I grew up in a house washed by prayer. It was common for me to be awakened by the rhythmic sounds of my parents’ morning devotions. A blessing preceded every meal—and occasionally snacks. Pulling out of the driveway was a prompt to pray for safety, and we always knelt to talk to God at the close of each day.
You would think with all that chatting with God, he and I would have become best friends. But we really weren’t very close back then. In spite of all the talking, I typically admired him from a distance—I had his phone number, but almost never invited him to come over for a visit. To be honest, I was confused as to what happened when you closed your eyes and spoke with the Creator of the universe. Prayer just didn’t make sense to my young brain.
I could understand why farmers and pilgrims offered thanks to God for sending rain and flocks of turkeys, but I wasn’t sure he was involved with stocking the shelves at the local grocery. And while saying a version of “Now I lay me down to sleep” each night felt comforting, it often seemed more ritualistic than conversational. I did it more from fear that he would be angry if I didn’t than from a desire to talk friend to friend.
But the real mindblower for me were the two types of prayer I experienced each week at church: intercessory prayer and glossolalia (praying in tongues).
I grew up in a Pentecostal world, attending church services that were punctuated by these forms of prayer. And quite often, both brought my confusion about prayer to crescendo.
Whenever we gathered, there was intercession for others. The Middle East, families in crisis, medical concerns, drought, political elections, and the need for revival were common focal points for intercession. Sometimes things changed dramatically.
Sometimes they didn’t. But almost always I was befuddled. Why did the omnipotent, omnipresent, and merciful God need our little band to remind him of what needed to be done before he would act? And what would he do about competing requests—which was particularly poignant on Super Bowl Sundays?
The other prevalent form of prayer at our church was glossolalia. Occasionally people would pray in tongues during a regular church service; it always happened during revivals. As a young teenager who had not yet shared this experience, I began to dread revivals.
But with a father who was a Pentecostal minister and a faith-healing evangelist for an uncle, revivals were inescapable and praying in tongues expected. And I did, sort of, at least enough to satisfy those who were praying for me. I remember deep joy. I remember brief moments of being lost in the vastness of God. But even so, this form of prayer never felt completely comfortable to me. While I never doubted its validity or benefits, I longed for my own experience to be more spontaneous, free, and frequent. If the truth be told, when it came to prayer (blessings, nightly devotions, intercession, glossolalia, etc.) I always felt like a spiritual ugly duckling—with no vision of ever becoming a grown-up duck, let alone a swan.
Yes, I’m giving too much background before talking about Richard J. Foster’s wonderful book. But I wanted you to know exactly why I found it to be so meaningful. Reading Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2008) finally solved the most baffling riddles concerning the mystery of prayer. The insights began pouring in with the first words.
01. Prayer Is Nothing but Love
Foster begins his book with a quote from St. Augustine: “True, whole prayer is nothing but love.” And then he immediately pulls back the curtains on the vision that inspired his writing. I’m very familiar with his revelation. For more than ten years I’ve read it at the beginning of each class I teach on spiritual formation. In Foster’s words:
God has graciously allowed me to catch a glimpse into his heart, and I want to share with you what I have seen. Today the heart of God is an open wound of love. He aches over our distance and preoccupation. He mourns that we do not draw near to him. He grieves that we have forgotten him. He weeps over our obsession with muchness and many-ness. He longs for our presence. And he is inviting you—and me—to come home, to come home to where we belong, to come home to that for which we were created. His arms are stretched out wide to receive us. His heart is enlarged to take us in. For too long we have been in a far country: a country of noise and hurry and crowds, a country of climb and push and shove, a country of frustration and fear and intimidation. And he welcomes us home: home to serenity and peace and joy, home to friendship and fellowship and openness, home to intimacy and acceptance and affirmation. We do not need to be shy. He invites us into the living room of his heart, where we can put on old slippers and share freely. He invites us into the kitchen of his friendship, where chatter and batter mix in good fun. He invites us into the dining room of his strength, where we can feast to our heart’s delight. He invites us into the study of his wisdom, where we can learn and grow and stretch . . . and ask all the questions we want. He invites us into the workshop of his creativity, where we can be co-laborers with him, working together to determine the outcomes of events. He invites us into the bedroom of his rest, where new peace is found and where we can be naked and vulnerable and free. It is also the place of deepest intimacy, where we know and are known to the fullest. (pp. 1–2)
Could it be that real prayer is a matter of falling in love with God and then returning home from a distant land of fear and self-sufficiency to enjoy his warm embrace? Could it be that I was confused because I had missed the primary focus of prayer? What if prayer is not predominantly about habit or asking or even ecstasy? What if it is about love and relationship, and its primary enemy is estrangement? Then, as Foster reminds, I can relax into the notion that prayer does not come from gritting our teeth, but from surrendering to love and coming home to the open heart of God. Few insights have resonated so well with the deepest longings of my soul.
