Our household is changing and so are our household rhythms. Since our children left home God has brought other people to us to share life with. We have from one to three singles living with us at any one time and this has enriched our lives greatly.

Part of coming together is finding a corporate rhythm to help weave our lives together and create a harmonious home. We decided we would try having structured night prayer together after dinner to help us find connection. It has been far richer than we would have imagined and a practice we will not give up. We use a written form of prayer from the Anglican Prayer book as well as spending time praying what is on our hearts. This regularity of words might seem lifeless to some, but we keep finding these crafted words of scripture full of spiritual light and life. We hear the voice of God afresh in the readings, hymns, and prayers, for as we gather God leads and teaches us. But more than that we find comfort, a releasing of the day’s worries, and we are reminded of the certainty of our hope in Christ. And it is forming us into a Christ community energised and centred in him.

During lockdown we had more time on our hands, but also the challenge of being with one another for longer periods of time. We decided that we would also gather for morning devotions, another weekly cycle of readings, silence, and prayers. This has become a rich time of listening to God and one another. We have concluded that this is something we don’t want to let go of now that we are out of lockdown and back onsite at our various workplaces. This time of pause and realigning with God and one another is too precious to lose. We give God our challenges for the day ahead and listen to one another’s heart. We hear the call of mission and this fine-tunes our own work environments. We are reminded that we participate in God’s world and he has gone before us; we are joining in with his work. I sense God weaving us together with his love, grace, wisdom, and strength. While we have always prayed individually, I have found that it is so much richer spending this time together within a structured format than my inevitable prayer time in morning traffic. That kind of prayer had, for me, become too self-centred and too lackadaisical. Structure has helped me find green pasture and still waters and I have needed this.

We initially thought about using the prayer book as two of our children have been at Blueprint church in Wellington where many members live in community houses that follow a rhythm of daily prayer. This convinced us to give more structured prayer a go. We have never been overly connected to a written prayer book; we might worship in an Anglican church, but we are low church in our ecclesiology and warm to freer-form styles of gathering. But seeing how this was helping our children has impacted Craig and me and we decided it might be worth a try.

During my research I did some work for a conference on prayer in the time of Jesus – and guess what? The Jewish world used cycles of readings and structured prayer, as well as having time for informal and spontaneous prayers. They gathered in households and sometimes at the synagogue to pray, and it looks an awful lot like the prayer book. I was initially surprised as it is easy to look at sayings like “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess 5:17) and imagine Paul withdrawing to pray and chatting about his day with God. But when Paul said this, he did so as a faithful Jew in his socio-historical context. Here are some things I learned about prayer in the time of Jesus.

Special prayers formed the beginning and end of each day and individual prayers, both liturgical and spontaneous, supplemented these. There was a rhythm to life and prayer that was integral to it. The Psalter formed a critical part of this daily ritual. This was similar to what we now know as the Psalms, but it had some extra psalms and the collection was quite fluid. For the Jew, prayer was often corporate, but if this was not possible, cycles of prayer continued in the home including “grace after meals.” The end of the week brought sabbath where Jews gathered in either the home, or more especially in the synagogue. To be a Jew was to trust God in everything and this meant every corner of life.

Jewish prayers were less about pleas for material possessions or seeking after reward, and were certainly not designed to manipulate God into doing their bidding.[1] Prayers reminded people of God’s faithfulness in the past and were spoken out of the conviction that God would again answer their prayers because of who he is as the Faithful One. In the fifteenth blessing in the 18 Benedictions voices confidently say: “Hear, O Lord our God, the voice of our prayers, For you are a gracious and compassionate God. Blessed are you, O Lord, who hears prayer.”[2] There are many examples of prayer in the Scriptures. Before Ezra is taken to heaven he prays confidently to God: “Hear the voice of your servant, give ear to your creature’s petition, and attend to my words” (4 Ezra 8:24). The divine reply, “As you have spoken, therefore, so it shall be,” expresses a Jewish belief in God’s attentiveness to prayer.[3]

Prayer included praise, thanksgiving, rejoicing, remembering, wisdom, lament, longing, and spoke of future hope. A Jewish mindset saw daily prayer as constituting Israel as the people of God even if performed individually; the act of praying connected the community together around the God. In the Western world today we often thing of a Sunday gathering as the primary means of gathering the community, but for the Jew this was primarily from daily prayer cycles.

Behind 1st C prayer cycles were a people who knew their scriptures well. Scripture formed the backbone to prayer. While texts may vary according to whether you were a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene, scriptures moulded and shaped the people as they recited assigned portions regularly. They taught the law to their children, passing on their history. The Deuteronomist reminds us that the Israelites were commanded to,

Recite them [the laws] to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates (Deut 6:6-9).

We might synthesis this by saying; make talking about the law a continual pattern whatever you and your family are doing. This practice was for the old and the young, the married and extended household. These community readings and prayers held God’s people together as one.

As I have reflected on 1st C prayer patterns and the later Christian lectionary and prayer patterns, I realised that I have misunderstood early Christian spirituality. I expected it would look much more like my protestant 21st C; how arrogant I was; how ill-informed! I am not saying this may be what God is calling you to, but I think it is helpful to know that structure and even formal prayers and hymns were part of early Great Tradition.

Finally, I think lockdown has given our households and churches a gift. We could not be physically present in our faith communities, yet we joined with one another via zoom, You Tube, phone trees, and prayer chains. We were still a gathered community and God was immanent; what took places in homes was very real and important. What will we do with this as we move forward into level 1? I think that there are considerable opportunities open to us as worshippers and proclaimers of the Triune God in a virtual world.

In sum: Structured prayer is not a magic bullet, but it is a helpful framework which draws on Scripture in life-giving and productive ways. It has helped our household find a healthy pattern to share life and to hear each other’s hearts. In this way our prayer time is constituting us as more than people in the same house eating at the same table. Hearing scripture, participating in responses, taking turns leading, and choosing prayers and songs together, is helping to carry our home community.

[1] J.H. Charlesworth, “Prayer in Early Judaism, ABD 5:449.

[2] Ibid. Palestinian Version of the Blessings.

[3] The Bible of the early church included the apocryphal books.

Written by Sarah Harris