This is my first, last, and most essential response to the comments and conversation over the last week in response to my question and post about prayer. One reader emailed to ask who my mentors in prayer have been. I answer that it was first and foremost my parents, but as I thought about it later I also realized very recently it has also been all of you, as I have learned so much about prayer over the last week. Thank you.
To honor those comments and respond out of a sense of gratitude to the conversation as it has taken shape, I thought I'd share a few of the things that I've learned and have been thinking about in the last week. Again, feel free to share your own reactions and insights.
As I thought about putting these insights into words, what struck me is how much each insight felt rather obvious once I'd experienced it. Obvious, not in the sense of unimportant, but rather in the sense that just after someone mentioned something or share an insight in conversation it seemed like it just made sense and was, in this sense, obvious. (Of course, most everything can seem obvious once you know the answer! )
So...five things I learned about prayer from you all that I wanted to share.
None of us knows exactly how to pray. We may find something that works or is comfortable for us, but everyone in the conversation seemed aware that prayer is something 1) we keep learning and 2) that we learn best by doing.
There is no one way to pray. Sounds obvious, I know (see what I mean? J), but it's easy, I think, to forget. Some folks mentioned the power of corporate prayer, while others lifted up Jesus' words to share our prayers in secret. Some mentioned the power of having a few phrases to repeat again and again, while others reminded us of music as prayer. Some called to our attention the great tradition of contemplative prayer and meditation, while others pointed to particular patterns of prayer. Your counsel was as diverse as it was rich, and it's probably a good reminder that we are different people and that we go through different times and circumstances and that there is multitude of different ways to pray that suit all these persons and situations. Which, among other things, invite a measure of freedom as we try out and try on different ways of praying.
Prayer is a mystery. No matter how much we learn, no matter what we wonder or think, no matter what our experience, it seems like finally what happens in and during and through prayer remains a mystery. A mystery to be approached with intellect, learning, and reflection, to be sure, but just as much a mystery to be embraced through practice and experience.
Doing and being are all mixed up in prayer. A quick clarification: When I said I wasn't sure how or if our prayers affected God's disposition or action toward us, I didn't mean to share either my sense of God's immutability (which I don't believe) or that prayer is ineffectual (which I also don't believe). Rather, I was trying to avoid what sometimes feels like the manipulative side of prayer - if we just pray enough or with enough people or in the right way (or whatever) then surely God will answer our prayer. That makes prayer feel mechanistic, which is the one thing I haven't experienced prayer as, and it also creates a crisis for believers when prayer is unanswered (or that answer is no). Should the child who is being abused in spite of her prayers conclude that she is praying the wrong way (and I had that conversation with someone as a pastor)? Of course not. Which is why I wanted to be careful about conclusions as to the question of "outcomes."
Through the conversation, what kept coming back to me was that our usual distinction between being and doing, or between identity and activity, seems to fall flat. Prayer is doing something, certainly, but it is also a way of being, and as we enter into prayer with our whole being, we are changed (and perhaps God is too) and things happen. Perhaps this also falls into the "mystery" category but it's been valuable to me to reflect on.
Just pray. Yes, I'll borrow from Nike here: when it comes to prayer, just do it. There is no small prayer. There is no wrong way to pray. There is no wasted prayer. And as we pray - contemplative or corporate, silently or aloud, with words or deeds or disposition - God is eager to hear and receive and respond to our prayers because there is, I believe, nothing more that God wants than to be in relationship with us -all of us - and for us to flourish in this life together and with each other.
There's more, of course, always more. But that's enough for now. Again, thank you. Even more, thank God for you.