I have to admit, I’ve never really understood prayer.
I was part of a prayer team at a church for a couple years; I’ve undergone around a dozen trainings on prayer; I’ve read a few books on the topic (Foster’s Prayer and Nouwen’s The Way of the Heart are highly recommended btw); and still, every time I go to pray, I’m not 100% sure what the heck it is I’m doing.
Strangely enough, poetry has been a helpful entrance into prayer lately. There’s a great poem called, Celestial Music, by Louise Glück that begins:
I have a friend who still believes in heaven.
Not a stupid person, yet with all she knows, she literally talks to God.
She thinks someone listens in heaven.
The implication of the speaker telling us that her friend isn’t a stupid person is that, since she “talks to God” and thinks he listens, you would assume her friend is stupid. It’s a kind of double assumption where the speaker assumes the reader has certain assumptions that she wants to lay to rest.
Prayer is the lifeblood of the Christian faith, but every time I go to pray I feel awkward for not knowing how a prayer is supposed to work. Maybe you feel this way too. I find a lot of comfort in this poem because of the way it points out the seeming ridiculousness of prayer, while also pushing that feeling of ridiculousness aside. I think this is important because, in modern society, everything feels more important than prayer. We are constantly being told to be useful and to get things done and to be relevant, and nothing is more irrelevant than sitting somewhere quiet and spending time with God—at least that’s how it feels for most of us.
When the poem goes on, the next two lines are:
On earth she's unusually competent.
Brave too, able to face unpleasantness.
The practical, real-world effects of prayer are being addressed in these lines. Despite the fact that we can feel like prayer is irrelevant, prayer changes us by connecting us to God. Nouwen in The Way of the Heart describes modern society as place where everyone’s self-esteem is based on everyone else; he uses the image of being lost at sea and everyone latching onto each other trying to keep themselves afloat. If you’ve ever done this in a swimming pool, you know that when you grab someone to stay afloat the other person sinks. If for no other reason, we need significant amounts of prayer in our lives so that God can be the one to keep us afloat—so we don’t build our entire sense of identity on the approval of those around us. (Even if you’re someone who’s good at gaining that approval, think of the scores of people in history who had to endure extended periods of immense disapproval to make a real difference.)
But there are so many ways to pray. For example, I Happened To Be Standing by Mary Oliver, reads:
Is a prayer a gift, or a petition,
or does it matter?
The sunflowers blaze, maybe that’s their way.
Maybe the cats are sound asleep. Maybe not.
As far as types of prayer or amounts of time, I don’t think there’s one right way. Prayer is essentially a time where you invest in your relationship with God. Any of you who have dated or have close friends or family know that each person does relationships differently. In Richard Foster’s book on prayer, he delineates 21 different types of prayer. Who knew there were so many?! Even in my own life, the way I pray has changed dramatically over time and from season to season.
For me personally, I like to think of prayer in terms of dating relationships and, now, like my relationship to my wife. If you are in a long-distance relationship, you typically text throughout the day, have some intentional phone/skype time once a day, and then go on extended dates when you can. Similarly, I like to have some intentional daily prayer (even if some days it’s only like 3 minutes), send God “prayer-texts” throughout my day, and go on a 3-6 hour retreat once a month. Beyond these things, I also try to pray with those close to me when it feels appropriate.
Regarding types of prayer, I mentioned in a past blog post you can read, here, how most of my experience is with simple prayer. Lately though, I’ve been trying to step more and more into meditative prayer and intercessory. We tend to think of types of prayer in terms of right and wrong a lot, but I don't think that's really helpful. I've been learning to ask a different question: “What’s the effect of that?” What is the effect of me praying this way? What is the effect on my relationship with the world? My relationship to God? God’s relationship to the world? One of the mysteries of prayer is that in the Bible we are shown that prayer actually changes how God interacts with the world around us. Why not explore different kinds?
The Summer Day by Mary Oliver
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention.
In sum, I think we can say that prayer is about attention—about attending your relationship with God and tending to it, and about intentionally building healthy tendencies for yourself regarding these things. Basically, we need to show up regularly and fully. What exactly happens when we do that? I have no clue.
I will say, though, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been in a difficult conversation or have been watching something important on TV or in real-life and have said a little prayer and something miraculous happens. I’ve found the words needed or someone else found the words needed or someone was healed emotionally or physically. When we address God in prayer, we make ourselves and our world more addressable by Him. Then the conversation begins, and our lives become more open and vulnerable to his embracing, loving voice.
Trevor grew up in a small desert town in Southern California and graduated from Vanguard University in 2013. He moved to Portland, Oregon in 2014 where he currently lives with his beautiful wife, Ashlee, and enjoys of reading, writing, city-life, hiking, and investing in close friendships. Trevor is passionate about bringing the Church to the world and crossing the great divide between Christians and non-Christians that usually leaves both sides scratching their heads. He currently works at a small, Portland-based Christian university named Multnomah University as a Social Media and PR Specialist. He has spent some time in a couple different seminaries but is now getting his master's of English at Portland State University.