02. Prayer Requires Honesty
In addition to his shifting the focal points of prayer from effort and activity to love and mutual longing, I like Foster’s book because of his disarming honesty. “The truth of the matter is,” he says right on the book jacket, “we all come to prayer with a tangled mass of motives—altruistic and selfish, merciful and hateful, loving and bitter.” We say we want to learn how to pray, but we are often ambivalent about its practice. Yes, begin with honesty and I’ll listen for hours. Foster’s frankness and transparency are powerfully appealing. He knows that we both yearn for and hide from communion with God, and he is candid about what holds us back, what has held him back. While we may say that we are too busy to pray, it is rare, to use Foster’s words, that “our busyness . . . keeps us from eating or sleeping or making love” (p. 7). But why this ambivalence when it comes to prayer? Because when we approach prayer as dialogue between two people deeply in love, somewhere inside we know we must give up things that keep us from total trust and reckless abandonment—things to which we may have become attached as anchors of security. This is frightening! To pray as lovers talk means to let go of control, distance, power, and willfulness; loving dialogue eventually moves to confession of our ambivalence— if present—and toward progressively deeper surrender of separation. Truly to pray is to turn around and head back home to God, but it also means leaving the places where we have learned to feel some measure of comfort and safety. To pray is to become honest with the one we love. Foster’s honesty courts my own. As I read, I am pulled toward love; I am motivated to be candid about my attachments and deceit.
03. Prayer Is Multifaceted
Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home comprises twenty-one chapters; each describes a different form of prayer. Foster’s ability to provide such comprehensive coverage is a testimony to the breadth of his exposure and the depth of his insights. A book like this could be written only by someone who has personally waded in the major tributaries of Christian spirituality.
While each chapter emanates from the central axis of love and features a blending of Foster’s honesty and poetic expressions, it is perhaps the comprehensive coverage that is most striking.
In reading the first chapter— on simple prayer—I gained a renewed appreciation for so many of the prayers offered up in my home as a child. “Simple Prayer involves ordinary people bringing ordinary concerns to a loving and compassionate Father” (p. 10). There is no facade with simple prayer, no pretending to be holy, no concealment of true feelings. Simple prayer is beginning right where you are and talking to God because he is already there too. Yes, this type of prayer can become habitual, even ritualistic. Yes, it is often self-focused. But it can also be something real and foundational, the beginning place for simple and honest conversation with the one we are learning to love, the one who already loves us more than we can imagine. I whisper an apology to my parents for not always seeing the importance of their simple prayers, and then offer that same simple prayer to God.
I found other prayers from my childhood in this book—but richly reframed. Chapter 17 is about intercessory prayer. But Foster does not present intercessory prayer as a method for forcing God’s hand or banding people together for the purpose of turning their shared will into earthly reality. No, he casts intercessory prayer as a product of overflowing love. If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others more fully (p. 191).
I of course wondered if Foster would deal with glossolalia. I noticed that it was not used as one of his twenty-one headings. I noticed this with some smugness. But my assessment was wrong.
