The phone rang at 3am with almost unspeakable heartache on the other end. I soon passed through the ER’s metal detectors and toward ICU. The victim vacillated between this life and the one to come. I found her daughter sitting in pajamas in the middle of an empty hallway. I introduced myself as her mother’s pastor. We sat in silent tears punctuated with few words. A doctor joined our circle down on the floor offering bleak news with great compassion. Jolted wide awake only hours before, an only child faced a difficult choice. Securing a babysitter at 4am, her husband joined our circle. After asking if she would like to pray, I inquired what she might want to pray for? She said, “I really don’t know.” Her grief and shock seemed to called for words so I said something like: “who could know what to pray right now, but we never need to worry too much about our prayer, God already knows our hearts. The Apostle Paul said. ‘the Holy Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit pleads our case with deep empathetic sighs (Romans 8:26)’ . So just carry whatever you are feeling straight to God.” Before I could get home and get back to sleep, the daughter called me to thank me and let me know her mother had passed.
How do we pray? Do we come to God just as we are? Or do we feel the need to straighten our inner home for our Divine guest, hiding our imperfections in the laundry room and sticking our imperfections in the roll-top desk?
Listen to Moses praying. Hear the struggle between God and humanity, the pulling back and forth. Moses is exhausted from complaints about his leadership, food shortages, wilderness conditions, the Golden Calf of the prosperity gospel. Moses, like Jacob and David, takes God to the mat wrestling with God.
Moses said to the Lord, “Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people.”
Would we dare be that bold, that accusatory, that real with God? At times, we flash up with those we love. There is a difference between a foolish testing of God and a passionate inner struggling with God.
The Lord replied, “I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you.” Moses replied, “If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth.” The Lord said to Moses, “I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name.” Moses said, “Please show me your glorious presence.” The Lord said, “I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name…. “
Moses seeking a blessing, affirmation, approval, presence and so he wrestles with God until God “hides Moses in the cleft of the rock” and bathes Moses with in glorious radiant light.
Paul put this wrestling another way, “Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 4:6-7)
A season after we sat in the ICU hallway, the daughter, her husband, and son joined us for All Saints Sunday. We read her mother’s name and lit a candle on the altar. The daughter lingered in the church narthex. As we chatted she shared, “you said something that awful night that has changed my life. You said we can say anything to God.” She told me how she had always been cautious, scripted, careful, and separated in her prayers. One day almost overwhelmed with grief, she dropped all the flowery language and got familiar with God. She let God have it, not like a houseguest but in unvarnished realness punctuated with expressive explicatives. As she pushed that anger out in prayer, perhaps echoing the ancient prayer: “My God, My God, Why, have you forsaken me?”, she shared of tears flowing down her face and then somehow God sheltered her in the cleft of the rock with the first ripples of peace surpassing understanding.
How do you pray? When do you pray? Do you take the time to hear from God and yourself?
The art of prayer is an authentic conversation with God who already knows our hearts! Wesley called prayer the chief means of grace. Prayer is the essential link between our minds and God, and maybe even between our busy lives and our own souls. Ultimately, prayer is essential to our spiritual lives, connecting and reconnecting us again and again with the call, the path, and the ways of God. Prayer slows us down. Pray interprets our lives. Prayer redirects our paths. Prayer reminds us of who we are. Prayer reminds us who God is. Prayer reminds us who we long to become. Prayer is a “striving”, like the word “Israel”.
The Biblical Hebrew and Greek offer several different words to describe prayer.
Palal to pray
Darash yhwh seek the Lord
Bashem to call on the name
Athar to entreat
Yadhad thank or request
Halal to praise
Barakh to bless
Proseuchomia to pray
Deesis to petition, need
Homologeo to confess, profess
Ekzeteo to seek to inquire
Aineo to praise
Eucharisteo to thank
Eulogo to bless
Dochazo to glorify
There are many forms of prayer from silence to Gregorian Chants to repeating the same line 25 times in a praise chorus. We can kneel, stand, walk, or do yoga. I find solitude in lap swimming. We can pray alone, pray on the phone, pray in a small group, or pray with the congregation. No matter how many tools we use, the heart of prayer is an authentic conversation with ourselves and God. We often move so fast we have no idea what we are doing or why. Prayer interrupts our doing with and pulls our souls into the deepest conversation.
I want to quickly offer a “how to” of prayer.
Lament. Too often our prayers seek to do something. We try to move God, when Jesus prayed that “God’s kingdom might come and God’s will be done on earth as in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10) Facing the cross, Jesus “fell on his face and prayed, ‘My Father, if it’s possible, take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want.’” (Matthew 26:39) The Psalms are filled with laments. Laments are not complaints so much as sharing our soul’s deepest pains with God. Perhaps it is our American “pursuit of happiness” or the prosperity Gospel, but many Christians feel they must be happy. Read the Psalms and hear people crying out. Jesus wept over Jerusalem and taught us “Blessed are those who mourn.” (Matthew 5:4) Do not be afraid to lament.
