Thursday, February 12, 2009

How I've stopped sucking at praying.

Hey, only a three-month hiatus since the last time I blogged. Not bad.

The problem for me at this moment is that blogging is not on my to-do list. That makes it a dangerous thing to be doing right now, because I'm not sure I even have enough time this week for everything that's actually on my to-do list (most of which involves a class I'd prefer not to talk about called History of Doctrine. Argh.).

I really do need "to do" a blog, because I have something to say, but also because I need to start writing again. Rather, I need to get into the habit of writing. I am starting a class called "Creative Prose," and I will need to be cranking out the non-fiction in large quantities and high qualities very soon. Time to prime the pump.

So today I was thinking about prayer. I recently realized that I'm not very good at it. I've been praying my whole life, and it's taken me all 25 years to figure out and confess that the majority of what I've labeled "praying" has actually been one of two other things: talking to myself, or talking to other people with my eyes closed.

I am being too harsh with myself? I don't think so. It's not that I don't think God has heard me - I believe He's patient and merciful and listens even when I'm messing it all up. But it's time for change.

The problem is that I get into these praying "modes." When I'm praying by myself, like I do almost every morning (and try to do at other points in the day, though I have far to go on the "pray continuously" front), I slip into this habitual mode of mentally reviewing yesterday and today (along with all the good and bad things I've done and all the problems I can anticipate), mentally scrolling through close friends and family (especially those with problems - ha) and trying to think of anything or anyone else I've promised to pray for or "should" pray for. In a process that's somehow simultaneous with this mental review, I sort of "google translate" all of this into a prayer in the 2nd-person. All this time, my main focus is on analyzing and phrasing my desires and emotions and issues, and phrasing my interpretation of the issues other people have. My head is talking to itself, even as my mouth (or mental mouth? I don't always say my prayers out loud...) is trying to aim it all in God's direction.

And when I'm praying with other people, it's worse. I may have already written a blog about this several years ago, because it's always bugged me. Praying with groups of people is hard! Most of the time I'm trying to listen and pay attention to other people's prayers without my mind drifting off to a thousand other things. This takes a lot of energy. Then when it's my turn, I slip into another "mode." This time the mode is called: "try to sound articulate, reflective, and even a little bit creative as you cover all the bases of this prayer "item;" if you're praying at the beginning of a meeting, show that your focus is in the right place; if you're praying at the end of a meeting, try to cleverly sum everything up; definitely don't say anything heretical, and definitely make it "flow" nicely out of your mouth - don't pause too long in the middle or someone may think you're finished and interrupt you." I know it's not all about how many people go "mmm" in agreement while you're praying, but come on, it feels good, doesn't it? It can become a game. And I'm actually pretty good at the game of praying in public, at talking to people (trying to present myself well to people) even as I'm aiming the words in God's direction.

It's not that I try to slip into these modes. Usually I really intend and want to talk to God. And I'm not even very aware of how often I'm not talking to God.

That's my confession. But here's the good part... I've had somewhat of a revelation recently that is helping me actually talk to God when I pray. Ready for it? Here it is:

Jesus is a person and He is alive right now.

Earth-shattering, isn't it? Praying is about talking... to... a person! Haven't I taught this a million times to cabins of girls at camp and Sunday school classes? So why am I still talking to myself or my peers when I pray? Why is it so hard to talk to Jesus?

Well, I can't see Jesus, and I can't usually hear Him audibly, and this makes talking to Jesus different than talking to any other person. When I'm having coffee with a friend or even talking to my sister on the phone, I don't have to remind myself they're there. But with Jesus, I have to continually remind myself that He is there, seeing and hearing me. I have to get the conversation out of my head, or out of the group I'm in, and put all my focus on someone I can't see or hear. This is incredibly hard! Why don't we talk about how hard this is? Why don't we encourage each other? Why don't we stop in the middle of our group prayers and make sure we're all still talking to Jesus?

Jesus is a person and he's alive right now.

