Every week, I scan my reflections and experiences to answer that rich question, “Where is God in my day?” The answer that has been bubbling up more than once lately is “in prayer”. The topic came while listening to “On Being” as I exercised, a radio show I’d highly recommend, based out of Minnesota. The host, Krista TIppet, always has rich conversations with people on topics related to faith and meaning. The particular show I was listening to that day was a repeat, one of my favorites called “Approaching Prayer”, and it got me thinking about prayer in my own life.
What does it mean to pray? When I was a kid in elementary school, the class recited the Lord’s Prayer every morning after O Canada. The words were so ingrained in me that I hardly thought about them, like the rhyming german prayers that my sisters and I whipped off obediently before meals at home. To this day, I can recite those meal prayers so fast that they sound like one word! We hardly thought about the words before we ate (though looking back, it probably didn’t hurt to practice a habit of gratitude for the food).
Images of people reciting a list of requests also comes to mind, which assume God to be that great Santa in the sky. And, though conversations about faith have largely left our culture, people still sometimes say, “I’ll pray for you,” when a friend is going through a tough time.
One of my first memories is of praying before bed. My sister Hilde, the oldest of us 4 girls, was battling leukemia, and I remember kneeling at my headboard, and asking (in german, which I thought was God’s language!) that she get better. God didn’t answer that prayer the way we expected, since she passed away in 1968, but the memory of those heartfelt prayers stayed with me. In my child’s faith, I never questioned that God was listening, the same way I knew He was watching over us as we grieved.
Another childhood prayer came as I contemplated a painting on the wall of my bedroom. In the famous picture, an angel is guarding two vulnerable children as they walk across a rickety bridge. I was fascinated with that picture even as I was horrified by the dangers of the kids faced. Despite my terror, I always had that sense that God was like that angel, ever present in my life, guarding my steps and not far from my thoughts.
Thanks to growing up in the faith communities of my school, church, family and now in my house church, I have always kept up the habit of prayer. But as an adult, I am hardly an expert at it. In fact, most times when I am caught up in life’s troubles, I lack faith and my prayers feel like trying to speak a foreign language. My prayers often feel like they are bouncing right back to me from the ceiling! But I know that I can be grateful for all my worries, because without them I would likely never feel the need to pray. There’s a great quotation that often comes to mind, “I only pray when I’m in trouble. But I’m in trouble all the time, so I always pray.” Isaac Bashevis Singer
Prayer to me is not just formal prayers that begin with “Dear God” and end with “Amen”, armed with that famous Christmas list. Prayer to me is an attitude of the heart. The Bible says to “Pray without ceasing”, and this seems like a tall order unless you consider that God surrounds us all the time, even if we are unaware of it. Being aware of God’s presence is what I would consider prayer, and what I most desire in life. I begin and end my days with prayer, but through scripture, I am encouraged to turn to God all day long, kind of like a sunflower turns towards the sun, its source of growth. Scripture also gives us the image that we are to “abide” in God, much like leaves are part of a vine.
It is often difficult to do this. For some odd reason (call it the human predicament), I am often much more bent on trying things my own way. This invariably leads me into a tangled heap of trouble (see above quote), and it’s back to prayer I go, humbling asking for guidance since I am pretty clueless on my own. Abraham Lincoln once said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”
Nowhere else to go. More and more as I am getting older, I see this to be true. I’ve tried so many self-help cures, and nothing has truly helped more than “abiding” in God, whether it is through prayer or reading scripture, both alone and with my church community.
My prayers honestly do feel awkward and bumbling, but I take solace in the image that, like a loving parent, God is overjoyed to hear us coming home, no matter what shape we’re in. The Bible says that God knows what what our needs are before we do, and knows what we are going to pray even before we know it ourselves. Groans and end-of-the-rope sighs are a language that scripture says God knows how to interpret. Like that angel, God is always surrounding us, looking out for our needs.
Does that mean that troubles are always solved when we pray? Hardly! Troubles don’t necessarily go away (as they didn’t for my sister who lost the cancer battle), but I find that my perspective on them changes, and my burdens get lifted. What I am coming to understand is that God is with us, no matter what is happening in our external reality. We can say, “All will be well” in any circumstance, because we can know that God is guarding our hearts from cynicism, doubt, anxiety, despair or loneliness. We may not always get the answers we want in prayer, but I believe that we always get what we need. In God’s reality, the world is expansive. A verse from the book of Samuel in the Old Testament says, “He brought me out into a spacious place.” 2 Samuel 22:20 This spacious place in God gives me lots of hope.
One of my favorite writers, Ann Lamott, says that there are really only two prayers. One is “Help me, help me, help me” and the other is “Thank you, thank you, thank you”. I often remember her words. Both become true for me as I ask for and receive help again and again. God has never let me down.
Another quotation that has been with me for a long time is from the French philosopher, social activist and Christian mystic Simone Weil, who says that “Absolute unmixed attention is prayer.” I am often practicing anything but unmixed attention as my thoughts get scattered with worries and cares, but the call back to prayer never leaves me. A verse in scripture invites us to “Cast all your anxiety on him, for he cares for you.” (I Peter 5:7 TNIV) God does not expect us to come to prayer as perfect people, but only as children would turn to a loving parent. There is no right way to pray.
The Psalms are a rich source of prayers that can guide us when we are at a loss for words. In the podcast on prayer, Krista interviewed Stephen Mitchell, a famous American translator and poet. He recited a “free form” translation of Psalm 4, which I want to share you with you all since it seems to embody perfectly that expansive world of God. It is a prayer that contains both a “Help me” and a “Thank you”.
“Even in the midst of great pain Lord, I praise You for that which is. I will not refuse this grief or close myself to this anguish. Let shallow men pray for ease. Comfort us, shield us from sorrow. I pray for whatever you send me and I ask to receive it as your gift. You have put a joy in my heart greater than all the world’s riches. I lie down, trusting the darkness, for I know that even now, You are here.”