I did not grow up in the church.
I admit… for years I had a lot of negative impressions and stereotypes about churches and church folk… and a lot of it had to do with prayer. I thought prayer was superstitious. I thought prayer was a ‘crutch’ people used when they had no other options. I thought prayer was just a list of ‘I wants’ that had nothing to do with meaningful spiritual growth and maturity.
OK… so there IS that in the church, but these days I don’t let that get me down, because it is not the WHOLE story. In fact, those negative impressions are just one small regrettable corner of a much larger, deeper, healthier practice. Prayer means something!
During my years of practice as a faithful Christian, and before that as a philosopher, truth-seeker, and spiritual explorer… I have developed an opinion on prayer that I think may be helpful for us to reflect upon as we consider the foundational Lenten Disciplines.
One type of prayer is the ‘I need’ or ‘I want’ prayer. When we are faced with a problem we cannot overcome by our own strength or resource, or when we are faced with a desire or goal we cannot achieve with our own strength and resource… most people (religious or not) turn to prayer. “Oh… if there is a God… get me out of this and I promise to change my ways” is one example. “Please, please, please, help me get this or that” is another example. These prayers are appropriate when all other options have been exhausted and when the circumstances are dire. The negative impression comes when people use this type of prayer for inane things or things they should and ought have control over: “Please God help me get a close parking space” or “Please God, I didn’t study for the test… help me get an A anyway”. If you are reading this today and you are despairing because your life is out of control in some way and you need a miracle… PRAY this type of prayer.
Another type of prayer is the ‘show me’ prayer. When life is confusing or contradictory and we have tough choices to make, most of us (again, religious or not) turn to the ‘show me’ prayer: “Please give me guidance or a sign to help me know what to do next”. This is a great prayer… but unfortunately, most of us use it only when we really, really need it (like when we’ve got such a mess going on). Imagine the power this prayer could have if we used it everyday and all the time. Imagine if we asked for guidance when choosing how to best love our spouse or family. Imagine if we asked for guidance when choosing a career or life work. Unfortunately, most folks misuse this prayer because when they ask ‘show me’… they mean “show me what is best for ME” not “show me what is best for others, my community, or the world”. If you are in a confusing time… PRAY this type prayer, but better yet… no matter who you are and how things are going (even if things are clear and going great) PRAY this type of prayer.
The last type of prayer I’ll reflect on today is the ‘listening’ prayer. We are a culture that values talk and abhors silence. We are a culture that is assertive and aggressive and hates reflection and passivity. Most folks, when they pray, talk a heck of a lot… and listen very little. It is always so much about ‘I need’ and ‘show me’ that we forget the REAL purpose of prayer is to connect with God’s presence in our lives and all life. This type of prayer goes by another word in our culture (a word that has much less baggage than ‘prayer’): meditation.
This Lenten season I invite everyone to pray/meditate each day and listen/experience what new insights, directions, inspirations, and affirmations God has for us.