The human species is distinctive in at least three ways, said poet W. H. Auden. It features the only animals who work, laugh, and pray. A zoologist might take exception—don’t honeybees work, dolphins grin, and mantises pray?—but Auden’s list provides a neat framework for self-reflection. What about evangelical Christians, I found myself wondering. How do we measure up?

At work, we excel. In Latin America, Eastern Europe, and even Communist China, opponents must grudgingly acknowledge that for all their faults Christians are industrious. Our forefathers invented the Protestant work ethic, after all.

We value the work ethic so highly that we let it gobble everything in sight. Our churches run like corporations, our quiet times fit into a datebook (ideally, on computer software), and our pastors maintain the hectic pace of Japanese executives. Work becomes the only acceptable addiction.

The art of prayer is one we should have mastered by now, but I have my doubts. We are constantly tempted to turn prayer into another form of work, which may explain why prayers in evangelical churches major on intercession. We bring God our wish lists and rarely get around to listening.

I have noticed lately that biblical prayers (as seen, for instance, in the Psalms) seem closer in form to the conversation you might hear in a barber shop than to a shopping list. I am learning about such prayer from the Catholics, who have a better grasp on prayer as worship. Oddly, for those who saturate their lives with prayer—Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Teresa of Ávila—prayer seems less like a chore and more like a never-ending conversation, like ordinary life with the simple addition of an Audience. ...

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