Prayer unites us with God in the focusing of our minds and in the cleansing of our hearts. It is a turning towards God. It is, in itself, a course correction that draws us back to our goal and our purpose. Prayer is liberation from a sense of isolation. It is a claim upon our relationship with the One Who Loves Us First.
In prayer, we find our breath and our sustenance. We find our hope that all is as it should be and that all will be as it should be. We find peace.
It is prayer that unites us with our self. Prayer helps us bring together our scattered thoughts and emotions. It helps us to set aside the insignificant and to recognize the important things we’ve overlooked. It is prayer that unites us with each other.
Prayer is something many (if not all) of us do not fully understand. That is to say, we cannot always speak of it with certainty — what it is, what we do, what it does in us. I think this is because prayer is a connection with God that shapes itself each day as it is needed. Being a two-way communication, it is shaped by God and by our hearts. It looks different from day to day on account of the particular ways our thoughts and feelings (and our deeper self) come into God’s presence and receive God’s touch.
Prayer is at the center of the life of a Christian; as it is at the center of the life of every person who lives in relationship with God. We pray whether we know it or not. We pray when we think we cannot. In turning to prayer with our intention, we make the choice to turn towards God. In making that choice, we embrace the power of prayer and are transformed by it.
It is not uncommon for us to “pray badly” — to feel our prayers are misshapen or wrongly motivated. Sometimes we do not know how to pray as we feel we should. Sometimes we feel uncertain; and because of this we do not make the choice to pray. Sometimes this makes us feel “clogged” or “separated.” In a sense, this is what is happening with us. We pray whether we know it (just as we breathe whether we are aware of it) or not. But we can make prayer painful (just as we can hyperventilate or obstruct the effectiveness of our own breathing).
“I don’t have anything that I feel is worthy of praying about today,” says a friend during a time of prayer. I give a quizzical look. What does he mean? “There’s nothing so important that I want to bother God about it,” he replies to my questioning expression.
I respond something like this, “I don’t mind bothering God. God made me for this life and I tend to be a talker. God knew that when God made me. So, I’m going to talk.”
My friend smiles and looks shy. “My troubles are small. They don’t need to be specifically mentioned.”
“Are there any things for which you might want simply to give thanks.”
My friend’s approach stirred a memory from childhood. Decades ago, telephone calls were different from what they are today. There were no “unlimited plans.” Every long distance call (basically calls outside of your immediate local area) was billed to you by the minute. And calls were expensive. As a child, I sometimes worried that what I had to say to my grandparents (or whomever was on the line) was not important enough for the money that was being spent. I remember it was common back then for people to take turns at the phone; for members of the family to line up and take a few minutes to say hello and perhaps share some bit of news. Sometimes, if there seemed to be “nothing big” worth sharing, a family member would simply tell the person presently holding the phone to just say hi. Or, “tell them that I love them.”
Back then, being a child, there was also the added concern that I was talking with a grownup. Was what I had to say appropriate for conversation? Did they really want to hear about my little joys and heartaches? As it came my turn to hold the phone and speak into it over all those miles, would I seem foolish? Would I bore the person with something they did not care to hear about? I kept second guessing myself, trying to prioritize what was worth talking about. After all, I also didn’t want to talk too long. Even if I had things to say that I thought the other person on the phone would like to hear, whoever was paying for the phone call didn’t want me to take very long to say it. And there was the knowledge from experience that at some point (not too long after I would start talking) that someone would say my time on the phone was up. It was time to give someone else a chance to speak.
The concern over the worthiness of one’s prayers can make things difficult. This is why I was uncomfortable with my friend’s sense of economy with conversing with God. It is not so much about the words, I think. It is about the time spent sharing attention with one another. It is that time we choose to look at one another and be consciously in one another’s presence. I remember having felt that way about prayer. I also remember how lonely I felt then, too. Sometimes I felt distant — even apart — from God. It was my perception rather than the fact. But, perception is important: it shapes the ways in which we behave towards others and ourselves.
