Do you struggle with prayer? Do you wonder if you’re doing it ‘right’? Have you ever wanted to ask someone how to pray? You are not alone. Even though the disciples asked Jesus how to pray, many feel embarrassed to ask a question that seems so elementary.
In this podcast episode, the Rev. Adam Weber, a United Methodist pastor and author of Talking with God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray, shares how his understanding of prayer changed over the years and offers tips and advice to help us have better conversations with God. He even touches on how to think about the times when God doesn't answer our prayers in the way we would like.
- Adam's website where you can learn more about him, find where he is speaking, and order his book.
- Embrace United Methodist Church, a multi-site congregation in and around Sioux Falls, SD, where Adam is the founding pastor.
Talking with God: What to say when you don't know how to pray
- Adam's website offers a way to download the first chapter for free!
- Talking with God is available through Cokesbury, Amazon, and wherever you buy your books.
Popular prayer resources on UMC.org
- Prayers from UMC.org
- Video: United Methodist Children on Prayer
- Re-energize your prayer life with a new practice
- Too busy to pray? See tips to find more time
- “All is prayer”: How words and actions serve God and others
- Another GYSIS episode: Sacred Spaces
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- Email our host Joe Iovino about this episode, ideas for future topics, or any other thoughts you would like to share.
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More Get Your Spirit in Shape episodes
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This episode was first published in July 2017.
In the studio
Joe: Welcome to Get Your Spirit in Shape, United Methodist Communications and UMC.org’s podcast to help keep our souls as healthy as our bodies. I’m Joe Iovino.
In this month’s episode I’m talking with Adam Weber. He’s a United Methodist pastor and the author of a new book about prayer called Talking with God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray. If you’ve ever been in that place where you’re not sure how to pray, you will enjoy this conversation.
On the phone
Joe: I’m on the phone today with the Reverend Adam Weber, the lead pastor of Embrace Church, a multi-site United Methodist congregation in and around Sioux Falls, South Dakota that is one of the fastest growing congregations in the United States. Welcome, Adam.
Adam: Oh, it’s so good to be on with you, just thrilled and honored.
Joe: It’s great to have you with us today.
You recently wrote a book called Talking with God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray. What encouraged you to write about prayer?
Adam: Well first off, the idea of writing a book wasn’t something I was wanting to do. It wasn’t a dream of mine, but I had a friend that just would not leave me alone, basically, until I finally said ‘yes’ to writing.
The idea of prayer, though, has been something that has shaped my life for years now. The very first time I went to youth group as a high schooler…. My family, we grew up Lutheran and ended up checking out a Methodist Church.
My very first time at the youth group at this Methodist Church the pastor was talking about prayer. The way he explained prayer was different than anything I had ever heard before. He explained the conversational approach to speaking with the Lord, and it changed my life. Before that, I had the idea of reciting words and making your way through it and checking a box, instead of speaking with the Lord. Since that point, it really changed me.
Even now, I’m 35 years old and pastoring a church, I’m so grateful that when I’m broken I can ask God to heal my life. When I’m restless, when I’m empty I can ask for his peace and his wholeness. Also on the flipside when I’m thankful for something I can just say a simple word of thanks. I’m so needy for prayer in my life.
My hope with the book is if there’s one person who’s struggling with prayer, is overwhelmed and doesn’t know where to start and feels foolish, or maybe has been following the Lord for years but has gotten stuck in a rut—I pray it encourages people to talk with the Lord for the first time, or maybe in a fresh way.
Joe: Do you find this is a pretty common thing? That people want to pray, know we’re supposed to pray, but are asking how?
Adam: Yeah. I think there’s something inside of us as human beings that moves us to pray. I always joke around that when you’re taking off in an airplane it’s interesting how all of a sudden everybody’s relationship with Jesus comes to a really good place. Like, ‘I just hope this pilot knows what he’s doing.’
