You learn to pray by praying

PRAYING_BOOKI met Pastor John Piippo 7 years ago via his blog.  I have just read his new book Praying: Reflections on 40 years of Solitary Conversations with God.  My column in today’s Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette (5/22) explains how I got to know Piippo.  And I think you’ll see why I feel his new book, which I recommend, is so crucial.

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Don Follis May 22, 2016 column: “Extended times of prayer are crucial for Michigan pastor”
Seven years ago a friend told me about a Michigan pastor who prayed a lot. She had seen the blog of Pastor John Piippo, and said she thought I would like what he wrote about prayer (johnpiippo.com). 
In fact, I liked it so much, I called Dr. John Piippo at his Redeemer Fellowship Church, an American Baptist Church in Monroe, Michigan, just outside of Detroit.  He told me he generally spends every Tuesday afternoon praying alone.  He prays every day, he said, but on Tuesday afternoons he heads to one of his secret places – his backyard along the Raisin River or to shores of Lake Eerie.  This has been Piippo’s custom for more than 35 years, he said. 
            When I told him I wanted to learn more about his prayer life, he invited me to take his week-long class on spiritual formation required for incoming Master of Divinity students at the Payne Theological Seminary in Wilberforce, OH.  Piippo is an adjunct faculty member at this African Methodist Episcopal Church school, the oldest continuing African-American seminary in the United States.  
The seminary allowed me to audit Piippo’s course.  Piippo himself has a Master of Divinity degree from Northern Seminary in Lombard and a Ph.D. in Philosophical Theology from Northwestern University in Evanston. 
There were 26 Master of Divinity students in Piippo’s class.  Turns out I was both the oldest and the only white person in the class.  The class met from 8am to 4pm for the entire week.
On the first day Piippo explained that his class starts each day with the students praying individually for an hour. Handing each student a copy of Psalm 23, Piippo said to leave our cell phones, backpacks, Bibles and notebooks in the classroom. They would remain safe with Piippo in the room. We needed only a pen and the copy of Psalm 23, with a few simple instructions on the bottom of the sheet on how to think about hearing God as we prayed.  Piippo said he chose Psalm 23 because it is so well-loved and cherished by many people of faith.
“Try to go to the same spot each day,” he said. “But not back to your room or to your car.” Piippo said he thought on the first day it would be good to spend 30 to 45 minutes on the phrase, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”  He instructed us to jot down on the sheet any insights entering our minds while we prayed.
            That pattern was the same all week.  We gathered in the classroom at 8am. Attendance was taken. Students were given fresh copies of Psalm 23, and off we went to pray.  When the hour was up, we met in assigned groups for an additional 30 minutes.  I was in a group of 5 women, 3 of them already ordained pastors.  Each day we 6 shared what we felt God had said to us during our hour of prayer.  One person took notes.  By week’s end, I was impressed with the deep insights I gained from hearing how my other group member felt they heard God speak to them during the hour of prayer.            
Following the group discussion, all the students returned to the classroom.  Each group scribe shared what members felt they heard God say, while Piippo commented.  Piippo then spent the remaining hours of the each day lecturing on different aspects of spiritual formation, which he defined as “letting God’s character be formed in you.” 
It was a terrific week. So much so that I invited Piippo to Champaign-Urbana to speak with about 50 pastors and leaders about prayer for two days.  This spring WestBow Press has released Piippo’s “Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations With God” (WestBow, 2016).  Piippo calls the book a partial compilation of his experiences and reflections from recording more than 3,000 pages of journal entries.
            Still, Piippo is clear. “You won’t learn much from a book on prayer if you don’t spend time praying. … In the same way you won’t learn much about food by reading books but not eating.  Praying is superior to prayer as eating in superior to food.”
            Of his Tuesday custom, Piippo writes, “Since 1981, my extended praying day has been Tuesday. On Tuesday afternoons I go alone to a quiet place, away from distractions, and talk with God about what we are thinking and doing together.  Solitary prayer is one-on-one, God and I, for several hours.”
            Solitude is not the same of loneliness, says Piippo. “Solitude is getting alone with God, which is not a lonely experience since someone is with me. … In praying my heart is moved from loneliness to solitude, from restlessness to restfulness.”
            “I have built solitary praying into my life,” Piippo writes. “Like DNA shapes my physical being, praying becomes the DNA of my spiritual self. It is, more and more, my life.  I do this because Jesus prayed, in solitude.  I am one of Jesus’ followers.  Therefore, as he goes, I go.”

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