Ok. I know I have this whole missionary thing going on, and I'm married to a pastor, and I sincerely love Jesus, but, despite all that, somehow I found myself living a life without prayer. I mean, I still pray occasionally, like before dinner when we have company, but lately it hasn't been often, and it hasn't been very sincere.
I used to pray earnestly, with a deep sense of longing and appreciation to a God I thought listened. I used to pray daily, habitually, one might even say religiously, as an act of obedient worship and supplication to a God I thought cared. I used to pray intentionally, with a heart full of gratitude and wonder for a God I thought loved me.
I used to pray.
I used to pray and listen, listen and pray. I used to hear God, and He used to hear me, because I used to think prayer mattered, and that maybe when I prayed it actually made a difference in the world. Like many of the things that used to define and direct my faith, I used to think prayer was important to my spiritual formation. And like many of the things that used to define and direct my faith, eventually I started to question its value.
As I questioned and wondered and prodded for understanding, my prayer life went from being a rich, meaningful experience to a tool I use to fight insomnia. Prayer became the kind of mindless activity that is so boring and un-engaging, it practically induces a coma. Like counting sheep, or taking slow breaths -- if I can't sleep, I pray.
Initially, I was turned off by seeing so many flippant promises of prayer from people I knew wouldn't actually follow though. And by “people” I mean me. I used to do this all the time. Requests would be uttered, needs would be shared, sad stories were told, and I promised I would pray for them, but I rarely made good on my commitment. I almost never actually prayed for people after I told them I would. For me, “I'll pray for you” became like the Christian equivalent of “Take care.” It was simply a means for me to end a conversation with another person and walk away from them without assuming any personal responsibility for their future. Or their needs. Or their pain.
Once I realize I was doing it, I knew something had to change. But instead of deciding to
decent human being pray for people when I said I would, I
just decided to stop saying “I'll pray for you.” Problem solved.
... And then? Because I'm an embarrassment to society and my brain
doesn't know how to control my mouth, sometimes I would not only not
say “I'll pray for you”, but I would go so far as to replace
it with something else. Something worse. Something like,“I'm
not going to tell you 'I'll pray for you' because I probably won't,
but sorry for your loss.” Or “...but I think you'll do
great on your test.” Or “....but
cancer totally sucks. I hope you live.”
Because that's SO MUCH BETTER. Right? ….*sigh*... Ugh! I'm a douche, you guys.
The downfall of my prayer life didn't end there, because then I started to feel weird about the things I prayed about. I was told to bring all my cares to God, no matter how trivial or small, because He wants to hear all of it. Right? But it felt weird to pray to God for a sunny vacation and, also? War and famine and orphans. It felt wrong to ask God to #Bless me in my fluffy suburban life, while I was acutely aware of the greater suffering of others. I thought it was kind of icky to call for God's favor over t-ball games and car repairs and vet bills.... and, oh yeah, my friend whose husband is dying in hospice.
So my downward prayer spiral continued.
I didn't like the way Christians like to congratulate ourselves for "answered prayers” when we get what we want, but quickly shrug off things that don't go our way as “God's will”. The more I thought about it, the more I had a hard time believing that, first, we could somehow bend God's favor for our own benefit, and second that “His perfect will” included things like advanced leukemia, and starving babies, and dead Mama's, and, you know, like, crimes against humanity and stuff.
It's just that I happen to think super shitty things aren't God's will.
I think bad things happen because we live in a broken place filled with messed up people who have terrible ideas, and because the Earth is covered in all kinds of other unpredictable living things, and also because weather. I could be wrong, but I think “God's perfect will” for the mess we call life is that we would love and be loved by Him, but also that you and I would love one another through the inevitable pain and turmoil and tragedy that comes with living in this beautiful, dynamic, damaged world.
So that became kind of a problem, too, because if you believe in God's will, but you also believe in Shit Happens, how then should you pray?
Or I guess maybe the real question is: Why should you pray?
I've seriously struggled with this question for like ever. Why pray? If I don't see God as a cosmic wish granter whose magical genie powers can be conjured by the fervent prayers of men, then why should I bother to pray at all?
But, as much as I've managed to cheapen it over the years, I've never been able to fully shed prayer as a core value. For a while, it's just been sort of lingering in the background of my Faith, hoping to be picked up, longing to be embraced once again. More recently, though, I've dusted off the practice of prayer by actively, intentionally entering into conversations with God – and not as a sleep aid. I still can't say I understand it, I still have no idea how it works, but I think I can honestly say I've returned to prayer.
Over the past few months, I've had good reasons to pray - not for myself, but for others – through grief and heartache, through loss and through gain, and through celebration, through ups and downs and a bunch of WTF's, through gratitude and grace, through life and through death... I prayed for them. No, actually? I prayed with them...
And that's when I remembered why we pray.
We pray because the God who knows us and sees us also connects us.
When we pray for one another, we are acknowledging that we are connected, not just to God, but to each other. Your pain matters, not just to God, but to me. Your joy is delightful, not just to God, but to me. The suffering of this broken world must be addressed, not just by God, but by me.
When Jesus shows us how to pray, He draws us into community, first with God, and then with each other:
Our Father who art in
hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come.
Thy will be done
on earth as it is in
Give us this day our
and forgive us our
as we forgive those who
trespass against us,
and lead us not into
but deliver us from
My Father, who art in Heaven...
Give me this day my daily bread...
Nope. Sorry. We're all in this together.
Among other things, prayer is an amazing reminder that through God we are all connected; He is with you, I tell you that all the time... but what if he also made me to be with you? So that you, Beloved of the Lord, know you are never alone.
I think I had part of it right in the beginning; God does listen. God hears, God cares, God loves, and though I can't explain it, I believe God responds to our prayers. But what I didn't get was that to pray for another person is the opposite of taking an easy spiritual out. Whether they live down the hall, or across the street, or on the other side of the world, whether they are our friend or our enemy, when we pray for others, we should probably be open to the possibility that God's love, His justice, His grace, His mercy may need to flow through us in other, more tangible, ways. You know what I mean? Like, maybe God's perfect will is that we LOVE ONE ANOTHER, for real, because life is hard and the world is screwed up and while we may know we need God... God knows we also need each other.
God IS, and shit happens, and prayer works - That's where I'm at. I understand how prayer brings you and me and God close about as well as I understand how I'm wirelessly connected to you right now through internet-magic. But I'm pretty sure that all of Creation is woven together in a tangled web of community, fully united by God, because we were never meant to be alone.
So let us honor our Father together. Let us work hand in hand to usher in the kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Let us pass our daily bread to one another. Let us forgive together. Let us hold each other up to receive forgiveness. Let us walk side by side as we seek paths of righteousness and encourage one another in our victories.
Let us pray.
Can I pray for you? Or, better yet, with you? …. No. I mean it this time!