Somehow I managed to live the first 35 years of my life having never heard of the sweet nectar of heaven that is the muscadine grape. Several months ago, a couple in our church invited my wife (Carrie) and me over to their house for dinner. Soon after we arrived, the husband invited me to taste some grapes from the vine in their backyard.
I had eaten grapes plenty of times throughout my life. The ordinary kind in the produce section of a typical grocery store. But I had never tasted a muscadine before. I’m not sure I had ever even heard the word.
That August evening in that backyard when I squeezed the juice of that first grape into my mouth, my life was changed forever. I’m pretty sure I actually said it out loud: “Where have you been all my life?”
After dinner, our friends sent me home with a gallon-size Ziploc® bag full of muscadines.
They were all gone by the next day.
Within a few days I was already researching information on how to plant a vine of my own in my backyard. I was confident I could talk Carrie into the idea. I wasn’t worried about that.
What I was worried about was my terrible track record with gardening. Over the years I have made several attempts to plant gardens in my yard. The results have been nothing short of embarrassing. I can kill a plant almost overnight.
Nevertheless, the risk/reward disparity was overwhelming. So early February, I formulated my plan and began to put it into action.
The first step was to build my trellis. This involved digging holes, planting poles, and stretching wire. But after a few hours of work (and a couple trips to Lowe’s®), I was ready to plant my vine.
The purpose of the trellis is rather simple. The trellis is the support structure for the vine. It gives the vine something to which it can cling. It enables the vine to ascend. It trains the vine according to a prescribed path in order to position it for maximum fruitfulness.
Without the trellis, the vine would scarcely have a chance. It would search blindly for something, anything to which it could fasten itself. Fruit would be minimal, if any at all.
For most of my life, this has described my prayer life.
I have spent my entire life in a church setting. I had a pivotal encounter with God when I was 13 years old at a youth rally in Des Allemands, Louisiana. On that night, not only did I commit myself to Jesus, but I sensed and responded to a call to give my life to vocational ministry.
Ever since that experience, I have always wanted to pray well. I think anyone who has ever had a meaningful encounter with God would share that longing. Aside from that, I was always taught about the value and importance of having a daily, consistent prayer life.
But I cannot remember anyone ever actually teaching me how to pray. The only advice I can ever really remember receiving is the ever-popular, “Well, just talk to God.” So for most of my life, prayer has been frustrating and inconsistent, to be brutally honest. While I wouldn’t say it has been entirely fruitless, I have always intuitively known that there must be a better way to do this. I felt like a vine sprawled out on the ground desperate for something to which I can cling.
What I needed was a trellis. A certain degree of structure. Not to restrict me or to stifle my growth. But to do the exact opposite. To train the orientation of my heart and mind heavenward, guiding me towards a trajectory that will enable my life to flourish with the fruitfulness of Christ-like character.
Over the course of a year-and-a-half, healthy prayer has become a focused pursuit of mine. I have immersed myself in the subject, reading plenty of books written by a wide range of authors, listening to numerous podcasts and sermons on the subject.
My biggest breakthrough finally came when I attended a weekend “Prayer School” in July of 2017 with Pastor Brian Zahnd of Word of Life Church in St. Joseph, Missouri. Brian has developed his own morning prayer structure that he has personally used for years. Every year he is invited to teach on prayer in locations all over the world. But he also teaches these events at Word of Life, which are organized by Derek Vreeland, one of the pastors on staff.
The “prayer structure” that Brian teaches includes improvised prayer (the style of prayer I have always exclusively used), but it is buttressed with a healthy dose of scripture (Psalm 23, the Beatitudes, the Lord’s Prayer, etc.) as well as a few other important elements, which I won’t take the time to write about in this particular post. The intended effect is to pull one out of a self-centered, self-dependent mode of prayer and to provide a healthy, Christ-centered, and Spirit-led movement of prayer.
“The primary purpose of prayer is not to get God to do what we think God ought to do. The primary purpose of prayer is to be properly formed in Christ-likeness” – Brian Zahnd.
Immediately after attending this Prayer School I began using this structure (or trellis, if you will) every morning. Looking back over the last nine months, the results have been nothing short of amazing. What used to be a frustrating and inconsistent aspect of my spirituality has become a vibrant, life-giving practice that is gradually, incrementally changing my life.
Make no mistake, I still have a long way to go, but I have never been more hungry for prayer. It is the highlight of my day, each and every day.
One of my goals in starting this blog is to periodically share insights on this topic that has become such a fascination for me. I hope you will be inspired to join me on the journey.