What is prayer?
“Prayer is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, that leads to a full encounter with him,” Tim Keller writes in his book Prayer: Experiencing Awe and Intimacy with God.
That’s astounding, if you slow down and think about it. Prayer is talking to the Creator of all that is. Even more, it’s talking back to him, in response to his initiative to start a conversation with us. But even that definition fails to adequately describe what actually happens when we pray. So before he gives a definition of prayer, Keller quotes the English poet George Herbert’s poem “Prayer (I).” Herbert doesn’t define prayer; instead, he describes it, in all its richness and variety. Here is the poem. Don’t rush. Read it slowly.
Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.
Can we define prayer? Yes, certainly. But is defining it the end goal? By no means. We haven’t exhausted the meaning of prayer until we have personally experienced and entered into the riches Herbert describes. Don’t be content with a definition. Hear God’s invitation to you through Christ: you’re invited to the banquet. Enter the conversation. “For through [Christ] we both have access in one Spirit to the Father” (Ephesians 2:18).
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