Chapter 12 is titled “The Prayer of the Heart” and describes various prayers of intimacy, including both the “abba prayer” and glossolalia. According to Foster, the Prayer of the Heart is the Holy Spirit praying within us (p. 136). It is a third stage of prayer, where our communion with God moves beyond praying with the lips and mind and into the heart. In this prayer form we experience “friendship held in reverence” as we are ushered by the Spirit into the profoundest intimacy with God (p. 137). The Prayer of the Heart is a form of interior surrender to the presence of God. A friend, Jack Finney, wrote his dissertation on contemplative prayer. In his research he concluded that through the centuries there have been two forms of prayer in which the focus is on interior surrender—contemplative prayer and glossolalia. Foster shows great insight and ecumenical sensitivity in the placement of glossolalia in his chapter on Prayer of the Heart. He treats a potentially divisive topic, praying in tongues, and places it in the context of interior surrender to love and locates it just two chapters before its first cousin, contemplative prayer. I am both amazed and ashamed of my arrogance.
04. Other Secrets
In addition to his use of a backdrop of loving relationship, honesty, and ecumenism, Foster writes this book with the same communication secrets that have made him a best-selling author. I will highlight only three.
Practicality and Accessibility. For all who would say, “I would like to pray, but I do not know how,” Foster removes the barrier. Each chapter on prayer is clearly written and provides practical examples—and for some chapters, specific suggestions—that answer the questions of “how to.”
Compelling Transitions. In the introduction to the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Celebration of Discipline, Richard J. Foster shares a writing tip he picked up from his friend and mentor, Elton Trueblood. In providing encouragement to write the book, Trueblood counseled, “Be certain that every chapter forces the reader into the next chapter” (p. xviii). The advice helped shape the order of the chapters in Celebration of Discipline and, I believe, is also seen in this volume. I felt a tug to continue at the end of each chapter. It’s a book on prayer that was hard to put down.
Skillfull Organization. The twenty-one chapters of Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home are divided into three sections of seven chapters each. (Please see “Table of Definitions” at the end). The headings for these sections are: “Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need”; “Moving Upward: Seeking the Intimacy We Need”; and “Moving Outward: Seeking the Ministry We Need.” Two things are striking about this organizational sequence. First, ministry (moving outward) follows attention to both personal transformation and the experience of intimacy with God. Second, in the heart of the book—and just before the transition to the ministry section— Foster places his chapters on Meditative and Contemplative Prayer. If you accept Julian of Norwich’s notion that the goal of contemplative prayer is union with God (p. 159) and Foster’s own contention that “the core of contemplation is simply and profoundly falling in love with God over and over again,” then the wisdom of the organizational structure becomes apparent. Love and honesty are the fuel of prayer. In turn, the conversation of prayer slowly produces transformation, which moves the one in dialogue with God toward intimacy and union. From the position of progressive love and companionship with God, ministry is best given. Love flows in; love flows out. And prayer is the conduit.
GWM: I understand that while you were doing the research for your book on prayer, you began to feel overwhelmed and almost gave up on the project. Take us back to those days: what was going on in your heart?
RJF: I was immersed in the subject matter but saw how deep and complicated it was and felt that no one person in no one book could address all of the difficulties. Who was I to write on this most profound subject in Christian life? But the Word of the Lord, the debar Yahweh that came was of simple reassurance: “Just tell the story of my longing for my children.” That July 1990 night I saw the heart of God, and the heart of God was an open wound of love. The encouragement of God was to “tell my people that my heart is broken, that their preoccupation wounds me, that I am hurt at their distant life of distraction. Tell my children to come home, to come home to where they belong, to come home to that for which they were created.” And that’s what I try to do in the book.
GWM: And it is the warmth of that invitation to come “back home” to love, relationship, and dialogue with God that makes your book so inviting. But it is also one of the most comprehensive works on prayer I’ve ever read. You describe twenty-one forms of prayer. While I know it would break the symmetry, do you ever feel like you left one out?
RJF: Yes, in my studies I first identified forty-five approaches to prayer, but I knew that people couldn’t wrap their minds around that. So I gathered the concepts into twenty-one approaches to prayer. The idea is not to form a scheme that covers every jot and tittle of prayer, but to see the larger vision of a life of communion with God.
