In anticipation of our elder’s retreat this year, I’ve been invited to share a few personal reflections on prayer…
Growing up, I implicitly believed that prayer was mostly about telling God what I wanted. Typically, it was telling God what I wanted God to do for me or others I cared about. God, of course, could answer however God chose to answer, but MY part of prayer was using words to let God know what was on my mind. I say “implicitly believed” because I don’t think anyone would say it or teach it exactly that way. It was as if we all knew in our soul, spirit, and bones prayer could be (and maybe should be?) something different than what we were experiencing and practicing together. However, asking God for what we wanted was the default we almost always fell back into.
As my journey with God continued, I began to notice outliers to the default mode of prayer: A person prayed in a way that expressed adoration for God and didn’t ask God for anything! An experience of transcendence in nature called out of me a wordless response that I now recognize as prayer. The tears of a grieving family expressed another form of wordless prayer, joining the groans of creation which longs for the revelation of God’s children. The more I paid attention, the more I noticed prayer was a much more vast and dynamic expression of our relationship with God than I had imagined. Prayer is less about technique and form and more about learning to live in relationship with God at all times and in all ways.
I learned to notice the variety of prayer offered in scripture, especially the Psalms. Wise teachers pointed out the honesty of speech in the Psalms - anger, despair, joy, frustration, contentment, etc. - these prayers aren't afraid to let it all hang out! And they aren't afraid to put God on the hook for anything and everything! Being right or wrong about God in their speech seemed to matter less than being completely honest with God. I began to wonder that maybe God cannot or will not heal or correct the things in our lives that we attempted to keep hidden. “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another so that you may be healed...” (James 5:16) began to take on new meaning in my life. My own prayer life began to be more honest with God and with those who join me on the journey of faith. Although, human nature being so prone to self-deception, that’s certainly still a work in progress.
At some point along the way, I was introduced to the stream of Christian prayer sometimes called Contemplative Prayer. This is a spiritual tradition that recognizes prayer is not a one-way communication with God. We speak and we listen. Sometimes (maybe even most often) God’s answer is silence. And sometimes (maybe even most often) the most faithful thing we can do is simply enter into the silence with God. Contemplative prayer can be expressed in a variety of techniques and practices, but the posture of opening one’s heart to God on God’s own terms is what holds them all together.
After the stillbirth of our daughter, Daisy, in January of 2018, this posture of prayer became even more meaningful to me. I had only one thing that I wanted, and I didn’t need many words to express it: I wanted my daughter to be alive. Yet, this singular request was met with silence from God. But I'm finding over time that the silence isn't hostile or cold. The silence is sometimes even warm and inviting. I’ve begun to believe the practice of prayer is less about getting God to do something for us than it is about recognizing the ways our lives are already held in God - often in hidden and mysterious ways. God always holds us in love. Whether we find ourselves in grief, suffering, ecstasy, joy, longing, or any other place - God always holds us in love. And there’s nothing we can do to separate ourselves from that love. Prayer helps us rest our being in the love of God, so that we might share the love we receive with others.
Thanks to everyone who is praying with us this weekend. What a beautiful expression of the unity of life in the Spirit in this congregation! Whatever you choose to do during your prayer time this weekend, I humbly offer these suggestions:
- Be honest.
- Be humble. "In the same way, the Spirit comes to help our weakness. We don’t know what we should pray, but the Spirit himself pleads our case with unexpressed groans.” (Romans 8:26)
- Don’t worry too much about technique and form.
- Don’t be afraid of silence.
- Remember that God holds all of us in the love of Christ.
Peace, Ben Fike