I frequently have problems with prayer. I have been on the receiving end, as I suspect we all have, of prayer platitudes. “Just pray about it,” or “I’ll prayer for you.” I am not sure what either of those comments mean. What am I supposed to pray about? Tell God what I think the plan for the day should be? Or share my thoughts about whom I think God should bless, heal, soothe, or give a winning lottery ticket to? And, if someone is praying for me am I supposed to appreciate the outcome they think I should have and subsequently instructed God to grant me? What if I don’t want what they want for me? Or is their prayer simply a way for them to think they are doing something for me when they don’t feel like they have time to do anything else?
There have been studies about prayer decreasing pulse, blood pressure and respiration rates in hospitalized patients who had no idea anyone was praying for them. What causes that? And, did it also cure their cancer, reduce their pain, or make them heal faster? Maybe some would say “yes” and some would say “no” without a clear understanding of who gets to have their prayer-wish granted. Does it mean that God is ready to help some people but not others?
I sat in a class where the leader spoke of her son’s premature birth years earlier and how she “just knew that God would take care of him so he could go home with her soon.” And, God answered her prayer. I felt confused as I thought about the two babies I carried. No, not the two that are now wonderful young adults. It was the other two, the ones that didn’t make it past the first trimester of pregnancy. Am I to somehow understand that God couldn’t hear my cries above the din of other prayers – the more important ones – being offered at the same time?
As a seminary student I heard a professor say a prayer wasn’t a prayer unless it offered adoration, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. It was as if one needed to learn how to pray before a prayer was really a prayer. So…where does that leave the groaning of the heart? The place where we only have “sighs too deep for words”? (Romans 8:28) Can we only pray when we feel like thanking God for all the crappy stuff flying around us?
To make it worse, the Apostle Paul suggests we pray without ceasing. There are days when media reports about worldwide pain and suffering or troubling issues closer to home and those we love make it hard to simply breath without ceasing! Paul continues his instruction in the midst of his constant-prayer admonition by giving the instruction to “Rejoice always…and give thanks in all circumstances”. Really? (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18)
All of that said, I admit that I love Paul’s advice. But, whether or not you appreciate his thoughts depends on how you think about prayer. Prayer is not our opportunity to let God know what is going on in creation. God is always and everywhere, which means God already knows everything about anything I have to say. And, God is working in and around the through the situation. God is already busy… without any need for my thoughts, wisdom, criticism, or advice.
So, why do I pray? I pray as a reminder to myself that God is. I am seriously glad that I am no longer taking English literature classes as someone would certainly let me know that I just created a sentence fragment. “God is” obviously needs to be followed by descriptors of what God is doing or who God is. No! It seems that defining God would only place limits on our understanding of God. It’s kind of like when God was talking to Moses and said, “I am.” I am what??? The “what” wasn’t important. God simply said, “I am.” God is. No conditions, no exceptions, nothing. God is. It has nothing to do with me, the country I live in, the church I attend, the political views I have, who I hang out with, whatever foibles I embrace… God is. God’s presence is with all that is. The Spirit pervades everything God created, which means God is not only present where I walk, but also present in every human, goat, chicken, dog, cockroach and frog. (I still don’t get the cockroach thing. We’ll leave that for another conversation.) God is present in the leaves of the tree and in the wind. God is painting the colors of the sunset, the ocean and rainbows. God is present in every grain of sand and in the confusing creatures that roam the desert. God is…
Prayer is recognizing God in all things and responding to the presence of God. That response might be feeling peace as we navigate a lousy or confusing situation. It might be seeing someone else’s need and acting on that realization. It might be correcting a wrong in a personal relationship or corruption in a culture. It might be gratitude or awe in the way a seemingly hopeless situation turned out or maybe it’s recognizing snippets of silver linings when the trajectory of an outcome is heading towards sorrow. Prayer keeps us focused on the One who loves us more than we can ever imagine and guides us to share that love in all of our interactions, thoughts and desires. No, it isn’t limited to telling the story of God’s love. That’s important at certain times and in certain places. It’s about always living as if God’s love for all of creation matters. It’s ranting at God for the things that don’t seem quite right and waiting for God to guide us in our responses. It’s taking that casserole to the sick neighbor; mowing the elderly neighbor’s grass; offering to watch the young couple’s children for an evening; reading to the comatose nursing home patient; teaching English to the immigrant; visiting the inmate; praying with the lonely to remind them that God is there – whispering, beaconing, holding and walking through all that we encounter every hour of every day.
God is. To remember and act on that is to pray without ceasing.