A few weeks ago, at a staff meeting at my church, I was asked to close the meeting in prayer. I respectfully declined. I felt bad, recognizing that I may have embarrassed a few people. Who declines to pray at the end of a church meeting?
I’ve thought about this scenario a lot over the past couple of weeks. It’s one that has come up repeatedly over the years, and so I’ve decided to write a bit about it today.
The heart of the reason for my rejection of praying out loud at the closing of meetings, or in a group setting, is that I don’t want to feel pressured to shape my prayer to match expectations from the group. I’m often afraid that if I pray in a group setting that I’ll succumb to the temptation of praying just like everyone else. For me it would be an act. A false prayer that’s not directed at God at all, but said to feel included and “normal.” And prayer is too personal for me to put myself in a situation where I feel I might change who I am to fit in.
I recognize that some of my ideas surrounding prayer are not especially common, which means that the way my prayers sound are also not common.
Formal prayer, for me, often doesn’t work well. At least not in my private prayers. God becomes this flat and cold character, dead or unreal. Prayer, when expressed so formally, becomes more of a duty than a delightful habit, at least for me.
I wonder, sometimes, if people remember that their words are directed at a living being. A spiritual entity that is both alive and perceptive. For myself, I found this easy to forget when I prayed every evening before supper.
Often when people pray they start with “Dear God” or “Holy Father” or “Father Almighty”, as though they were reading from a formal letter written to God, carefully crafted and delightfully articulate.
My prayers are neither eloquent nor formal. They’re often, what my sister-in-law might call, a “hot mess.” They’re frequently rambling and disjointed, filled with questions and expressions of doubt. Sometimes I get so frustrated I start to swear, after which I quickly say “sorry about that. I’ll do better.” I don’t claim to pray every day. Some days I only “pray” for a short moment at a stop light. Taking a second to acknowledge God and then I move on with my day. And some weeks I don’t pray at all, not even a little.
Nonetheless, essentially prayer for me is like a conversation, albeit a conversation that usually feels one-sided. I do feel, fairly often, that I’m talking to myself. Or to a wall. Or the shower head.
Sometimes I lose my train of thought, and other times I express my frustration that God doesn’t answer in the way I wish He would. I once jokingly quipped – “Ugh, I wonder if you’re really a woman. Never saying exactly what you mean.”
Other times they’re light and even funny. I remember once saying to God “So David told me this really hilarious joke earlier today. Which you likely already heard because you know, you’re God. I wonder what it’s like being God. But anyway, back to the joke. I’ll tell you it anyway and maybe you’ll get a kick out of it.” After which I proceeded to tell God the joke. I’d like to think He thought it was funny. If not the joke, then at least the fact that I was telling God a joke. But other times I wonder if God is rolling his eyes and saying to himself “what a waste of time. You could be talking to me about something important.”
And sometimes I feel the awesome power of God, and my prayer is less light or questioning and more spoken in the name of praise. Recognizing God’s work in my life, thanking Him. And sometimes in these moments I check myself when I start questioning again.
Also, I have a pretty powerful imagination. Sometimes it’s a blessing in that I think I tell pretty good stories. Other times it’s terrible because I often forget the way an event really happened and can exaggerate the truth.
But I use this imagination every time I pray. I imagine God and the feelings he might have. I sometimes imagine what it would be like to see God angry, or sad, or conflicted.
I imagine God to be a perfect version of humanity. Kind of like a melting pot of different kinds of people: Gandhi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Napoleon, and my Dad. Take the best – and perhaps most complicated – parts of humanity and wrap it in perfection. Then add so much more than we could possibly know or understand as an extra layer.
I think God cries, from laughter and sadness alike. I think God is often faced with choices and can be convinced one way or another, as we are (think of the story of Abraham and Sodom and Gomorrah). I also like to think God can be lonely, angry, excited, delighted, frustrated, calm, and anxious. I don’t know what God looks like, but I imagine Him to be neither man nor woman. A kind of spiritually-androgynous being. When the Bible says we’re made in God’s image, I imagine this to mean largely the spiritual aspects of ourselves. Which may or not be reflected through our mind and our choices.
And so, when I pray, I have all of this in mind. Sometimes I ask God pointed questions, knowing that I won’t hear a physical voice respond but wanting to ask anyway: “Do you feel lonely? Are you afraid?” And I sit in silence pondering over those questions before I finally move onto something else. Or I ponder so long that I forget that I was praying at all and the conversation ends abruptly.
I recognize that God may be everything I picture Him to be, or maybe not. But either way, He’s also so much more than I could imagine. But reminding myself that God is living, is perceptive, and is listening, and imagining what that might look like, and what He might be like, keeps me praying. Even if I’m wrong on a lot of points, it’s helpful to know that I’m praying to something with a personality. And sometimes those prayers are all over the place.
I’d also like to say that I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to pray – especially in regards to the structure of your prayer. But there are some things that help prayer become more personal, reflective, and just plain calming:
Philippians 4: 6-7: Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. 7 And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
As for structured prayers like the Lord’s Prayer – I don’t think of it as something we should recite daily because it’s the best way to pray, but rather it reflects a wonderful representation of the things that can and should be included in your personal prayers to God: worship, trust in God, requests (whether they be needs or a discussion of some of your desires), confession, and submission (surrendering your heart).
I just like to add a little bit of “I’d like to get to know you, too, God” as well.
So, how do you pray? Do you think there’s a right and wrong way to pray? Do you think I’m crazy, or are your personal prayers much like mine?
Goodness knows the person next to me at the stop light probably thinks I’m off my rocker…