I’m not sure when exactly I decided that prayer was not on a “minute plan” — but is unlimited. I think it may have been when I was a teenager. When I was struggling with life and life’s uncertainties I think I decided that God, having created me, was at least partly responsible for every joy or drama I was experiencing. So, God should hear whatever was on my heart. It may have been a way of reasoning that was sharpened by the attitude of an adolescent; but I think that even back then my attitude change towards prayer was a good one.
Prayer also has a strong influence over how we see and relate with one another. One of the most significant things about how Jesus tells us we should live is that we should pray for one another — and especially for our enemies. Moreover, Jesus tells us to pray good things for those enemies (as well as for those with whom we feel more at peace). We are not to curse (wish ill upon) those with whom we struggle. Rather, we are to ask that they be blessed, that they be well, and that they be happy. I remember reading this in the Bible when I was very young and thinking this was weird. What was wrong with Jesus? Hadn’t he ever had to deal with ___ (fill in name here)?
Over time, I came to think of it as a wonderful ideal, to pray for one’s enemies. Jesus was “setting the bar high” and encouraging us to live better lives with better relationships.
But praying for one another — including our enemies — is more than a lofty ideal. It is a way of turning to one another in love. It is a way of making the claim before God that these are the people with whom we share life. Thus, they are the people we need to learn to live with — and stand with in the presence of God. Praying for someone affirms a relationship with him or her. Over time, as one prays for someone, the significance of that relationship changes in our perception. Where we may have felt distant, the distance narrows. Where we may have felt estranged, the rupture begins to heal.
One woman said, “You go ahead and pray for him. I just can’t do it.” As another member of the small group prayed for the other woman who’d married her ex-husband, she looked stricken with agony. The emotions surrounding the betrayal of trust when he’d had an affair — as well as the reminder that he went on living each day with his new wife and not her — were too painful for words. He’d been a member of that same small group when they were together. A few of the group members felt that Jesus’s teachings meant they should pray for him; and not simply pretend that he did not exist. He’d been a friend with everyone in the room.
For a while, the woman stopped attending the small group. The group continued to pray for her as well. Every few weeks a group member would reach out to her and ask her to come back into their company. A few months later, she did. When it came time for prayer, another member of the group looked over at her warily before he mentioned his friend’s name (the woman’s former husband). This time, the look on her face was different. There was still pain. But the anger was not evident. When it came her turn to pray, the woman said she had realized that her heartache and anger did nothing to make her ex-husband do anything. He would do whatever he was going to do. Her not wanting to hear his name, or hear prayers offered up for him, she realized, was driving a wedge between she and God and her and everyone else. Not being able to pray for everyone — including her ex-husband — was breaking her whole world apart.
A few years later, this same woman would sometimes take her turn at praying for the man who had once been her husband. She even smiled and laughed and said how much the weight of the betrayal had lifted from her over time. Prayer had been for her a means of freeing herself from the chains of sorrow that had weighed her down.
One more story: I used to hate praying for “those in authority.” Many prayer books include prayer for rulers of society and the church. I used to bristle at prayers for presidents, church leaders, and so on. It seemed to me that praying for these leaders included tacit approval of their policies. It has not been unusual for me to count some of those leaders as among the most significant enemies I have. Eventually, I realized that there were at least three reasons why I needed to pray for them. First, they are human beings like me. They are not their office. They are people living in a particular context and they need as much help as I do in order to grow in grace and love. Second, whatever I think of their policies, my prayers on their behalf are not an endorsement of all that they do. They are an affirmation that they are brothers and sisters in this family of God. Third, if they truly are my enemies, all the more reason to pray on their behalf. In so doing, I recall that I am to love and not to hate them — and that, in God’s own way and God’s own time, we will be drawn closer together.
Of all the things in life, perhaps nothing is more powerful as a way of being and becoming united with God and one another than is the practice of prayer. Prayer perfects our love. Prayer perfects our relationships. Prayer perfects our unity in God and with one another.