I seem to be having a lot of conversations about prayer lately.
We can talk about the theme-y nature of my life later – for now, let’s focus on the prayer thing. Would you think less of me if I told you I think I only really figured out how to pray this last year?
I mean, I’ve prayed through my entire life. I memorized prayers as a child, we prayed over meals, I prayed in Sunday school and in church. My parents and grandparents prayed with me at bedtime, I prayed for things I wanted or needed, I prayed for my friends. I went to camp and had prayer-filled mountain top experiences, I showed up for “See You at the Pole” in high school, and, on my more spiritual days, I woke up early and prayed over Bible passages. I went through a serious crying out phase, where I begged, argued, and pleaded in prayer, which led to a praying for forgiveness phase, during which I also begged, argued, and pleaded. Then came the years of praying to forget the life I might have had, praying for contentment, for new purpose, for resolution. And finally, I began to pray in gratitude, prayers of thanksgiving, prayers of praise, prayers that were maybe just a tiny bit less about me.
Yet in all of that praying, I’m not sure I ever felt like I was accomplishing anything. I spent years treating prayer like a monologue in which dramatic little me laments or just generally carries on about something and sure, I believed God could hear me, but it never felt like taking action. Prayer felt like the thing I did when I couldn’t think of anything to actually do. I could never really wrap my heart around the idea that praying, just praying, was better and more effective than any action my feeble brain and body could perform.
There’s a sermon I love by John Wimber of Vineyard Movement fame in which he shares the long, angsty story of his journey to Christ. In one part of the story, he’s estranged from his wife, and winds up on the side of the road desperate for answers. He’s not been a believer up until this point, but he prays “God, if you’re there, help me.” If I’m remembering correctly, there’s a message from his wife when he returns to his hotel, asking him to come home. “And I thought,” he says, “Hey! I’m in touch with a supernatural!” That’s sort of the way I’ve felt this year: in touch.
Because this year, I’ve been looking for answers. I’m not sure why this piece never clicked for me, why I’ve spent so much of my life believing that God is great and good and still throwing out random words and never expecting much to come of them. This year, I’ve vowed to pay attention. I’ve started to pray with intention, to write down the words, and to actively look for the response. Here’s the crazy, news flash to Karyn and obvious to everybody else part: God is all over this prayer thing. I love going back through my journal and reading past prayers and marveling over how perfectly and specifically those answers showed up. Before this year, I could probably count for you on one hand the number of times I’d noticed God really answering a prayer. They’re great stories, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t listening. God was always answering, but I wasn’t actually seeking answers so much as just throwing out ideas and complaints to the greater universe. It was as though I kept posting questions on some sort of cosmic message board and never coming back to check for a reply. Lame, lazy, irresponsible, and typical… but awfully easy to do.
Here’s the thing: I’d been treating prayer as though it were passive instead of active, as though it was the alternative to action instead of an action in its own right. I love that, after 27 years of being in this relationship, I’m still figuring out the basics, and I do mean basics, of life with God. This year, I’m trying to remember that prayer is a conversation, and that I have follow-up to do. The fantastic part is, when I do follow up – when I revisit my past prayers and spend some time thinking about how they were answered – I get to see how I am being heard. Heard! I mean, that’s sort of amazing, right? I’m in touch with a supernatural. Time to start acting like it.
It is good to have a God who listens, who responds, who engages. It is good to feel like prayer is action, and powerful action, and to watch it work. It is good to be loved, and good to learn to hear.