Ah, Prayer – what a complicated relationship I have with Thee. Are You talking to God, or are You what happens in the spaces between the words?
What is prayer? Ask a dozen people, you’ll get at least a baker’s dozen responses. From books of common prayer and missals, to extemporaneous evangelical prayer (punctuated with the unwritten mantra of ‘holylordfathergodwejust’ every few seconds, used as a kind of prayer-comma), to ecstatic glossolalia, we followers of God in the way of Jesus are all over the map on the varieties of our prayer experience. Is prayer about asking God for things? Does it form the basis of our much-vaunted ‘personal relationship’ with God, a grand I-Thou dialogue? Is it the glue that holds together churches, neighborhoods, faiths, and countries? Yes, absolutely.
Yet as comprehensive as the above laundry list of prayer might seem at first glance, it actually eclipses its meaning for many of our most significant poets, mystics, lovers, and rapscallions through the ages. For a wise minority both inside the Church and without it, prayer is a difficult-to-quantify exchange-less exchange, occurring between people and a God beyond imagination, after words have been spent or when they’ve been gently laid aside.
This ground clearing – the release of words – is, ironically, a whole lot easier said than done. For me at least. I am deluged with words from morning ‘till evening – can I get a witness? And I was raised on prayer with words – asking God for stuff in my Baptist beginnings, which I continue to believe is just fine.
In my Pentecostal years heartfelt, exuberant prayer was emphasized – we sang and danced prayer, to the beat of drums and tambourine. And glossolalia, or ‘praying in tongues as the Spirit gave utterance’ was encouraged, subject/object boundaries collapsing between you speaking to God and God speaking in and through you. The emphasis here was on ‘power with God,’ your prayers for self and others augmented via being directly ‘plugged in’ to the Paraclete, the Helper, the Holy Spirit of God. Tongues were like Popeye’s spinach for training ‘prayer warriors,’ heaven’s storm troopers who would kick butt and take names for the Almighty. I was never a really good prayer warrior as it turned out, but unlike a growing number of people who are part of Pentecostal churches these days, ‘tongues’ weren’t just a fad with me. They were a gift – a permanent stage you might say – and I continue to enjoy these hotly contested ‘other tongues’ to this day, some 15 years after my Assemblies of God days.
Of course, this would cause me no end of confusion during my soon-thereafter Presbyterian days, where tongues and tambourines designated you as lower-class, theologically inferior, mentally ill, or all three. (Turns out they were on the money with two out of three; sometimes the ‘planks’ you call in brothers’ eyes turn out to be right after all…) My Reformed friends, in this particular church at least, liked acrostics: In youth group we learned that the most pleasing way to talk to God was to act up – or, to ACTS up. That is, we approach God with Adoration, Confession, (oh gosh, I forget what the T is – Thanksgiving? Lemme Google this, be right back…) Thanksgiving (yes indeed), and Supplication – a weird word that means you finally get to ask God for stuff. I always got ‘Adoration’ and ‘Thanksgiving’ confused – kind of like which way to go in the Box Step whenever I’d try to learn the waltz over the years. This was especially awkward when doing it with a partner – praying or waltzing. I’d step all over the other partner; it was like I was all left feet.
Then one day in the late 1990s, during my freshman year in college when the Internet barely existed in popular use but it was already consuming more and more of my time, I felt a calling: Not to abandon all of these beloved (and sometimes frustrating and contradictory) prayer forms, but to transcend them for something sweeter: the call to ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ (That’s not me talking; it’s God. It’s in the Psalms. Look it up.) I remember when I first heard this siren song: sitting on a bench in a beautiful wooded area on my 28,000-acre campus, probably avoiding homework (or maybe even cutting class), transfixed by this little book by evangelical mystic Jerry Coulter called Beholding and Becoming. This passage is indicative of what caught my heart:
[Jesus] wants to be “with” us now. He wants us to experience that same intimate relationship with him that he had with his disciples. He wants to walk and live with us constantly. He wants us to sense his loving presence in our daily circumstances. He has made provision for this intimate with-ness for each of us. He has prepared a place for us where we may be “with him where he is.” Right now!
Jerry goes on to describe this path as one of koinonia, or fellowship with (and within) the Godhead that takes place in the depths of the human spirit; this romance of language and shift of perspective almost instantly gave me a whole new, more alive reading of Scripture that freed it from the more wooden interpretations of my youth. I wanted to be such a fellowship-er, what I learned Christian faith has named a contemplative. I wanted to have a more significant, intentional living into the One in whom we live, move, and have our being; the One who, it is said, is the All in all. (See Acts 17 and Ephesians 4, you Bible-lovers out there). If Jesus’ own prayer to our Abba in John 17 was true, this was an invitation open to everyone who begins a journey along the Way – to be hid with Christ in God, the same way Jesus was cloaked in his Father’s essence while treading our humble and blessed earth.
And so it has been. From that ‘call’ at the tender age of 19, through my 30th birthday just a few days ago, I have been a wannabe contemplative, stumbling and faltering through the absurd possibility that our faith offers us – to be friends with God, and participate in extending this friendship to all creatures for the healing of the world. What I’m going to share now is what I try and fail at, as taught by some pretty adept folks toward living into this audacious goal. In my faltering attempts I see our enabling Paraclete graciously inviting herself into increasing palpability and centrality in our lives – collectively and personally – as she seeks to put the mighty Zeitgeist, the spirit of our frenetic age, in its place as servant rather than master of our most precious resource: our attention.