GWM: You make the statement, “We today yearn for and hide from prayer.” What makes us so ambivalent in our approach to prayer?
RJF: We are still in the process of being conquered by God and, since prayer is the most intimate of human experiences, we fear opening the deepest dimensions of life, even to God. But once we learn that God is good, truly good, then we can see that this is the way of Life.
GWM: Richard, what has made you most convinced that God is truly good?
RJF: The life of Jesus. Watching how he never “broke a bruised reed nor quenched a smoldering wick”; how he never crushed the needy, never snuffed out the smallest hope. And we simply must come to recognize that great teaching of the New Testament of the Christlikeness of God. We know that God is good because Jesus is good. Always!
GWM: To write a book like this—so balanced and thorough—you had to have become a “both and” person instead of what seems so much more common, “either or.” How did you discover the “holy both and”? What’s the secret to becoming balanced?
RJF: Years ago, I learned the little line, “They drew a circle that shut me out/Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout/But love and I had the wit to win/We drew a circle that took them in.” And I saw that the great need of our day and the move of God among us were for the gathering of an all-inclusive community under Jesus. As William James said, “There is a composite likeness to Godliness.”
GWM: Why is the church so splintered?
RJF: Because we love drawing circles that shut people out.
GWM: Because moving from a divisive “either or” to an inclusive “both and” approach to life threatens a person’s sense of being in control?
RJF: Exactly! When we draw the circles, we can say who is “in” and who is “out.” But, of course, when we turn these matters over to God, we are no longer in control of who has it and who doesn’t. In time, though, we learn what a grace it is that we are not on the selection committee.
GWM: Do you think that our individual differences—particularly personality and temperament differences—cause us to gravitate to particular prayer forms? Does an extrovert, for example, have a prayer for becoming a contemplative?
RJF: Of course. However, it is important in this regard to play to our weaknesses more than to our strengths. Just like gymnasts who are good at the floor exercise but not so good at the parallel bars, they must work on the parallel bars, not the floor exercise, if they expect to become well-rounded. Therefore, the extrovert needs times to “be still and know that I am God,” and the introvert needs times to “be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth.”
GWM: I’ve often said—as a card-carrying introvert—that extroverts drive us crazy. They write all these books on street evangelism and authoritative prayer. But we get them back. We write about solitude and contemplative prayer. If I’m hearing you right, you are saying that we should celebrate our strengths but lean into our weaknesses. As a follow-up question, why do various groups under or overvalue certain forms of prayer?
RJF: We all gravitate toward what is familiar and comfortable, which is precisely why we must be challenged to move into new and different forms of prayer.
GWM: This is an abrupt change of direction, but how would you comfort a child who believes his or her prayer has gone unanswered?
RJF: I find that this is much more of a problem for adults than it is for children. Children, with simplicity of heart, trust in God, who cares for them. God always answers their prayers, and they instinctively understand that the answers come in many forms. It is adults who complicate prayer by worrying over whether an answer has come precisely as the pray-er anticipates.
GWM: That’s a wonderful observation. And I hate to do this to you, but let me rephrase the question. What is your best counsel concerning unanswered prayer?
RJF: Oh, prayer is never “unanswered,” though it is often answered in ways that we are not prepared for. You see, we are looking at only the back side of life’s tapestry. Just the tangled threads, and so we often have a hard time seeing the “design.” God, who sees the whole picture, is able to respond to our prayers in a way that does the greatest good in advancing the Kingdom of God among human beings. Often years later we can look back at our prayers and are enabled to thank God that they were not answered in the way we had asked.
GWM: Are you concerned that the emphasis on intercessory prayer sometimes seems to drift toward coercing God to perform, instead of simply being a way to love others?
RJF: All forms of prayer can be disturbing, and this is certainly true of intercessory prayer. But at its heart, intercessory prayer is a way to love others because, if we love people, we desire for them far more than we have the power to give them, and that will lead us to prayer.
