A month ago I had the opportunity to attend the Prayer School weekend taught by Brian Zahnd at Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, MO. I’ve intended to write up some thoughts on it ever since, but maybe it’s been good to let things percolate a little while first. So many thoughts.
First, a little bit about Brian, since it’s hard for me to separate him from the prayer school. I found Brian through his sermon podcast, which I’ve listened to fairly regularly for a little over a year now. His story includes planting a Pentecostal church in his 20s, seeing it grow successfully, hitting something of a mid-life faith crisis in his 40s, whereupon he took a harder, broader look at theology. His teaching retains pieces of his charismatic background while embracing liturgy (“good liturgy”, he would say), the Book of Common Prayer, pacifism, and a strong sense of progressive revelation. He details this story in his recent book Water to Wine, which I’d happily recommend as, if nothing else, a wonderful faith story.
In this post I’m going to share my thoughts directly about the prayer school; in a future post I want to follow up with a few thoughts about Zahnd and Word of Life church directly, since I got the feeling many attending, and probably many who have read his books or listened to the podcast, are curious about the man and his ministry.
[Initial note: Brian only teaches these classes in person – no recordings are distributed. He says he believes it’s something that should be passed along as ‘secrets’ from person to person. I’ll respect that and not go into tremendous detail. However, there’s nothing too unfamiliar there if you’ve listened to his podcast over the past year or so.]
Zahnd organizes the prayer school into three sessions, held Friday morning, Friday afternoon, and Saturday morning. (Word of Life Church holds a regular Friday night service which we were also encouraged to attend.) Through those sessions he teaches (and models) prayer not as “getting God to do what you want” but as a way to be “properly formed”.
He encourages the use of prayers that have been written through church history both as good prayers that allow us to learn from our forefathers, and as ways to teach us to pray better when we pray extemporaneously. Brian uses a musical metaphor likening these rote prayers to a guitarist practicing scales. You don’t always play just the scales, he says, but if you haven’t practiced your scales over and over, when you get to play the second verse guitar solo, you’re not gonna do very well.
In the final session Brian talks about contemplative prayer, which he likes to call “sitting with Jesus”. (He’s preached sermons with similar titles if you’re really curious.) For this topic he draws on a long line of contemplatives in the spirit of Thomas Merton.
The whole class is structured around a morning liturgy of prayer which he challenges everyone to try for 6 weeks. It includes daily Bible readings, weekly prayers from the BCP, rote prayers including that of St. Francis, and time for personal petition and contemplation.
A good bit of what drew me to attend the prayer school in the first place was this seemingly odd combination of liturgy, old prayers, and contemplation. What a mix! And in that I wasn’t disappointed. Zahnd is a talented teacher, though if I were going to try to describe his personality and approach I might start by referencing some Old Testament prophet instead of a teacher. There’s an air of confident, in-your-face declaration that was a bit of a shock to this guy who is used to long brainy sermons.
I really like the emphasis on using and learning from the prepared prayers. The Book of Common Prayer is full of beautiful language and really meaningful prayers and is a rich treasury that today’s church should draw on. (I’m a sucker for the musical metaphor, too.)
Zahnd makes a compelling case for using rote prayers from Acts 2:42, which in the NIV is translated
They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
However, he points out, in the Greek it’s not “prayer” but “the prayers”, definite article, plural. (I looked it up in an interlinear online, and sure enough, he’s right.) And devoting one’s self to “the prayers” is a horse of a different color than “prayer”.
I haven’t done a very good job of taking up Pastor Brian’s six-week challenge so far. I’ve used the liturgy inconsistently a few times per week, often getting distracted by my schedule. However, I still feel the draw to use it more regularly, so I’m going to try to make it a priority. Where previously the idea of spending 20-30 minutes in prayer was incomprehensible to me – I’d be out of ideas after 5 minutes! – with this liturgy I can easily spend 20-30 minutes in reading and prayer, which is great. I just need to find a way to make it a habit.
There’s so much more I’d like to write but I’ll save it for a follow-up post.