It's helped me to remember that Jesus is alive right now. Too often I just picture him 2000 years ago, in some Middle Eastern setting, instead of picturing a present-day person. It's helped me to remember that Jesus has a human body (a resurrected human body, but human nonetheless). So often I turn him into some spiritual, intangible figure. But Jesus didn't just disappear when He ascended. Check out this quote from a book I've been reading:

"As in the incarnation
we have to think of God the Son becoming man
without ceasing to be transcendent God,
so in his ascension
we have to think of Christ as ascending above all space and time
without ceasing to be man
or without any diminishment of his physical historical existence...

In the incarnation we have the meeting of man and God in man's place,
but in the ascension we have the meeting of man and God in God's place,
but through the Spirit these are not separated from one another." (Thomas Torrance)

As a friend of mine put it, it's not so much about "What Would Jesus Do?" as it is about "What Is Jesus Doing?" Because He's still alive and working and serving as our High Priest and making our humanity present to God - at this very moment! This helps me tremendously. I can picture Him - I can keep Him in my mind's eye. The Spirit makes Him present to me where I am.

So I have a new practice when I pray. I do some "centring prayer," inspired by Tony Campolo, yoga, and the Catholic literature I've been reading lately. I breathe, I quiet my own mind, I repeat Jesus' name to focus myself on Him as a living, breathing, alive-right-now person. I try to listen for Jesus and become aware that He is listening to me (Mother Teresa talked about this). We both listen for a while. I wait until I'm fully aware of my own smallness, my own weakness, my own inability to even pray without His help. I wait until I'm fully aware that Jesus is there with me, that the Spirit has made Him present to me, that my friend and Lord is sitting across from me. Only then do I start speaking, and I speak as I would speak to any person sitting there. It doesn't flow nicely out of my mouth, and I say some silly things, and I forget a lot of things (as I do in most conversations). My main goal is to be constantly aware that He's there, listening. Once that awareness slips away, once I slip into merely talking to myself, I stop and do more centring prayer. It's a slow process, learning to really talk to someone you can't see! But it's good.

I haven't tried it too much with group prayer yet - that's the next step. I'm pretty sure I won't sound quite as polished as I have in the past. But I'm very excited! I think this is going to deepen my relationship with God. How about you? Any thoughts on prayer?


Evan said...

Instead of "praying" and making a "to do" list, why not share as you go? Since God is active in our lives, why not share what's going on, what are we worried about, and what we're thankful for. I've found that a lot of the time, God deals with either the issue, the worry, or both.

I used to have a little script that I'd run through in my head (my to do list) as I prayed, but since I started sharing on an ongoing basis I've dropped the script. I also don't worry so much if I miss my < insert time of the day > prayers since I constantly share with God (or at least I like to think I do).

Anonymous said...

I can identify with your experience of finding prayer difficult and wondering, “Am I just talking to myself?” And it seems like I need to be reminded again and again of what prayer is.

One thing that helps me is praying about things I actually care about. I realized one night that I was in the habit of mentioning everything I could think of to God. I would set aside an hour for praying and try it cram it with as many requests as possible. I ended up feeling like I was talking to myself. I tried limiting my prayers to the top 5 requests and it was a great help.

robgela said...

Oh Beth,

You are inspirational and wonderful...

Prayer is a conversation, and guidance...

I love the idea of our conversations with Jesus being about His guidance in our lives because "guidance" is God U and I dance!!

Keep dancing with the King of Kings my love, and He will lead you to leap on the mountains...kinda seems like you are already. I miss praying with you.

P.S. I am done in September!!

XOXO angela

Anonymous said...

Well, some time ago I received an e-mial from you with a link to your blog and so I finally checked it out. Because I like to blog myself when I have time.

btw, nice blog.

For me, it's more of battling through the anxiety of feeling exposed and usually when I pray I tend to be less fragmented from my own emotions. That's actually a scary place for me.

I know that there is this common experience that Christians tend to go through at some point in their life. They stand by faith knowing that God is there with them even if they can't feel him. I think this is usually a time that God may lead us to in order to develop our character, to strengthen us, and to develop our faith in ways we wouldn't otherwise.

And then I think the struggle with praying and working towards articulating the words just right especially in a group setting is a common struggle with most Christians.