GWM: That’s the balance in your words that I’m so taken by. You move intercessory prayer from what, for some, can become an arena of power and control, to a venue of shared love and concern. On page 244, you describe an early-morning prayer time in which you hear from God as you are examining a decaying tree. You heard the words, “This is my Church!” Tears came to your eyes. But you turned 180 degrees and looked at Haystack Rock as it stood strong against the ocean tide, and you heard, “This is what my Church is going to be!” Was that the moment the vision for Renovaré was born in your heart?
RJF: The specific guidance regarding this experience was to pray for the raising up of prophetic leaders across the world who could be used of God for the building of his Church—leaders who would be “lone like the Tishbite, like the Baptist bold, cast in a rare and apostolic mold.” The vision for Renovaré became an extension of this prayer as I was seeking to find ways to overcome the three great problems I saw among the people of God. First, I saw that people were trying and not training in the spiritual life. Second, I saw that people were scattered and not gathered. And third, that people had a myopic or narrow vision rather than a synoptic or whole vision of Christian life and faith. Celebration of Discipline worked with the problem of people trying rather than training. The Renovaré Spiritual Formation Groups work on people being gathered rather than scattered. And Streams of Living Water works on giving people a whole vision of Christian life and faith.
GWM: So, I read too much into your early morning encounter with God at Haystack Rock? That’s not the first time my intuitions raced ahead of my frontal lobes. What are your most common prayer practices during the course of a typical day?
RJF: The next day begins at sundown, and so that’s when prayer begins, committing ourselves to God in sleep and giving the next day to God. Then in the morning, we reorient ourselves toward God for his purposes for the day, listening, seeking guidance, asking, being still. Throughout the day, we have little times of adoration and praise, thanksgiving and intercession. In the afternoon, we give a brief time to reviewing the day with a view toward thanksgiving, praise, and repentance.
GWM: On page 6 you tell the story about Abba Joseph. The famous desert father instructs a young apprentice by rising up and stretching out his hands to heaven. His fingers have become like ten lamps of fire, and he says, “Why not be totally changed into fire?” What’s up with that story? I’m having no success with it.
RJF: The stories of the Desert Fathers and Mothers were always meant to leave us with a question: “What does that mean?” They were intended to cause us to brood, and, of course, fire does many things. It purifies, it destroys, it gives light and heat, and much more. Your question reminds me of another story about fire. In 1657, when the English ship the Woodhouse was preparing to make that long and dangerous journey across the Atlantic to the Colonies, it made port in Bristol for supplies and repairs. The Christians on board, instead of staying on the ship, fanned out all over the countryside, preaching the Good News of Jesus. We know about this from the ship’s captain, who wrote into the logbook, “The servants of Christ were not idle. They gathered sticks, built a fire, and left it burning.”
GWM: Thanks for that image. Last question. What is your best advice to someone who wants to experience more and more moments each day in which they feel aflame with the love of God?
RJF: Give this moment and this day to God, and don’t worry too much about the next moment and the next day.
