Our Attention, Our Lives

On a whim, I got the chance to spend yesterday evening and this morning attending a Brian Zahnd’s Prayer School, hosted by ClearPath Dallas. I’ve been working on building a (semi-) consistent prayer habit. I’m not always successful, but I find that when I consistently practice prayer (especially common, liturgical prayer) I am generally calmer, more peaceful, and slower to anger.

That’s not to say that I think prayer needs to have some sort of pragmatic, tangible benefit to be meaningful. Only, really, that I think that we are created to be pray-ers. That is to say, we are created in such a way that prayer is required for us to fully express our humanity, to come to terms with not only who we are, but who we have been and who we can be. A consistent refrain that Zahnd repeated throughout the sessions was “The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what you think God ought to do, but to be properly formed. To that end, you cannot be trusted to ‘pray your own prayers.'” I don’t know about you, but this is essentially the opposite of what I was taught throughout my childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. I imagine that, to many of my prior charismatic/Pentecostal pastors and teachers, this smacks of self-centeredness. I.e., it sounds an awful lot like “Prayer doesn’t change God, it changes us.”

Zahnd makes a compelling case during the Prayer School that the ancient Christian methods of prayer were never meant to be about just “talking to God.” The reason Jesus gave us a prayer, and the reason that other prayers, creeds, and the Psalms have been written down and recited for millennia is that the purpose of prayer isn’t to inject our own desires into prayerful practice. Rather, the goal is formation of ourselves, of our desires, under a tradition that we have been given. (I won’t go into all of the details in the school, because it’s meant to be a private, in-the-flesh gathering, where some ancient traditions of the Christian faith are passed along, person to person.)

In this sense, prayer can be seen as evidently counter-cultural in the current moment. Rob Bell, in a recent podcast episode on the underbelly of the internet, says the following about our attention:

Central to living a grounded, centered life is the discernment to know, ‘What should I give my attention to?’ and ‘What shouldn’t I give my attention to?’

Further, he argues that the way the internet is currently built (and this is well-documented) — that billions of dollars are being spent to build algorithms and advertisements that capture our attention, and “keep us clicking.” This isn’t a secret — it’s the basic way that the internet has functioned since the early nineties. Rather than pay for web services, we have elected to sell not only our privacy, but our attention.

Again, I say it: prayer that is intentionally grounded in ancient tradition and Scripture is the way we are given to direct our attention. If what we pay attention to necessarily forms our desires, and ultimately how we envision the good life, our responsibility as human beings is to submit to traditions and liturgies that will properly form us. If we don’t choose, those liturgies will be chosen for us. The question is, do you want consumeristic, nationalistic, violent liturgies to form you? Or do you want to be formed by liturgies that cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, and self-control?

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