Have you ever been around someone who believes in something way more than you do? Something like...prayer?
I mentioned last week that I was having some thoughts about prayer lately, and this is precisely why. A few weeks ago, I spent five days with some of my fellow seminarians in an intensive course and when we began each class session with prayer, there was this overwhelming sensation that everyone in the room was actually praying. Like..really praying. Like...talking to God and believing He was listening and engaging with His presence.
Well, almost everyone.
As I looked around the room in those quiet, holy moments, I realized that I was the only one looking around the room. (And discovering this on Monday did not stop it from being true on Tuesday...Wednesday...Thursday...Friday....) Everyone else was deeply engaged in the moment. And not in the same way that some people in church seem to just have their eyes closed respectfully. These fellow seminarians were quite obviously engaged in something.
Maybe it's not popular to admit that as a chaplain, as someone entering the ministry, or hey, even as a Christian, I continue to struggle with prayer. I wrote a book several years ago on prayer because of this very struggle. And I know I'm not alone. So many of us don't feel like we know how to pray.
I'm not sure where we get this idea that we don't know how to pray, but I will say that for most of us, our primary encounters with prayer seem to come from the priestly office. Most of us learn about prayer through the public prayer in our worship services. Most of us learn about prayer from the "Please bow your heads..." moments. Most of us learn about prayer when prayer comes at the same time and in the same place and in the same way every Sunday, so yeah, it feels like something that the priest does. It feels more connected to the ritual of the service than to the relationship between man and God.
We pray, then, because we are about to take Communion. We pray because we are about to eat a meal. We pray because we are transitioning from one worshipful song to another. We pray because the pastor just finished his sermon (although some of us were already praying he would just hurry up and finish his sermon) and in these moments, prayer is what we do.
But what if prayer wasn't just something we do?
The places I have learned the most about prayer in my life were not from the pulpit to the pew, but from one hand to another. Prayer feels different when it's, say, just you and me, heart to heart, in a quiet moment together. Now, I have to also admit that it only feels different in a good way when, in this moment, you're the one praying. When I'm the one praying, it still feels different, but in an entirely other way - it feels awkward and insecure.
I'll say that on the occasions I've had where prayer has felt positively different, prayers shared between, say, myself and an elder or a good friend or a minister, they have bordered on what I felt in that classroom a few weeks ago. They've been oh so close, but something essential still separated the two experiences. And I think I've finally figured out what makes the difference in prayer.
The prayer shared between two hearts, between a Christian and a friend, between a sheep and a shepherd, between one person and another, it feels different than the prayer in the Sunday service because these two come uniquely into the presence of one another. They enter into the moment together, and prayer becomes a personal experience.
The prayer that I experienced a few weeks ago is similar except that the presence in the room is not the presence of one man to another, but of one man to God, multiplied by twenty-one. You could tangibly feel the presence of God in this dank, musty old classroom as seminarian after seminarian after seminarian came truly into the presence of God to pray. And prayer becomes an intimate experience.
That's what has been missing in my prayer life. I don't know about yours. I mentioned this on Friday when I was talking about prayer in general. But these reflections I've been having about the nature of prayer, about why prayer feels so awkward and distant and insecure, it's led me to the foundational truth about prayer that I've been missing: prayer is intimate. And if prayer is intimate, it's never something that I do myself. It's something that requires another presence beside my own. And if prayer is intimate, and not just personal, then that other presence must be God.
I...still don't know how to pray. I still don't feel like I know what I'm doing when I try to pray. But I'll tell you what I am doing. I am making a good faith effort, training myself, teaching myself, and...praying for the ability, to come into the presence of God first. When my heart aches for prayer, when something inside me is eating away at me, when all I want to do is to talk to God and to feel like it means something, the first thing I'm doing these days is making sure God is there. I'm making sure I've created a space for His presence. I'm making sure that I'm coming into that presence. I'm being intentional about making contact with God first.
Not like some radio operator, calling over the air waves, God, God, are you there? Come in, God. Do You read? Over.
But like...well, like family. Like someone who knows somebody so well that you can just walk into their living room, sit down, and start up a conversation. The first thing I do when I come to pray is walk into God's living room like I'm welcome there. Because I am.
So are you.