06. Definitions of Prayer
Moving Inward: Seeking the Transformation We Need
“In Simple Prayer we bring ourselves before God just as we are, warts and all. Like children before a loving father, we open our hearts and make our requests. . . . We simply and unpretentiously share our concerns and make our petitions.” (p. 9)
Prayer of the Forsaken
The prayer we pray when we sense that we have been abandoned by God. “The biblical metaphor for these experiences of forsakenness is the desert. . . . Saint John of the Cross named it ‘the dark night of the soul.’” (p. 18)
The Prayer of Examen
“[The prayer of examen] has two basic aspects, like two sides of a door. The first is the examen of consciousness through which we discover how God has been present to us throughout the day and how we have responded to his loving presence. The second aspect is an examen of conscience in which we uncover those areas that need cleansing, purifying, and healing.” (pp. 27–28)
The Prayer of Tears
“What is it, this Prayer of Tears? It is being ‘cut to the heart’ over our distance and offense to the goodness of God (Acts 2:37). It is weeping over our sins and the sins of the world.” (p. 37)
The Prayer of Relinquishment
The prayer of relinquishment is “a grace-filled releasing of our will and a flowing into the will of the Father. It . . . moves us from the struggling to the releasing.” (p. 47)
“The primary purpose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son. The process of transformation is the sole focus of Formation Prayer.” (p. 57)
“Covenant Prayer is a profound interior heart call to a God-intoxicated life. It leads us to the crossroad of personal decision. It guides us through the valley of sacred commitment. It beckons us up the alpine pathway of holy obedience.” (p. 67)
Moving Upward: Seeking the Intimacy We Need
The Prayer of Adoration
“When our reply to God is most direct of all, it is called adoration. Adoration is the spontaneous yearning of the heart to worship, honor, magnify, and bless God. . . . We ask for nothing and cherish him.” (p. 81)
The Prayer of Rest
“Through the Prayer of Rest, God places his children in the eye of the storm. When all around us is chaos and confusion, deep within we know stability and serenity…. While a thousand frustrations seek to distract us, we remain focused and attentive. This is the fruit of the Prayer of Rest.” (p. 93)
“Sacramental Prayer is incarnational prayer. [In sacramental prayer] we can be lifted into high, holy reverence by the richness and depth of a well-crafted liturgy. . . . [or] through the warmth and intimacy of spontaneous worship.” (p. 105)
[Unceasing Prayer is] continual conversations with God. (p. 119)
The Prayer of the Heart
“The Prayer of the Heart is the prayer of intimacy. It is the prayer of love and tenderness of a child to Father God. [Often called ‘abba prayer.’] Like the mother hen, who gathers her chicks under her wings, we, through the Prayer of the Heart, allow God to gather us to himself—to hold us, to coddle us, to love us (Luke 13:34).” (p. 131)
“In Meditative Prayer the Bible ceases to be a quotation dictionary and becomes instead ‘wonderful words of life’ that lead us to the Word of life. It differs from the study of Scripture. Whereas the study of Scripture centers on exegesis, the meditation upon Scripture centers on internalizing and personalizing the passage. The written word becomes a living word addressed to us.” (p. 146)
“In its most basic and fundamental expression, Contemplative Prayer is a loving attentiveness to God. . . . [The goal of contemplative prayer] is union with God.” (pp. 158–159)
Moving Outward: Seeking the Ministry We Need
Praying the Ordinary
“We pray the ordinary in three ways: first, by turning ordinary experiences of life into prayer; second, by seeing God in the ordinary experiences of life; and third, by praying throughout the ordinary experiences of life.” (p. 169)
“When our asking is for ourselves it is called petition; when it is on behalf of others it is called intercession. Asking is at the heart of both experiences.” (p. 179)
“If we truly love people, we will desire for them far more than it is within our power to give them, and this will lead us to prayer. Intercession is a way of loving others.” (p. 191)
“Healing Prayer is part of the normal Christian life. It should not be elevated above any other ministry in the community of faith, nor should it be undervalued; rather, it should be kept in proper balance. It is simply a normal aspect of what it means to live under the reign of God.” (p. 203)
The Prayer of Suffering
In the Prayer of Suffering we leave far behind our needs and wants, even our transformation and union with God. Here we give to God the various difficulties and trials that we face, asking him to use them redemptively. We also voluntarily take into ourselves the griefs and sorrows of others in order to set them free. In our sufferings those who suffer come to see the face of the suffering God.” (p. 217)
“In Authoritative Prayer we are calling forth the will of the Father upon the earth. Here we are not so much speaking to God as speaking for God. We are not asking God to do something; rather we are using the authority of God to command something done.” (p. 229)
“Radical Prayer goes to the root, the heart, the center. The word radical itself comes from the Latin radix, which means root. . . . It dares to believe that things can be different. Its aim is the total transformation of persons, institutions, and societies. Radical Prayer, you see, is prophetic.” (p. 240)
All definitions are taken from Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, by Richard J. Foster. 1992, HarperSanFrancisco.
See Spiritual Classics: Selected Readings for Individuals and Groups on the Twelve Spiritual Disciplines, Richard J. Foster and Emilie Griffin, eds. 2000. HarperSanFrancisco. 21.