Even more so…. It’s kind of funny. I’ve really been trying to minister to our mailman lately. He’s a younger… really a guy that I just could see myself being friends with. One day he was listening to his headphones… He told me that before that he wasn’t a Christian, didn’t believe in God, this kind of thing. Well, one day he had his earphones in. So I said, “Hey, what are you listening to?” And he showed me it. It was actually myself on a podcast being interviewed. I was shocked because I hadn’t even told him my name. Obviously, he knows my name because he sees my mail every day, but I didn’t know at all. And he’s like, “It’s kinda random, but I’m actually listening to you.” I was like, “Well, that’s crazy.” So, we didn’t talk more about it.
Well, two weeks later we crossed paths again on my front porch. I didn’t want to bring up the interview because I didn’t want him to feel pressure to talk about God and whatever, but he said, “I finished the rest of that podcast and that was wonderful.” I said, “Really?”
He said, “Yeah. I don’t believe in God, but you talked about prayer and how sometimes you’ll just give a word of thanks or you’ll just pray a simple word of ‘Lord, I need you.’ Since listening, I’ve found myself saying those things and praying lately.”
I was just puzzled. First off, I wanted to say, “Well, you don’t make a very good atheist.” But he just said, “It’s really been comforting to speak those words, even though I don’t really believe in a god of any kind.”
So, I think there’s a craving inside of us for something greater and especially to talk with that being. I would say God—God is known and made himself known throughout the Bible—that’s what I would say. But there’s something in us that craves to speak with the creator of some kind. So I think you’ll find that pretty much anywhere, even in my atheist mailman who’s just an incredible fellow.
Joe: You mentioned earlier about going to church as a child. It was something that you guys just did as a family. I have a friend who says his choice about going to church was whether he went to church happy or whether he went to church sad. That was the only choice he had. You had a similar experience, right? You were going to church as a family every Sunday. Is that right?
Adam: Yeah, there was no decision of mine in the process. It was, “We are going every week.” Yep.
Joe: How did that shape you?
Adam: I look back and as far as I can remember back I struggled with church… vocally, challenging my parents on everything. I always joke around that if I would have had a serious illness on a Sunday I would have died because my parents were so used to me faking illness and death that they would have never believed me. I would have died because they would have been like, he’s just joking with us.
Joe: Just trying to get out of church.
Adam: Yeah. The boy who cried wolf every Sunday.
But I look back now and I’m so grateful for the faithfulness of my parents. That’s something that I feel like has been lost at some point. Any good parent gets their kid to school whether their kid wants to go to school that day or not. I think to have that approach to faithfulness and I think it also is the job of a parent to go to a place where the child hopefully can connect and grow. So it’s not just this burden and this horrible thing.
One of the things, honestly, that I thank my parents for over and over again was the decision when they began looking for a new church home. The day I got confirmed I came home and told my parents it was the most I had ever lied to so many people at one time. My parents were devastated. I can remember my mom crying and crying, “Don’t say that.”
That’s the point that led them to begin the search, and for them to leave then and be open to a Methodist Church, that was a huge step outside of my parents’ comfort zone. But they just did anything for me to connect with the Lord. I’m so grateful for that.
Joe: The first section of your book is called “The God We Talk With.” Can you tell me about what you mean by that? Who is the God with whom we talk when we pray?
Adam: Again, growing up if you would have asked me to describe Christians, it would not have been a very good review. I would have said: Boring, miserable, lame, you know, all the above. I just assumed that God must be the same way, just kind of a more of person who is, ‘Make sure you check your boxes. Get confirmed. Baptized as an infant. Go to church. Don’t drive your mother crazy,’ would have been my four boxes to check. As a new Christian, when I actually began to read the Bible I was blown away by God, specifically Jesus. I mean, the story of Prodigal Son… I couldn’t believe it.
Jesus is sitting with these sinners and tax collectors and the Pharisees are asking him why he’s sitting with these people. He basically begins to explain the heart of God, and explains, the Lost Sheep, Lost Coin and Lost Son (Luke 15). And the story of Prodigal Son coming home and the dad throws an extravagant party. What I love about that story… this isn’t me; this is actually in the Bible—that’s what I always tell people, like, no, these are actually in there—the music from the party is so loud that the older brother can hear the music from the distance. I always say, That’s not a party; that a partay, you know?
