Friday, January 28, 2011

What it Means to Pray

A third excerpt from a longer essay:

It’s been more than fifteen years, less than twenty since I’ve had a prayer partner.  We began a bit tentatively and I felt awkward at first sitting on my friend’s couch, holding hands and praying.  I was used to praying in a church building.  It seemed very public and a little unnerving praying together in our homes with all their signs of daily life.  Cats jumped in our laps.  The phone rang.  Someone would knock at the door.  We stoked the fire and spread a blanket over our laps in the winter.  In good weather, we sat outdoors listening to wind chimes, blue jays and motorcycles in the background of our prayer.  We talked about our lives and our children, our husbands, our parents and siblings, and our church, all the things we cared for most deeply.  We voiced our fears, our struggles, and our inadequacies.
Together, she and I wrestled with what it meant to pray.  Should we offer each other advice?  We did, but our advice was infrequent and gentle.  We never expected each other to follow it, but to find our own paths.  Did we ask God for exactly what we thought we wanted?  To heal my father from cancer?  Yes.  But we also recognized that our will and our desires weren’t really the point of prayer.  This was especially true when we prayed for our children.  We wanted them to become the people God had created them to be, not the people who would be easiest for us to nurture. 
Over time I began to embrace our prayer time because it allowed me to let go, if only for a few hours, of the burdens I carried worrying about my extended family and struggling folks at church.  I began to ask less for solutions.  Less of, “Please let my sister find a home.”  And more of, “Please help my sister to find you, God.” 
I began to notice how much lighter I felt after we prayed, and as the years progressed, how much joy I felt in the act of praying.  What had once been awkward became something I craved.  When we were done talking, we held hands, closed our eyes, and I felt myself both sink and float.  I breathed deeply and felt myself settle, my body became heavy, I relaxed as if I might fall asleep.  Another part of me floated and I bobbed in a rhythm, connecting to a presence outside myself.  Basking in God, wrapped in love.  In silence we each absorbed into Spirit, and we would’ve kept that dream state for hours if our schedules had allowed it.  Instead, one of us eventually broke the silence, always with thanksgiving for the opportunity to pray together and for this holy time set apart.  Often times we cried, releasing our hold on one another to reach for Kleenex, blew our noses, and continued.  We learned to speak through tears and to be glad for rather than embarrassed by them.  Some days we set a timer to call us out of prayer.  The ding jolted us back into our clock driven days, and reluctantly we left our reverie in the manner we always used to end our prayers, The Lord’s Prayer.  We prayed it together listening to and relishing every word.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

I'll Pray For You

Another excerpt from that longer essay on prayer:

“I’ll pray for you.”
I can’t count how many times I said those words during the seven years I served as pastor of a church.  Usually my offer came after a conversation where parishioners confided in me their suffering––cancer, a strained marriage, job loss, depression.  I knew I didn’t have the power to fix their situations, and even if I could provide something practical––a referral to a doctor or counselor––my help was never enough for their need.  I offered the one response I felt equipped for.  Prayer.

Sometimes I forget that not everyone has had the privilege of travelling deep into prayer with a soul friend, as I've had for the past fifteen years.  I was startled when in my pastoral role I asked, “Would you like to pray about that?” and the answer was a frightened, “Now?” or an uncomfortable, “That’s okay.  It’s not urgent.”  I would prefer to pray with them, right there on the spot, to invoke God’s presence and place the burden in the Holy One’s lap of love and compassion.  But then I remembered the days when I felt awkward and too vulnerable to ask for prayer, let alone join my pastor in it. 
My path has led me to realize that prayer is not a magical power invested in ordained and qualified parties.  And there are no particular or right words to invoke.  I shed my early expectations that prayer (and my own prayer specifically) should impact outcomes.  God does not respond to my requests as if he works in a worldwide order fulfillment center.  Instead, prayer realigns my priorities.
When I say, “I’ll pray for you,” I imagine holding the person in need––and aren’t we all in need?––up to the light of an amorphous and loving God.  For me, prayer is about coming consciously into the presence of the great power for good that is everywhere and ever-present.  It is a place I never want to leave. I have my prayer partner to thank for that.