The human heart, like clay, is soft and pliable; throughout our lives it is conformed and shaped. The question is, into what? How will your life take on the contours of Christ and not be pressed into the mold of the surrounding culture?
How might you walk in step with the Spirit, living out of God's story rather than the narratives of cable news or social media? With those questions lingering, consider the story of Daniel. Exported to Babylon during his formative teen years, Daniel was steeped in the ways of pagan Babylonian culture. He lived and served in Babylon for the remainder of his life.
So how did Daniel's distinct calling as a servant of the one true God survive the spiritual bazaar of Babylon, with little to support and nurture his faith? In the classic lion's den narrative, we see a hint of how Daniel remained true to his identity as a child of God. At 80 years old he'd seen kings come and go, empires rise and fall. And the latest comer to the throne had issued an edict that everyone must pray only to him. In response, Daniel calmly did what he'd been doing routinely for years—an act seemingly insignificant, but so subversive.
He went to his room, where "three times a day he got down on his knees and prayed, giving thanks to God, just as he had done before" (Dan. 6:10).
What did Daniel do? He prayed, but what's more, he practiced a specific form of prayer that has nourished followers of God for thousands of years—a practice that just might help us not only survive within our own poly-spiritual, multi-faith world but thrive with a distinctive Christian faith and identity.
This ancient Christian practice of prayer is called "praying the daily office."
What Is It?
So what is the daily office? It's an old form of prayer that's new to most people today: a pattern of prayer and worship regularly offered to God at set times within the course of a single day. It's rooted in the simple reality that just as we need a mug in order to enjoy a sip of coffee, so we need a form for our prayers.
The pattern of the daily office frees us to enjoy prayer as an extended conversation with God: God invites us to be with him; we quietly enjoy his presence, listen to his Word, and respond to him; and God sends us forth with his blessing.
This rhythm of prayer was an established Hebrew practice. In Psalm 119:164, we read, "Seven times a day I praise you. . . ." Whether that means seven actual times or is symbolic of all our time, it likely reflects Paul's call for us to "pray continually" (1 Thess. 5:17). Jesus himself marked his days with regular times of prayer, and the early church observed a similar pattern.
Praying the office is like a mold that conforms us to the life of Christ and imprints on us the story of God. It typically begins with an invitation to prayer, a call to open up to the reality of God's kingdom. A psalm is always a part of the daily office; praying through the psalms is one of the oldest ways God's people have regularly prayed. A further selection of Scripture is prayed through as well, the aim being to frame our days with the story of God.
The daily office also includes times for silence—quiet spaces in our 24/7 wired lives for listening and responding to God. And you'll find prayers of petition and intercession, either spontaneous or written, often along with the Lord's Prayer. Finally, each time of prayer concludes with a blessing from God.
Does that seem familiar? Where else have you seen that flow and form? The shape of the daily office intentionally parallels what we experience every Sunday morning in worship. Praying the office is an extension of and preparation for Christian worship.
But why bother with an old—or any— form of prayer?
Here's the truth about you and me: we are space- and time-bound creatures. While God is everywhere and always present, we are not. We easily take a theological truth (say, God's omnipresence) and construct a flawed practice around it (I can pray wherever and whenever I feel like it). Thankfully, spontaneous prayers are a part of our life with God, but such a scattershot approach is not enough for a lasting life of prayer any more than it is for a satisfying relationship with someone you love.
Yet we still wonder, shouldn't genuine prayer be more spontaneous? Many of us have picked up the notion that only extemporaneous, unstructured prayers are real and authentic. We've idolized self-expression and confused personal with unstructured or spontaneous.
Have you ever considered how much personal, intimate interaction with others is schooled and structured? We connect over a scheduled cup of coffee, in the etiquette of dating or formality of a dinner meal, in the "How was your day?" catch-up conversation, even in late-night college dorm bull sessions. So many of our personal, apparently spontaneous, interactions are, in fact, structured and patterned. The form gives us the freedom to enjoy the relationship.
The daily office provides a form in which we can experience intimate fellowship with God himself. I love the wise balance Puritan pastor William Law offers: "It seems right for everyone to begin with form of prayer. If, in the midst of his devotions, he finds his heart ready to break forth into new and higher strains of devotions, he should leave his form for a while and follow those fervors of his heart till it again wants the assistance of his usual petitions."
Going by the Book
So how can you practice this way of prayer?
First of all, pick out a prayer book that's helpful for you (see box). Then set a place and schedule a time. Drop the often-unspoken demand for something to happen and simply "say your prayers," whether you're in the mood or not.
Give this practice time, because at first it might feel foreign, maybe a little stiff. That's natural, since the process of being shaped involves being pressed into a form. Accept the awkward feelings and allow the form of prayer to shape you.
And then remind yourself of Daniel, a man immersed in Babylonian culture yet radically identified with God. He lived a unique calling and identity, bearing the shape of God's kingdom imprinted deeply on his life through daily, routine prayer.
Author Annie Dillard writes, "How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives." May the daily, routine practice of prayer shape in us a heart of love for God and make all our days a living prayer.
Recommended for You
To enjoy this Christian practice you'll first need to find a daily office to pray. Here are a few prayer books to consider:
- The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle. Each seasonal volume contains four different offices to pray during the day (Doubleday).
- Pray-as-you-go.org offers a daily office for download to your MP3 player.
- The Rhythm of Life, by David Adams, is a neat, small volume of three offices per day for seven days, which are repeated each week (Morehouse).
- Seeking God's Face: Praying with the Bible Through the Year, by Philip Reinders, includes a simple, accessible daily office for every day of the year, following the Christian calendar. It incorporates the Reformed confessions turned into prayer (Faith Alive Christian Resources, www.faithaliveresources. org or 800-333-8300).
- Why do you pray?
- Phil Reinders says, “Just as we need a mug in order to enjoy a sip of coffee, so we need a form for our prayers.” Do you agree or disagree? Why?
- What form does your daily prayer take? Does it help “shape [in you] a heart of love for God”?
- What place does silence have in prayer?
- How do you handle your own resistance to prayer? Do you “say your prayers whether you’re in the mood or not”?
- What intrigues you about praying the daily office? How will this change your prayer life?