If you’re old and grumpy that’s what you call the cops on. “Can you turn the music down?” That’s God explaining his heart for us when we come home. Why? Because this son of mine was dead and he’s come back to life. He was lost and is now found.
To explain who God is and the richness of him that way is a powerful thing because I think so much of our perceptions, even as Christians, is that he probably wants nothing to do with me because I’ve made so many mistakes. Well, that’s the opposite of what you see. “I need to have my life perfect and figure it out.” No. Actually, he didn’t spend much time with people who thought they were perfect and had it figured out. It’s kind of the opposite. So that was really just kind of setting up, who is God? And who is Jesus? I think, just trying to explain it in a simple form.
Joe: Does our understanding of God affect the way we pray?
Adam: I think it changes everything. Even the ability to approach who Jesus calls, “Abba Father.” How he talks to God the Father himself is a powerful image of, “Wow, okay, I didn’t know I could. Father is such an intimate thing.”
There’s only four people who call me Dad. If someone else called me Dad, it’d be a little interesting. I’d be like, “Well, I guess you can call me that if you want to, but it’s a little awkward.”
There’s nothing better in my life, there’s nothing more intimate you can call me than Dad. I just think, “Wow.” And God is different than our earthly parent, obviously. He’s so holy angels cover their eyes when in his presence. Yet we can approach him and come near him and speak with him.
For me, that changes everything. It’s the awe and reverence of he is the King of Kings. There’s no king that is greater than him, that will ever be or has ever been. Yet Jesus says I do not call you servant; instead I call you friend. It’s grace and truth, together. I don’t know how that works, but it does. I don’t know how he’s fully God and fully man, but it happened. So that’s just so cool to think about approaching that God.
Joe: In the next section, you talk about “How We Pray” and your advice (and I hope I’m not giving away too much, here) but your advice is: keep it short; keep it simple; keep it honest. Can you talk more about that? This is stuff you’ve learned from your kids, right?
Adam: Yeah. I’m always just shocked by how much... We just had our kids sing for VBS [Vacation Bible School] Sunday here, and my prayer with our team and volunteers before we went up, I said, “I hope today isn’t just a cute thing that we can take pictures of our kids. Instead, I’m praying that our kids would lead us in worship today because we have so much to learn from our kids about God.”
So it’s not just this cute thing that we do. No, they’re leading us today just as much as me preaching a message, or even more so.
So just learning about prayer even from my kids has just been a powerful thing. More than just them and their take on prayer and just seeing them… it’s so true throughout the Word as well.
Short, simple, honest.
It doesn’t have to be short, but I think growing up I just thought that it was a better prayer if it was longer. So often, you find yourself adding random words to make it a certain length, to make it a good prayer. Actually, you can keep it really short, and sometimes fewer words are better.
When you’re standing in front of a star-filled night or you’re standing in front of a beautiful ocean, it’s almost disrespectful to talk. You know? Just be quiet for a second and take in the beauty of the stars. Sometimes the greatest responses from that, as an act of worship to God is, “Wow! Whoa! It’s unbelievable.” That’s short.
The simple part is… Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount is basically challenging them like, don’t pray to be heard by others who kind of sound off these extravagant prayers on street corners to be heard (see Matthew 6:5-15). You don’t need to polish up all your words.
The only time I polish my words is when I’m trying to impress someone I don’t know. I want to make sure I say the right thing. This is a job interview and I need to say the right words so I get this job, or, gosh, I want them to like me. But when I’m with someone that I know and I trust and I love, I’m able to freely speak from my heart. I’m just like, “Man, I don’t how to explain this but I trust you so much I’m gonna verbally process and tell you.” So it’s simple, you know.
