Being Rooted & Bent in Prayer

by susan on March 13, 2017

Words for the Journey – Sunday, March 12th

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

“Pray then in this way:

Our Father in heaven,
    hallowed be your name.
10     Your kingdom come.
    Your will be done,
        on earth as it is in heaven.
11     Give us this day our daily bread.
12     And forgive us our debts,
        as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13     And do not bring us to the time of trial,
        but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.

– Matthew 6:5-15, NRSV

What does prayer mean to you? How are you learning to pray?

My prayers have taken many different forms through the years. They had their official beginning, though, in the quiet of my bedroom. As a child, lying in bed at night, I would whisper short & sweet words to God: thanks, help so & so, etc. Even then, I remember wondering if I was doing it right.

By the time I was in high school, I would go on and on. How tired I must have made God. It was like I equated more words to better prayer. I had journals of prayers, many of which confessed my struggles & longings, as well as some pages reserved for thank-you-Lords. I was proud every time I finished a page, proud because I had done my due diligence & as a perfectionist who loves achieving goals, it felt good & right. Deep down, though something wasn’t right. My praying felt a little too tightly-packaged & a tad too well-scripted.

When I graduated high school, I received a gift that changed the way I pray. Edith Hill gave me a prayer journal and many pages had quotes about prayer. As I was flipping through, I came to this:

“Certain thoughts are prayers”.

Yes. Finally. What I had been feeling for so long. Prayer is not an isolated effort, 15 minutes a day & then you’re done. It’s not a nice neat compartment that we enter & leave (our “prayer life” we tend to call it, which is separate from the rest of life).

Prayer is a way of thinking and being.
Prayer is a way of life.

That’s a little about my prayer journey.

What about you? What does prayer mean to you? How are you learning to pray?

Jesus had some very particular recommendations about prayer. These recommendations were not just rules for us to follow. They were practices that shaped his own spirituality & his daily rhythm.

His life was rooted in prayer. Prayer was the soil from which everything else sprang up.

He withdrew for 40 days of prayer and fasting at the outset of his ministry. He prayed before choosing his disciples. He periodically left crowds of needy people and departed for quiet places to pray, both alone and with others. On the night he was betrayed, he prayed in a garden and even as he was crucified, he offered gut-wrenching prayers to God.

Jesus did not have his prayer life & his regular life.
Prayer was his way of life.

So, it’s no wonder that just like with giving to the poor & fasting, Jesus does not belittle or downplay the priority of prayer in this revolutionary series of teachings. He does not relegate it to being an irrelevant ancient practice.

Quite the opposite.

He tells his followers to treat prayer with reverence & importance. He assumes they pray. And, just like with giving & fasting he urges them not to turn prayer into a performance.

The Message translation puts it this way:

“And when you come before God, don’t turn that into a theatrical production either. All these people making a regular show out of their prayers, hoping for stardom! Do you think God sits in a box seat? Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. The world is full of so-called prayer warriors who are prayer-ignorant. They’re full of formulas and programs and advice, peddling techniques for getting what you want from God. Don’t fall for that nonsense. This is your Father you are dealing with, and he knows better than you what you need. With a God like this loving you, you can pray very simply. Like this…” – Matthew 6:5-9a, The Message

And, then Jesus offers some simple words that teach the essence of prayer,

Beginning with “Our Father”, his way of praying…

reminds us that we are not alone &
that we are part of a larger human family,
reorients us: we are not in charge.
renders us in need of help:
we need God’s help to see the world as God does,
we need deliverance from temptation,
we need food and forgiveness,
repositions us: not only are we recipients of God’s forgiveness,
we are to be givers of it.

I think that Jesus would agree with Will Willimon and Stanley Hauweras, that the Jesus way of prayer is not just producing a laundry list of demands for God to meet, it is “the daily bending of our lives toward a God who has, in Jesus Christ, so graciously leaned toward us” (Lord, Teach Us, p. 23).

It is asking for God’s help, but also listening for the sometimes still, small voice to guide us deeper into the way of Jesus.

I don’t think Jesus was telling us that THIS is the only prayer you ever need to pray, but that however you practice prayer, it should bring you closer to the kind of life that we see lived through Jesus, not further from it. If we leave times of prayer feeling less in need of God, more sure that we can do this on our own, feeling better or more spiritual than others, more sure that we have everything figured out, we might just have missed the point.

In fact, the real beauty & mystery of prayer is that even though we may not get what we want, somehow we feel picked up & carried, a little lighter, more in tune & able to carry on.

So, if we don’t simply pray the prayer of Jesus & call it a day, then how do we pray?

Prayer can look a million different ways.

It can look like praying through the Psalms,
like prayer walking,
centering prayer,
using the prayers of saints
or the Book of Common Prayer.

It can look like
body prayers,
silence,
chanting prayers,
journaling &
even doodling.

You can pray during yoga, while gardening, cooking, coloring, cleaning, running, showering or eating.

Anne Lamott says prayer can also look like a prayer box. She’s used everything from a pill box to her glove box to say a prayer of letting go.

As she describes it, “On a note, I write down the name of the person about whom I am so distressed or angry, or describe the situation that is killing me, with which I am so toxically, crazily obsessed, and I fold the note up, stick it in the box and close it. I might have a brief prayer and it might come out sounding like this: ‘Here. You think you’re so big? Fine. You deal with it. Although I have a few more excellent ideas on how best to proceed.’ Then I agree to keep my sticky mits off the spaceship until I hear back.” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 36).

However we do it, prayer the Jesus way should start feeling less like a pre-planned performance and more like God praying in us & through us.  The important thing will not be exactly what we say or how we say it, but rather that we simply pray & pray often.

I’ve been reading The Year of Small Things by Sarah Arthur &  Erin Wasinger. It chronicles the journey of heir two families who decided they would meet together weekly to support one another in making small, but radical changes to embrace the way of Jesus.

One of those changes was to reclaim spiritual habits. After growing out of the habit of praying together, Erin tells about how she and her husband, Dave, decided they would meet at 10 p.m. every night to pray together. With toddlers in the house, this seemed like their only possibility.

She shared about how awkward it was in the beginning, how they were afraid they were doing it wrong. She remembered how “the first few nights in the new wilderness were like lying on a patch of prairie without a mat, a cloudy sky overhead. I’d hoped to see the heavens, I saw instead, a look of hesitation on Dave’s face.”  They kept at it and it became clear that what they were actually doing was creating a ritual of “pointing each other toward God”.

The important thing is not that we do it right or well. It’s that we begin.

It’s that we are rooted in prayer as Jesus was rooted in prayer.
It’s that we allow prayer to bend our lives toward God.

Amen.

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