02 February 2014

On Prayer, Part One

 “I was able to lay aside my modern assumptions about prayer…I abandoned the notion that prayer is basically verbal petition and praise, and came to see that prayer is a sharing of the whole self and an entire life with God.”

-April Yamasaki (Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal)*

“Prayer is about connecting with God, about having a relationship with our divine creator.  God desires that with us, and because God loves us so much, God actually cares about our trivial wants, our big dreams, and our petty grievances.  This is humbling news indeed.  We can come to God with anything, and God will work with it.”

-Lillian Daniel (When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church)**

I have a confession to make: I am terrible at prayer.  Allow me to clarify a bit though.  I am not terrible at prayer in and of itself.  In corporate worship and in public settings I get by well enough so as not to sound like a heathen or heretic.  I actually enjoy writing public prayers, though I am far from eloquent.

Where I struggle, what I believe I am terrible at is private prayer. I have always fought myself when it came to private prayer, whether it was a matter of timing or location or even the actual content and form of the prayer.  And I would inevitably beat myself up about it.  I felt like I was a bad Christian because I didn’t pray privately every single day.  Heck, I was lucky if I got in a couple of prayers a week outside of a worship service.  I found that it was easier to run from prayer, or to pretend that it wasn’t actually a thing people did until Sunday rolled around or when someone asked me to pray.  Prayer and I have not gotten along all that well through years.

You see, I have a rather sordid history with prayer.  I grew up in the church and in a tradition that placed a lot of emphasis on prayer, but all of that emphasis was on prayers of supplication and repentance.  Needless to say, I repented a lot in my youth and I’m pretty sure I was saved at least a half dozen times (those altar calls and peer pressure will get you every time).  So yeah, there was a lot of repenting done, but the way in which I learned to pray growing up was a sort of “well, while your down there on your knees repenting, you might as well go ahead and ask God for some stuff” type of prayer. Looking at that phrase now makes me wish I could shorten it, but it really does capture the kind of prayer I grew up with.  As an aside, if anyone comes up with a more concise term for the above form of prayer I’ll give you a long-distance virtual high-five.

Anyways, what I am saying is that the prayer of my youth and the prayer of my young adulthood was narrow and as a tiny vessel upon the constantly changing seas of life, my myopic prayer life could not and would not weather the inevitable storms life brings.  Case in point: my father died when I was 21 years old; he was 47.  Mucinous adenocarcinoma (a type of cancer) overtook him with a viciousness that the oncologists were not used to seeing.  Over the course of roughly 2 years I watched my father go from being a healthy outdoorsy guy in his mid to late 40s to being a frail man who was nearly bed-ridden (though he fought to get up and around every single day).  As his health decreased over time, I assure you there were many prayers prayed and many tears shed.  I watched as people prayed for physical healing, as they tried to pray the cancer out of my father, as they prayed for a medical miracle.  Meanwhile, I simply prayed “Why!?!” “Why my dad? Why a perfectly healthy guy?  Why a good man?  Why why why!?!”

Thanks to the formative and loving guidance and care of a few of my theology professors in college I was encouraged to view healing as something much larger than one’s mere physical response to the miraculous.  Healing could come without a change in one’s physical state.  And healing did come, and a miracle did occur.  Despite all of the hard work of an amazing team of doctors and nurses, and despite the earnest prayer of family and friends, my father still died.  His body just gave up…but he was most certainly healed.  In mind and spirit God’s presence was seen, it was felt, it was palpable.  My father was a changed man.  So there was no healing (at least not as we typically think of it), but there was healing.  What does that even mean?

Here’s what I think it might mean, and Rev. Daniel captures this concept beautifully:  it means that we can go to God, we can connect with God in and through all of our wants and needs and grievances, or just through a simple desire to be with God…to just be.  And God will work with it.  God will work with it in ways that we will never fully understand, but God hears us and loves us and is always always always seeking to connect with us.  God worked with those prayers prayed by my father and those prayed on his behalf, and he was healed.  I know that now…I struggled with it then.  I was angry with people for praying for physical healing.  I thought they were delusional.  But God heard all of our prayers, and though the response was not what many folks wanted from God, God nonetheless responded and my father was healed.

And this is where I struggle, when all is quiet, when I am alone with myself and I have the opportunity for personal prayer.  I know about many of the various forms and methods of prayer.  Many are quite wonderful and transformative, but I am terrified of falling into the realm of supplication.  I am terrified of treating God like a vending machine, of sticking my prayer in the coin slot, pressing “B1”, and expecting what I want to come out.  I am terrified of confusing God for Santa Claus, submitting my Christmas list of prayers and expecting to get what’s on the list.  I just know deep within my very being that this is not who God is.  And because of my fear, I am afraid to ask God for much of anything.

I know full well that Scripture states “ask and it shall be given…”, but this is a prayer concept I have seen and heard repeatedly abused and I am prone to not do the same.  So I end up steering well clear of the topic other than to ask for God’s presence (which certainly isn’t a bad thing, right?).  And with that, I ask for God’s peace and presence as I conclude Part 1 of this two-part blog entry.  God bless!

* Yamasaki, April. Sacred Pauses: Spiritual Practices for Personal Renewal.  Waterloo, Ont.: Herald Press, 2013.  Page 58. 

** Daniel, Lillian. When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church. New York: Jericho Books, 2013.  Page 40.   

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