Then the honest part is the Psalms, which is probably one of our greatest teachers of how to pray, for myself at least. You just see this rawness before the Lord. I mean, David at times, you’re like…as a friend of David you just want to say, Maybe you shouldn’t say what you just said to God. You might want to edit your words a little bit more. But it’s just that honesty.
One of the biggest hindrances I’ve found in our relationship with God is the lack of honesty with him. Even in myself. One of the biggest breakthroughs…. My dad has had a health condition and in the last seven years that has been severe pain that’s totally altered his life. He went from being very healthy and physically fit to…. He actually just had a procedure this past week; so he’s found a little bit of freedom from the pain, but most days he’s in bed all but a few hours.
Early on, I prayed for my dad, but I wasn’t really honest about how I was feeling. It was almost like when you have a close friend and there’s an elephant that shows up in your relationship with him or her. All of a sudden you don’t address this. Maybe they said something that hurt you and it grows and grows and grows and you find yourself distancing yourself from them. Well, for me that’s how I felt with God. There was this…. I was starting to feel bitter. I don’t know. I’d prayed faithfully for my dad and nothing had changed. It was just really beginning to affect me.
Then one day when I was driving, out of nowhere it just came out. I was driving late one night and I finally just said what I had been feeling. At the top of my lungs, I literally yelled out, “I want you to heal my dad, and I don’t know why you haven’t.” It was almost like God responded with, “Well, finally… finally you’re saying something. I can tell you’re hurting and I can tell this has been bothering you. Finally you’re saying something to me. You’re praying something to me.”
It ended up being a huge change. Gosh, I didn’t realize how much I was harboring inside me. It ended up being a huge time of a breakthrough, going to a deeper place of really trusting him.
When I look at kids, they do those 3 things really well—short, simple and honest, especially the honest part. Brutally honest.
Joe: I don’t want to dwell on this for too long, but one of the things you mentioned there is that your dad is still… the desired outcome hasn’t come. But you’ve felt this change in your relationship with God anyway. Can you talk a little more about that?
Adam: Yeah. Well, I think getting my feelings out, and acknowledging, “Here is my request, God. And here are some feelings, too, that I know aren’t right. But I’m angry at you. I don’t know why. I don’t why this is happening and why this isn’t.” I think it was just almost transparency. It’s almost like you had a secret with your spouse and you didn’t share it. It just breaks the level of intimacy, of like, wow there’s this huge thing that I’m holding back and I’ve not told you about.
As far as him not being healed… My comprehension to my kids’ comprehension is fairly vast, especially with my 2-year-old. I mean, he can’t say the ABCs even. In Isaiah, My thoughts are higher than your thoughts; your thoughts are greater… (see Isaiah 55:8-9). You know, there’s greater and higher.
Well, a few years back my oldest was a baby at the time—my oldest is now 10—but he got sick and couldn’t keep fluids down. Finally they had to do an IV in him. I’ll never forget holding him down as they struggled to get an IV in his chubby baby arms, and since he was dehydrated his vessels were even harder to get to. So for 40 minutes they tried to get it in, and finally got it.
As I was holding him down, the look on his face—and he was screaming for 40 minutes—but the look on his face was, ‘I thought you loved me. How dare you let this happen and allow this to take place,’ because I wasn’t the one doing the IV. I was just pinning him to the table. I wanted to say, ‘No, I’m doing this for good. This is for your benefit.’
I could keep going to, ‘Does God cause things and whatever?’ All I know is that God is faithful, and his ways are so much higher than my ways.
Even John 15—I just shared that with the congregation here two weeks ago—it talks about pruning. I talked to a guy who works with vines, and he talks about the process of pruning. He says, “Sometimes you’ll prune the vine and it’ll almost look like you’ve killed it, but it’s for the good of the vine itself, and it’s good for the good of the branches. So there’s something in there.
I’m like, “God, I don’t understand it all, but I do know that you are good and you are faithful. And your plan is so much greater than mine. So in the midst of not knowing, I trust you.” Yeah, it’s so crazy.
