Prayer is an intimate act, and like all intimate acts, can be frightening. Like kissing and writing, there are times in my life when I resist praying, and then when something breaks through and I do engage, I wonder why I would ever stop doing this in the first place.
But there’s a risk to any intimacy. The entire time I was pregnant with my first child, I was afraid that I didn’t have what it took to be a mother. It wasn’t until he was born and I looked in his eyes, I literally thought, “Oh, I can be your mother.” For me, it’s kind of the same with God: sometimes I’m afraid that prayer is me talking inside my own head, sending good wishes out into the universe, and then a very real, very specific God answers those prayers – and I don’t always mean with a yes – and my faith takes on a new dimension, a new level of trust.
When I was a little girl, my parents taught me a NowIlaymedowntosleep prayer, and every night when they tucked me into bed, I would recite it. Then I went away to camp and had a deep experience of God. I learned to pray heartfelt spontaneous prayers and I didn’t know what to do with the NowIlayme routine, so I kept reciting it to my parents and then really talking to God afterwards, alone in my room.
As an adult, I have come to appreciate the Book of Common Prayer, the way it invites us to pray Scripture, and to take well-distilled words of faith and let them sink deep into our being. Even if we aren’t interested in most rote prayers, we have The Lord’s Prayer, the prayer Jesus gave us. We can chew on those words, let them come back to us, let them form us.
I want to tell you about one of my experiences of prayer. Last year, one of my kids was starting high school, another middle school and the third was coming back to school after significant illness. It felt like a big September so I decided I would walk around each of their different schools and pray for them and for the year ahead. As I walked and prayed for my child at the first school, I saw a small yellow bird take flight in front of me, and it felt like a picture God gave me of how I should pray: that the child who would go to this school would take flight, would be eager and willing to soar. Near the second school, I saw a boy on a bicycle at traffic lights. He was hesitant and in his hesitation, he was actually not obeying the rules. I saw this scene too as a way to pray – that my child at this school would have the confidence to move forward, the courage to do what was right. By the time I reached the third school, I was expecting a picture and trying to force one. There was nothing, until I was leaving the school. A school bell rang and it struck me as a picture of discipline, that that was what my child who would attend that school would need most. I wrote out just a few words: yellow bird taking flight, bicycle moving forward, bell and discipline on a piece of paper and kept it on my desk to pray for my kids throughout the school year.
I’ve had a number of occasions where God has put someone on my heart like a burden. One of those people was a boy whose family had not been at our church for long when he was diagnosed with severe and life-threatening pneumonia. There was one night when I woke several times and every time I woke, I was still praying for him. I had a similar experience many years ago when I was at a national ministry conference and it was announced that then-Quebec premier Lucien Bouchard had been diagnosed with flesh-eating disease and that, at the very least, he would lose his leg. I felt compelled to pray for him and I did.
(I feel like I need to interrupt this to say that there are a lot of days where my prayers are either quickly tossed off “please bless us” kinds of prayers, perfunctory grace at meals or are forgotten altogether.)
A friend of mine has just had her first chemo treatment for breast cancer. She and I were talking about how it’s so much easier to send something out in an email or on Facebook than to pray, because the answers we get are immediate and definite. Social media and texting are amazing tools for spiritual growth and encouragement, but they can’t be a replacement. Our job as a church is very much like that of the elders in Numbers – we aren’t simply to wish one another well or leave it to the leaders, but to take the time to share the burden before God.
I don’t know how prayer “works.” It’s mysterious. God can and does most certainly act without our input. God is most definitely not a celestial vending machine where we put in our coins and press numbers and voila. And yet, we are told to pray.
Mother Teresa says, “Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”
My friend who is living with cancer has asked us to pray boldly for her complete healing. She knows that this may not be the answer, but she believes that God wants us to ask for the deepest desires of our heart and to listen to his reply.
In Traveling Mercies, Anne Lamott says there are really only two prayers. One is "Help me, help me, help me." The other is "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
I had an experience of this last summer. I was pretty angry at God for what felt like His absence in a certain situation and I went away overnight to have it out with God. Except that’s not how it happened. Instead, I was able to sense the presence of God, the thing I needed most and frankly, my anger evaporated and I spent a fair bit of time listening to music, going for walks and being thankful for the time I had alone with God.
And that, I think, is prayer too.