a new time and place.Staton, Tyler. Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools (pp. 198). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
A rhythm of fidelity
But he goes further. Staton compares regularly times of prayers to the discipline of fidelity within a marriage. Marriages need structures, habits and boundaries to keep the the relationship strong. This bind the union together long after the infatuation of the honeymoon stage is over. Regular meal times together, daily times of debriefing, annual vacation times together, and repeated affirmations of “I love you” all build strength into a marriage, even when one doesn’t necessarily feel “in love.”
So in “Praying Like Monks”, Tyler Staton says that a prayer rhythm is an expression of commitment and love.
A daily prayer rhythm is about fidelity. It has absolutely everything to do with love and absolutely nothing to do with legalism. Jesus’ personal discipline was always about freedom and life. When he rolled out of bed and made his way alone to the Mount of Olives to pray, it was love that drove him there, not a spiritual scorecard. For Jesus, being with the Father was his deepest desire, the source of identity, and only way to true life. “Discipline was, for Jesus, and should be for us, grounded in relationship and shaped by desire,” writes psychologist David Benner.4 David Benner, Desiring God’s Will: Aligning Our Hearts with the Heart of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2015), 29. God is not taking attendance or issuing grades. This is about love. To order your day according to intimacy with God is the lived intention to keep him as your first love.
Commitments, not feelings, are how we show our love. David Brooks defines a commitment as “falling in love with something [or someone] and then building a structure of behavior around it for those moments when love falters.”5 David Brooks, Second Mountain, 56. Jesus was getting at the same thing when he invited us to take on his “easy yoke.” (Matt 11:28-30) And that’s all a daily prayer rhythm is—a structure to support our deepest desires, even when our feelings and emotions betray us.Staton, Tyler. Praying Like Monks, Living Like Fools (pp. 198-9).
A discipline of love and preparation
So establishing a regular rhythm of prayer throughout the day is a helpful, maybe even a necessary, discipline. Based on Jesus’ and Peter’s example, we see that prayer is an essential part of preparing for ministry. Prayer can open us up to new opportunities. It can change the way we think about the invitations and needs before us. As Tyler Staton says, a regular rhythm of prayer is also an important way of expressing our commitment and love to our Lord. The two are closely related. As we continue in faithful intimacy with our Lord, his heart becomes our heart. We begin to more clearly see with his eyes. We see and love the people he loves.
One of the things that God has been teaching me over the last few years is the importance of a regular time of prayer each day. One of the most life-giving habits that I have established is long daily “prayer walks”. Typically these times of prayer have happened in the late afternoon after a full day of work. Prayer, exercise and listening to audio books are all combined into one long walk. After reading “Praying Like Monk”, I have added a short morning prayer walk to my daily rhythm of prayer. It is not yet a thrice-daily prayer time. But this morning time of prayer is helping to better prepare me for the tasks and meetings before me that day. I hope it will also prepare my heart and mind to recognize doors that God might be opening for me.