I don’t really believe in prayer.
I’m not talking about mindfulness or centering or yoga-breath-prayer or contemplation in nature—all of which have immediate, easily measurable embodied benefits. I am talking about intercessory prayer the way Jesus, Paul, and your grandma talk about and practice.
Mark's current prayer lab station (Image courtesy: Mark Phifer-Houseman)
I don’t believe in it in terms of how I have spent my time the last ten years. Or, rather, I have believed in it the same way I believe in multivitamins: probably good for you, won’t hurt if you skip them for months at a time, not a central part of the day, and dangerous if you overdo it.
What we do with our time, our heart, and our energy shows what we believe in. By this definition, I believe in: the above-mentioned practices, teamwork, study, strategic thinking, evidence based solutions, the church and its worship, treasuring family and investing in the next generation—but not in intercessory prayer.
This is strange to confess because I have been a pastor and spiritual director during the past ten years. Pastors pray, don’t they? Well, actually, if you look at the research, American pastors as a whole subscribe to the multivitamin prayer creed. But being lumped in the middle of that bell curve is not a comforting location for me.
A few things have pushed the truth about my prayer life into my consciousness. I moved from the pragmatic, relational beehive of Silicon Valley and The River into rural Cambria, where the landscape and the pace of life invite reflection and a more robust interior life.
Second, I have begun working with global church leaders, for whom intercessory prayer is a central part of everything they do. The contrast between their intercessory lives and mine is stark.
Third, I have begun grieving things I interceded for with my whole heart for many years that did not come to pass the way I had longed for. And I’m grieving the way that my disappointment broke down my fragile, intercessory life.
Now, finally, the cognitive dissonance between the prayer practices of Jesus and the global church leaders, and my own life have inspired me to study and experiment with intercession beyond the multivitamin paradigm.
I am at the beginning of reopening the door to intercessory prayer. Facing grief (again) hurts. Speaking openly about my unbelief is rather embarrassing. I also feel uncool spiritually when I share this with friends. The process is not sexy or mysterious, just challenging.
Setting aside daily time for personal intercession school feels risky, as I am in my first year as a trainer and coach for global church leaders. I fear I won’t be able to sit still daily or carry on for years the way Jesus, Paul, my grandma, and my international friends do.
But my journaling feels more alive and honest than it has in years. I am seeing fresh things in Scripture. I feel caught up in the mystery of the Spirit and God’s presence in my soul and the unanswered sufferings of this world. Humility feels good.
During this time, I am returning to old mentors to gently lead me. Nineteenth-century pastor Andrew Murray (I told you this wasn’t sexy) has become a key mentor in understanding intercession and the dynamics of the praying life. He writes:
Christ is our life: his life is an ever praying life, if we will but trust him for it....It is when we believe this, and go and abide in Him for our prayer life too, that our fears of not being able to pray aright will vanish, and we shall joyfully and triumphantly trust our Lord to teach us to pray, to be Himself the life and the power of our prayer. May God open our eyes to see what the holy ministry of intercession is, to which, as his royal priesthood, we have been set apart.
That’s my prayer for my own life this year, to leave the multivitamin approach to intercessory prayer behind and to welcome Jesus’ own prayer life into my days.
Mark Phifer-Houseman has been married to his best friend and hero, Gayll, for thirty-two years. He has been enthralled by Jesus since sophomore year in college. That pursuit led to twenty-four years of ministry to college students and eight years as The River’s staff director. He currently serves as a leadership trainer and coach, primarily among under-resourced leaders in the Global South.
Notable accomplishments include: clinging to Jesus while disabled for fourteen years with chronic neuropathy and following Gayll’s leadership in adopting their four children from Ethiopia in 2003. He loves to see young people come alive to God and boldly follow their calling, communities living out the radical love of God, and families and churches thriving (including his own). He's a podcast addict: This American Life, Snap Judgement, Invisibilia, Hidden Brain, and Radiolab are a few faves. He's certain that food in the age to come will be mainly Ethiopian, Indian, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican (not necessarily in that order). He has been led astray by dark chocolate.