December 5, 2020

The Long and Wandering Process of Prayer

From Chaplain Mike.

David Hansen has been one of my surest pastoral guides. His book, The Art of Pastoring: Ministry without All the Answers, is in my view one of the wisest manuals for contemplative ministry available, especially for those in smaller churches.

Today, I want to highlight the main concept in another of Hansen’s books, Long Wandering Prayer: An Invitation to Walk with God.

I write this primarily in the light of what our friend Michael Spencer is going through these days, and the inevitable questions that arise about how to pray when we find ourselves facing such circumstances.

Whether you are thinking of Michael, or facing some overwhelming situation in your own life, if you are anything like me, you may be finding it hard to know how to talk to God at a time like this.

Let me introduce you to Hansen’s approach to prayer; one that I find utterly human, authentic, and true to life as it really is.

“Long wandering prayer,” Hansen calls it.

Long wandering prayer involves leaving our normal environment for the express purpose of spending many hours alone with God. It involves walking, or at least moving, and stopping whenever we want, to consider a lily for as long as we desire. Long wandering prayer uses the fact that our minds wander as an advantage to prayer rather than as a disadvantage. In long wandering prayer we recognize that what we want to pray about may not be what God wants us to pray about. Our obsessive drive to control our minds in the presence of God, that is, to pray about one thing or stick to one list, may be a form of hiding from God. In this kind of prayer we recognize the wandering mind as a precious resource for complex and startling dialogue with God.

Pastor Hansen’s “method” grew out of his own experience in ministry, spending long periods of time skateboarding as a youth pastor, taking long walks through snowstorms and down tree-lined lanes in New England, hiking through open lands in Montana and fly-fishing in its rivers and streams, chasing a golf ball on fairways in the Midwest—all the while, thinking about life and ministry, having conversation with God, working through the matters wandering around in his mind.

My morning devotions are a matter of discipline. My long prayers are a matter of appetite. I don’t pray all day unless I want to. I go out and pray long when I am thirsty for God. I pray all day when I need to exchange my anxious thoughts for the peace that passes understanding, when I want to know the truth that sets free, when I am out on a limb and the branch is cracking, when I feel lonely and I want the presence of the Beloved. The Spirit creates the desire in my soul, and I follow my will. God’s open ear is irresistible to me because he has given me a new heart. God’s Spirit speaks to my new heart, compelling me to pray lengthy, bitter prayers of repentance for the old Adam still at work within me. One day of prayer sounds like a psalm of praise, another sounds like Romans 7. Most days sound like a little of both.

Speaking of psalms, it is in the Book of Psalms that David Hansen finds the best examples of this kind of prayer. Observing the variety of emotions that may run through a single psalm, and the way a psalmist may address God, himself, his friends, and his enemies all in one composition, he concludes:

Obviously psalm praying is much more than just talking to God in the second person singular. Psalm praying appears to be a running inner dialogue in the presence of God. Many of the psalms appear to be poetic compositions of hours alone wrestling with God and self and even with enemies and loved ones.

The world is obviously no friend to grace when it comes to prayer and contemplation like this. It requires that we let go of deeply ingrained cultural biases toward activism, self-management, productivity, and efficiency. We must refuse to short-circuit the process of relating to God through extended, in-depth conversation that involves listening, questioning, pondering, wondering, speculating, expressing opinions and feelings, arguing, confessing, disputing, and coming to agreement.

There is so much more to be said. May God use promptings like those in Hansen’s book to raise up a whole generation of contemplatives, who truly walk with God in extended conversation—long wandering prayer.


  1. I’m a big fan of the kind of prayer Hansen is describing, and I suspect it’s what Paul meant by “pray without ceasing” — basically keeping an unscripted dialogue going with God throughout the day. And though this type of prayer can’t really be corporately practiced within the boundaries of a formal church service, I do think it can be corporately practiced (in a sense) in informal, unrestricted, and necessarily small gatherings. For example, I attended a men’s retreat a few months ago in which we primarily spent our time out in nature engaging in what amounted to long wandering prayer — but every few hours we would come together and discuss what we had been talking to God about and what we thought He might be saying to us. I’ve also been on road trips with Christian friends that were jam packed with casual conversations about God and our relationships with Him, interspersed with spontaneous outbreaks of corporate prayer. Those are examples of what I would call long wandering church.

    • my first thought when i read this was also “pray without ceasing”. we should look at our prayer with God as a “casual conversation” ,as you have said. I often think about the character Tevye in the “fiddler on the roof” – he spends the whole movie telling God exactly what he thinks—when I first watched the movie as a teenager I felt he was been blasphemous —-but now i see it is being at home with God. I have a “holy hammock” in the backyard where I often partake in the long wandering prayers.

  2. Chaplain Mike wrote, “May God use promptings like those in Hansen’s book to raise up a whole generation of contemplatives, who truly walk with God in extended conversation—long wandering prayer.” Amen to that, Mike.

    Henri Nouwen writes, “I am beginning now to see how radically the character of my spiritual journey will change when I no longer think of God as hiding out and making it as difficult as possible for me to find him, but instead as the one who is looking for me while I am doing the hiding…” (from The Return of the Prodigal Son: A Meditation on Fathers, Brothers, and Sons p.100-101.)

    I love Nouwen. Let us not hide from God, but bring him our complaints, our laments, our longings, our fears as well as our thankfulness and love.

    I will not be able to be on the computer for a couple days, but I will look forward to getting back here to follow this conversation. Thank you, Chaplain Mike, for keeping us together and giving us this opportunity to share with one another even as Michael needs this time away from his blogging for healing. May God’s strength increase in and for Michael although his body is weakened.

  3. “I go out and pray long when I am thirsty for God. I pray all day when I need to exchange my anxious thoughts for the peace that passes understanding, when I want to know the truth that sets free, when I am out on a limb and the branch is cracking, when I feel lonely and I want the presence of the Beloved.”

    I loved this. It encourages me in a way that is so critical to my well being…that of being real before God. I think the wandering prayers can be wordless sometimes. I hope that doesn’t sound weird. 8^)

  4. While contemplative prayer is good, I am always at risk for abandoning everything and everyone for a monestary existence. I do not believe that God has called me to such an existence, though it is extremely tempting.

    • I don’t think it’s necessary to leave everyday life. However, time is an essential element, as in any relationship. As A.W. Tozer once said, “He would know God must give time to him.”

  5. Wandering prayer is a far more intentional kind of prayer that the bulleted prayer lists and scripted “quiet times” beloved by most of us coming out of the evangelical closet. It’s far easier to allot 10 minutes to prayer at the end of a time of scripture and devotional reading each morning than it is to drop the calendar and walk with God. There is security in a regimen…but who knows what God will say to me when I give Him all the time in the day. And who knows where He will want me to walk?

  6. I am another who is at risk of entering a monastic life. Two of the most powerfully spiritual weeks of my life have been at two retreats at a place that focused on silence and contemplation. When you have nothing to do all day but spend it in prayer, your prayer life will be something like you’ve never experienced.

    Strolling through the woods, thinking about God, meditating on His word, taking the time to just sit and listen….. too often we forget that God already knows what we’re asking for and what we need… and maybe we need to stop talking and just shut up and listen.

    On the other hand, I’ve read bloggers who put together extensive proofs that prayer is only about talking to God. If you stop talking, you’re outside scripture.