Leonard Sweet once wrote; “Insects crawl. Fish swim. Birds fly. Humans Pray.” I have come to see through my near death experience that prayer truly is a natural part of human experience. Though prayer is often conceived of as “talking to God,” for me prayer does not always have to involve words, or even thoughts. It is something miraculous, yet prayer is also natural. That does not mean our prayer lives could not be improved or that we always pray as we should. Richard Foster reminds us how we often “experience the agony of prayerlessness.”
I am reading MaryKate Morse’s book, A Guidebook to Prayer. It is wonderful to read a book by a person I know, and even more interesting there are peppered throughout it comments from students. Some of the students quoted in it I have actually shared classes with. One student I know, Pete Garcia, wrote of his experience with God in terms of a juvenile romance:
“Prayer and I have endured a relationship not unlike that of junior high would-be lovers. It’s great, then awkward, then I stop texting and we drift apart. This cycle repeats ad infinitum. The busier my life becomes, the less time and space I create for prayer. And then I feel empty, yet emptiness is the crux of our humanity precisely because it creates space for us to be filled with God’s Spirit. This is the great battle of the desert: our dual longing for and requirement of love. Love is the space in which we can cup our hands to contain enough small water to wet our faces in Gods stream of life.”
The imagery Pete put forth as a junior high relationship with its yearnings and emptiness was to me both comical and profound. I have experienced this sort of juvenile “dark night of the soul” where the emptiness rekindles a burning desire to encounter God once again. It seems that my prayer life goes through these kinds of cycles: cycles of shallowness and depth, richness and poverty. One day I feel like I haven’t missed a beat with God, another I realize I haven’t prayed much for a few days because of all the busyness and exhaustion. When this hits me, I just have to go off, to the sanctuary or elsewhere, and push through the awkwardness of prayer once again. At times the connection with God gushes right up like living water welling within me, and other times it feels like work—redigging a well even—that eventually opens the channels up once again. The acknowledgement of the awkwardness of prayer really struck me. I feel that often and profoundly in ministry (and in general).
When it is just me praying alone, I do not always feel the need for audible prayer. For me, words do not matter a whole lot anymore, so hunting for the right words is not something I am typically concerned with. Corporate prayer, on the other hand is vastly different and somewhat intimidating also. One thing I am waking up to is the power of and depth of non-spontaneous prayer. I have always had a tough time with liturgical style prayer, by which I mean written prayers. I eventually became fine with writing out my own words, but for me, borrowing someone else’s words, no matter how beautiful, appropriate, or elegant always seemed like an odd fit for my own prayer life. I also see that I can find myself praying different versions of the same prayer, and becoming perhaps too satisfied with that. I can see how borrowing words can help break free of this monotony, yet there is something about the intimacy and honesty involved in spontaneous prayer I still value greatly. In the same way that I think reading my wife a love letter might be nice once in a while, but it would feel weird reading her someone else’s. Or worse, I imagine some kind of marriage sitcom where a married couple can no longer use their own words, but can only read to each other someone else’s. These extremes of course do not have to be. As always dabbling with new things, in prayer just as other areas of our lives, can be a rewarding thing.
Praying the Psalms, as Foster pointed out, makes a great starting point for delving into these more structured ways of praying. In traditional Jewish prayer, one would face east toward Jerusalem. The Psalm of the day is read three times, each time the pray-er would step back three steps and wait in silence, then step forward three steps and read again. I have been doing this recently for my prayer class and it has been quite stretching. Later Jewish people would adopt a system of 18 blessings called the Shemoneh Esreh. In it there are prayers centering on who God is, personal prayers, national prayers for the people of Israel, and prayers of worship.
Prayer number 16 is about humbly asking for, and being grateful for the simple fact of God hearing our prayers. As you read it you will notice the vowels from the references to God’s name are missing. This reflects the Jewish understanding that the name of God revealed to Moses YHWH (Yahweh) should be kept holy and unprofaned, eventually leading to the divine Name no longer even being pronounced.
Hear our voice, O L-rd our G-d; spare us and have mercy upon us, and accept our prayer in mercy and favor; for You are a G-d who hears and answers prayers and supplications; from Your presence, O our King, turn us not away empty; for You hear and answer in mercy to the prayers of Your people Israel. Blessed art thou, O L-rd, who hears and answers prayer.
I have felt a strong desire to take on the adventure of incorporating these blessings into my prayer habits. I also felt challenged to simply dust off my pen and write out some of my own prayers rather than always “winging it…” I know myself well enough to know that remixing and riffing off prayers is far more natural to me than simply reading the prayers of others. All of this is a stretch out of my comfort zone, but it is also stretching past the low hanging fruit I have grown accustomed to. The sweetest fruits are often not the easiest to reach.
I want to challenge you to try on something different in your personal praying habits this month. If you are feeling adventurous, add in something new that is a lot different than what you normally do. Do something a little crazy! Set apart a time and a place for prayer outside your normal rhythm. Find a prayer closet or “tent of meeting” and inhabit it. Build an altar, even if it is something small that you place on the edge of your desk. Take a crack at Jewish prayers, or borrow a prayer from some obscure person in the Bible and make it your own. Dabble!
Jesus has given us access to God, but so often we do not take advantage of, or ponder how wondrous a thing prayer really is. As my friend, Peter from seminary reminds us, “The busier my life becomes, the less time and space I create for prayer.” It is a challenge to reclaim some of that lost room in our lives, but in this we may well find a pioneering spirit that can revitalize and refresh our connection with God. Not every new thing is always beneficial, but we always benefit from chasing the mysteries of prayer. May we find Him in the seeking at College Avenue Friends. Hear our voice, O L-rd our G-d