So it’s, “Hey, God, I don’t understand how that all works. But Jesus, you said to ask and so I’m gonna keep asking. And David said that when I cry out, you hear my voice. So I’m gonna keep on speaking on these things that are hard.
Joe: What I think I hear you saying is that when you were keeping that from God, in the dishonest prayer, you lost that intimacy with God. So it was doubly difficult. You were no longer leaning on God the way you would like to. That’s a terrible way to phrase that. But….
Adam: No. You said it perfectly actually. I think that’s a hundred percent true because even during that season…and we so often do this… when you say, “God, I’m so thankful for your peace,” when we don’t have any. And, “I love you. I’m so happy with what you’re doing,” when it’s like no, actually we’re angry. That’s called lying, and I heard we’re not supposed to do that with other people, particularly God.
You said it perfectly. I think there’s something of just being honest with God even when those things that are hard to say. Like, “Lord, I don’t understand why you haven’t already healed my dad.” Or, for a person who’s single and wants to be married, “I don’t know why all my friends have found their spouse and I haven’t. I faithfully have been following you, God, and I don’t know why you haven’t provided this desire of my heart. I don’t know why this is happening. I don’t know why this is taking place.”
Again, I just go back to God’s track record in my life as imperfectly perfect. He’s been so faithful, and I know the older I get the less I know.
One of the things that points me to God oftentimes is as humans just how confident we are in being so all-knowing. I don’t know how we still have any world problems and anybody who’s starving to death and anybody who’s struggling in their life whatsoever because everybody’s a genius on Facebook. How do we have any world problems? Everything should be perfect.
I’m on the opposite end. The older I get the more like a little kid I become. I’m like a 2-year-old in the parking lot of Wal-Mart without the Lord in my life. I am needy for Jesus and his direction because I don’t know up from down. My path, every time I take it, leads me into more brokenness and pain. And so it’s like, God, I’m just gonna stay really close to you.
Joe: And somehow prayer, builds that relationship. Those honest prayers build our relationship with God so that you can be comfortable in the not knowing, because God’s got it.
Adam: Yes, and it’s not a blind, “I don’t struggle with anything. I don’t worry about stuff anymore.” It’s more kind of like that constant like, “Hey, God, I’m worrying about this again. And I just need to hand the control to you.” Or, “I’m trying to do things my way and it’s just not working. So, Lord, I’m sorry. I’m going to follow you again.” So it’s really more of that just kind of constant conversation and connection with him.
Joe: How true is that?!
Towards the end of the book you talk about the difference—and I thought this was really important—you talk about the difference between knowing about God and knowing God. Can you say more about that?
Adam: Yeah. Oh, and I think this is true wherever we are. It’s easy to learn a lot of things about God but not actually know him. In that chapter, I talked about how I filled in for a pastor up in North Dakota. That summer everybody in the church was trying to hook me up with the daughter of the pastor I was filling in for… his daughter.
Joe: Oh, wow.
Adam: She was in France for the first half of summer. So I would go visit ladies and pray for their breast cancer, and at the end they would start telling me about this Becky Spar. I was being told so much about her that it almost felt like I was starting to know her. Okay? It was kinda weird because everybody, including Becky’s mom, was saying, “She’s like this,” and, “You’ll like this about her.” You know, I didn’t know her at all. I was a total stranger.
So when she got back, we ended up going on a walk together. And it was so weird because I’m thinking, “I know so much about you, and yet I don’t know anything about you.” You see what I mean?
I think the same is true so often with God. There’s a difference between an educated Christian and a deep Christian. Knowing, having a knowledge level about God, is so important. It’s huge. God gave us a brain and a mind to think about him and things of life. But I think so often we study so much about God from a distance when the first and greatest command is to love him.
So in loving someone, particularly God, it’s a heart thing. I mean, it’s something from the depths of our soul. We’re even told to love God with all your heart and soul and might and strength, you know? And with prayer I think that’s so important.
I’ve read my Bible and I know a lot about you. But it’s through actually being with you and acknowledging you and walking with you that I actually come to know you.