Silence. I talk far too much. I love to talk, but when I privately pray, I have always grown silent. I grew up thinking this was weird until I read the words of Mother Teresa. “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at God’s disposition, and listening to God’s voice in the depth of our soul.” Listen in silence, because if your heart is full of other things, you can not hear from God.” Mother Teresa; Essential Writings
Contemplation. Jesus began his ministry with 40 days of silence. Forty days of contemplation alone in the wilderness. Forty days of fasting and prayer. Forty days of facing the temptation to misuse his power to serve himself. Life moves so fast that we rarely examine our living. We are so busy doing life that we struggle to name the temptations that might lead us to misuse our time. Contemplation is essential to all prayer, for in it we checking in with God and ourselves.
Confession. Matthew 4:16 describes Jesus’ message as “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” The CEB renders “repent” as “change your heart.” Repentance, or confession, is not about feeling like a worm but about changing our hearts to align with God. Confession requires contemplation as we examine our lives in light of Christ’s tenants. We see where we fall short and seek to realign our living. At the YMCA this week, I stopped to watch two athletes running a basketball drill. The shooter would shoot and then sprint to the cone and return to her spot in time to catch a pass from the rebounder only to repeat the cycle again. Tired from running, she grew sloppy and missed three in a row. Her rebounder clapped her hands interrupting the drill. She then touched her finger tips, mimicked a better release bending her knees. The shooter did not fall apart confessing her failure in terrible wails but simply nodded her head in agreement and returned to the drill. Pushing herself to remember her form, she swished her next shot. Confession is not about feeling shame but deeply acknowledging our need to strive after the right form. Confession contemplates our need to realign our living “on earth as in heaven”.
The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible divides prayer into two broad movements. Praise dwells in who God is and moves our focus from our human condition towards the Divine. Supplication dwells in who we are and lifts our living towards God.
Praise. Praise lifts up the divine attributes. It calls us to ponder who God is. Before facing the cross and just after the last Supper, Jesus and the disciples sang songs of praise to God. (Mark 14:26 and Matthew 26:30). Praise is not about us, but it interrupts our broken and sinful human patterns and calls us up to God. After ten days in a rented suburban with 8 people and hitting a new national park almost every day, I awoke at the Paradise Lodge at Mount Rainier. Although it was still dark, I was too tense from too much time with too much family to sleep. I grabbed coffee and headed up a darkened trail to a little bench sitting down to watch the sunrise. The ancients worshipped that mountain. I soon joined their songs lifting praises to our Creator. Sing your praises! Sing your praises to the Lord. Let the world and all its inhabitants too. Let all the rivers clap their hands; let the mountains rejoice together before the Lord. (Psalm 98) When Connie found my note and slid down beside me on the bench, an hour of silent praises to God had saved my vacation.
Thanksgiving. Even as Paul tells us to “bring up all your anxieties and requests to God in your prayer” , he calls us to remember to always couple our requests with “giving thanks… focusing our thoughts on whatever is excellent, admirable, true, holy, just, pure, lovely, and worthy of praise.” (Philippians 4) Praise the Creator as a leaf drifts down from a tree, slowly spinning to the ground. Stop and watch two collegiate ballers executing a familiar drill, smiling and offering thanks to God for your warm memories. Thanksgiving change our prayers and our outlook! My mom lived with us for the last five years of her life. Friday would have been her 87th birthday. She passed into the Life to Come last Halloween. We sang hymns to mom for the last 2 hours of her life; she left us as we sang “I surrender all”… a parting fitting a Baptist saint. No, we did not sing 27 verses! I weep and rejoice, but I am moved through grief towards gratitude as I simply remember all that is excellent and worthy of praise.
Praying the scriptures. The scriptures show us the importance of praying someone else’s written prayers and indeed praying the scriptures. On the cross, Jesus whispers the opening lines of Psalm 22. Imagine Jesus, emptied of everything but love, comforted by that ancient prayer: My God! My God, why have you left me all alone? Why are you so far from saving me—so far from my anguished groans?.. I’m poured out like water. All my bones have fallen apart. My heart is like wax; it melts inside me. My strength is dried up like a piece of broken pottery. My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you’ve set me down in the dirt of death….they just stare at me, watching me. They divvy up my garments casting lots for my clothes. But you, Lord! Don’t be far away!” Allow the Holy Spirit to weave our story into the divine story so that we might be whole. So many wonderful books of prayers do this. Please read the listing of prayer resources our clergy members and UMC leaders pulled together this week.
Oh friends, let us interrupt our lives with prayer. Let us hear from God and our own souls in contemplation. Let us confess our need and realign our living. Let us not be afraid to struggle with God, for the Holy Spirit will perfect our honest strivings. Let us read the prayers of saints and sinners finding wholeness as we weave our stories in God’s larger movements. Let us give thanks and sing praises together. Let us in all things pray without ceasing, so that we might be continually remade in the image of God. Amen.