Growing up, prayer was largely a matter of table grace, prayer at church, and praying for urgent matters—a sick relative or wisdom for a difficult decision. As I grew up, personal prayer journaling was an early important prayer practice in my own spiritual life, though the line between prayer (addressing God) and simply journaling (just trying to capture and sort out my own thoughts) was pretty blurry. Prayer really started to come into focus for me in college when I started attending a Vineyard church. It was there that the prayer that had always had the form of a conversation, really had the potential to become a dialogue in substance. In the Vineyard, we listen for God’s voice and expect to hear something, discern that in community, and walk in courageous obedience to what we heard.
I think many of us have been given the impression that Jesus is the “answer man,” the guy who has an answer for anything and everything. Certainly, we’ve encountered followers of Jesus who come across as if following Jesus means they have all the answers—maybe we’ve been those sorts of Jesus followers or have felt pressured to be those sorts of followers. But again and again in the Gospels, Jesus is asking people questions—and I don’t think he’s quizzing them. I think he’s genuinely interested in what they have to say. Jesus is looking for conversations—for candid dialogue. And I think that’s possible today.
Many of us are used to the idea that we might speak to God or to Jesus. Maybe at times it feels like shouting into the darkness or whatnot, but it’s not hard to do—at least as an imaginative exercise. What’s harder—even imaginatively—is to try to hear Jesus speaking to us. Are we just making things up? Are we just using Jesus as a puppet to say whatever we want to hear? Using the questions that Jesus actually asks in the Gospels is a way of grounding our conversations in the actual words of Jesus.
This is not new. The Jesuits, for example, have been inviting people to place themselves imaginatively within the Gospel narratives for centuries—and to great effect. There’s something profoundly powerful about placing ourselves into these scenes and engaging with Jesus through them. It’s a way of starting the conversation and encountering the living presence of Jesus that inhabits the biblical text.
Prayer is about a dialogue, a back-and-forth. Maybe at times it feels like self-talk or shouting into the void, but ideally, prayer genuinely involves a divine encounter, someone genuinely “on the other end of the line” participating in the conversation. Now, that idea may push us beyond our comfort zone—that’s where this may be for many of us an imaginative experiment, but I think it makes all the difference in the world.
Matt Croasmun is the author of Let Me Ask You a Question (Upper Room Books, 2018). He serves as associate research scholar and director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale Divinity School. Teaching is his calling—in the church and in the university setting. He also serves as staff pastor of Elm City Vineyard Church, a dynamic, diverse, urban church in New Haven, Connecticut.
“Spiritual vitality in our churches stems from our openness to God’s transforming presence, not in anxious striving. Tending the soul of the congregation starts with attending to God’s presence in our lives as leaders, then bringing the same prayerful openness into the meetings and ministries of the church. Our work is to help the people to pay attention to, listen to, learn from, and live in the Spirit.” Read more.