Did you have a catechism class on how to pray? I did. I don’t recall much of it now, but it was very formulaic: just the right combination of praise, adoration, intercession and thanksgiving using God appropriate language. I think it came just after we were supposed to have learned the Ten Commandments and all the ‘omni’ attributes of God. We teenagers took that to mean that we had to pray, but be sure to do it the right way, and Be Careful! I suspect the same is true for more than a few who sought a few moments with me to ask about praying. Some wanted to know the right format, others the right language, and still others were terribly fearful that their messed up lives and ways of thinking would not be acceptable to God. After all, it’s a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. And didn’t he kill a bunch of Israelites just for swinging a little smoke in his direction?
It makes sense to wonder. In my life, perhaps in yours also, I’ve had more than a few face-to-face visits with persons of high office and tremendous financial or political power. It can be a little intimidating. The right protocol must be observed, the right things said, and more than one sycophantic aide cautioned that “the big man” did not suffer fools gladly (which was a blatant lie given the presence of the aide). If that can be one’s reaction to a mere human being, what about daring to address God?
My counsel to those who asked these questions was to consider the psalms and how they offered up to God prayers expressing every conceivable human emotion from the best to the worst. My guess is that God was not overly impressed with the best and cleaned up the worst to be sent back as blessings. Consider the conversations between Jesus and his disciples, but, even more, between Jesus and some of the people he encountered such as the woman at the well, Zacchaeus in the tree or blind Bartimaeus. Jesus listened. Jesus responded, not necessarily to what they said, but to what they needed. Finally consider my favorite example of all, Tevia in Fiddler on the Roof. He never quit talking with God, and it was always from the heart in the ordinary language of ordinary people.
I love the Lord’s Prayer. I love all the canticles, collects and suffrages of my Anglican tradition. I love our liturgy of prayer. But those old catechism lessons did a lot of people no favor, stifling their prayer life by stuffing it into little boxes. Prayer, in the end, is just a conversation with the God who loves us, knows us, cares for us and wants to be a part of our lives. For some, that is almost unbelievable, but what great good news when we begin to dare to believe it. Puck smirked “Lord, what fools these mortals be.” If that be true dear Puck, God suffers fools like you and me gladly and delights in conversation with us. Having said that, there is one last thing. Many years ago my then spiritual director observed that the one thing wrong with my prayer life was that I didn’t shut up long enough for God to get a word in edgewise. How true for me. Could it be true for you also?