Paul in Philippians says, “I want to know Christ and the power of the resurrection.” I think I want to know Christ. That longing inside of Paul to know Christ on an even deeper, more intimate level. That’s a wonderful, beautiful thing to think about when it comes to prayer. Lord, I just want to know you.
I know you are faithful, but would you show me what David means when he says you’re faithful from one generation to the next? I know that you’re a loving God like I hear like in the psalms. Would you just show me a glimpse of what it means that your love endures forever? Forever is a long time, and just coming to know those things on a deeper level is beautiful.
Joe: Well, the last question that I ask everybody who’s a guest on Get Your Spirit in Shape is to recommend a practice that we could try out, something that’s meaningful to you. But because we’ve been talking about prayer this entire episode, I want to ask if of you a little bit differently.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to improve their prayer life right now? What can I do today—before I can get your book—to get to know God better and become a better communicator with God?
Adam: Oh, so many things, but I’ll give two specific things.
I’m such a go-getter, when I get to my office I immediately go into work mode. And something that’s been really helpful for me, especially in seasons when I feel like I’m running on empty or just exhausted…. So whether you’re a teacher, a banker, a mechanic, a stay-at-home parent, maybe the first thing that you do when you get to work, and maybe again if you stayed home, maybe it’s just in your bedroom or as you’re brushing your teeth… For me I need the actual physical act of getting on my knees. I didn’t grow up praying on my knees. So it’s kind of an awkward thing, but there’s been something really powerful in those seasons.
So I get to my office and oftentimes I’ll kneel at one of my chairs. It’s a physical way of telling my soul, “I’m surrendered to you, Lord. And this day ahead I’m already overwhelmed and anxious about all the things I need to get done. But God, I surrender my plan and my schedule and my agenda for yours today. And I surrender what I think is important to what you think is important. Because what I think is important is checking things off my list, but what you think is important might be a random stranger or maybe a co-worker of mine who just needs someone to listen to them.”
So that’s been really… again, I’m so restless and I’m such a go-getter that to pause is so powerful.
The other thing for me that’s been really, really helpful is just going on walks. I go on a walk most nights, and as I’m walking, It’s kind of sporadic. It’s not like all this intense prayer time. But oftentimes if something comes to mind and I’m thankful for it, I’ll just take some time to thank God for my family or for the one cup of coffee I had with someone and how delightful it was. And then on the other side, if there’s things I’m worried about or concerned about or even as I’m walking down the street just praying for the people that I’m walking by, and just that they’d sense God at work in their life.
So, those would be my 2 things—to spend time on your knees maybe to start off a morning, just for even a minute, just giving the day over to God. And then at the end of the day just on my walk it’s always such a life-giving time of just handing things over.
Joe: Thank you, Adam. This has been a great conversation. I really appreciate it. There’s so much more we could do, but we keep these to 30 minutes. So, thank you very much. Thanks for the conversation today.
Adam: Oh, thank you so much for the work you do, and the people you’re pouring into that you’ve never met. It’s wonderful.
Back in the studio
Joe: That was the Reverend Adam Weber, United Methodist pastor and the author of a new book titled Talking With God: What to Say When You Don’t Know How to Pray.
I want to add a postscript to one of the stories Adam told. Remember, Becky, the young woman everyone was telling him about before he ever got to meet her? Well, today Adam and Becky are husband and wife, and the parents of 4 children. It’s a great story. You can read more about it in his book Talking With God.
For a link to buy the book or to learn more about Adam go to UMC.org/podcast and look for “Get Your Spirit in Shape” episode 19. We also put on that page some links to other stories and videos about prayer you also might enjoy.
On the same page there’s a link to my email address. I love hearing about what Get Your Spirit in Shape means to you and any suggestions you have for future topics and conversations.
Well, that’s it for this episode. We’ll be back soon with more tips to help keep our souls as healthy as our body. Thanks for listening. I’m Joe Iovino. Peace.