The subject of prayer has been on my mind for several months, as previous posts attest. Part has to do with questions others have asked about how to pray, as if there might be a proper formula that must be followed if one has any hope of getting God to listen. Another has to do with the popularity of awkward forms of prayer language. In any case, what follows is not so much for regular readers as it is my early thinking on what a morning forum on prayer might include.
Some old time Episcopalians are certain that God only listens if prayer is formal, read from the Book of Common Prayer, and filled with thee and thou. Such formal prayers must also be introduced by a recitation of who God is, in case we don’t know, or he forgot. We’re not the only ones. We have passed, thankfully, through the time when evangelical prayers were laced with just, as in we just want to thank you, we just want to ask you, and you’re just so awesome. Now their prayers apparently can’t be said unless every phrase is bracketed by “Father God,” or something like that. Now and then I hear a hybrid version that uses both in place of commas, periods, semicolons, and every other sign of punctuation.
From such prayers, Good Lord deliver us.
For exemplars of what prayer should look like, I submit Jeremiah and Job. Jeremiah was terrified at the frightening power of God’s presence when he was called into ministry, yet God invited him into conversation. He always showed humble respect when talking with God, but that did not keep him from natural ways of speaking, nor did it keep him from daring to be bold, even argumentative. He was forthright in telling God that he did not want to be the bearer of bad news, and he was obedient in doing it anyway. As his own people were plotting to imprison or kill him, he boldly argued the case for their defense before God. In all of this, scripture records him as speaking with God in worshipful deference, but normally, as one would speak with another human being. And he listened with ears that did not presume to put his own desires or judgments into God’s mouth.
Jeremiah was very young when God called him into service. The intimacy of that event formed a bond with God that was up close and personal in a way that few others have experienced. In that respect, we have more in common with Job. The writer of Job did not give him the privilege of meeting God personally until the very end after all had been said and done, even then it wasn’t very satisfying. But Job knew there was a God even if he didn’t know God. He was certain that if he could meet God, they could work things out, person to person. He argued at length with his friends about what God was like, particularly what God’s justice was like. He included God in the conversation, and felt free to confront God directly by asking questions and demanding answers. He spoke as a normal person would speak under the conditions of unexplained pain and suffering. When the time came for him to listen, he listened.
I said we have more in common with Job than Jeremiah, but that might be wrong. More likely we wobble between the two, more in the direction of Job than Jeremiah. We are between them because, unlike Job, we can know God. To know Jesus is to know God, and we can know Jesus if we will patiently engage with him through scripture, tradition, reason, and let me add another: through prayer that is authentic conversation in which, like the twelve year old Jesus in the temple, we ask deeply and listen carefully.
Ask what? Listen to what? The usual laundry list of askings is not what I have in mind, although they are important enough to be included. Ask about what is wisdom, what is understanding, what is just, what is right, how can I know? Then listen. To what? To trusted guides in faith, to strangers on the street, to scholars, and to the still small voice that is not your own. Let it sink in. Let it ripen. Let it age. Don’t be afraid to argue, even with God. Take time to reflect. Do your best not to assume anything about what God might have to say, or how God might go about saying it. Most especially, don’t assume that God is like you. Keep the conversation going. That is what prayer looks like. There is no amen to prayer in the way we use it to mark an end to it. It’s an ongoing conversation that has no end. Use the same voice you would use to talk with another person that you like and respect. It’s not hard. Try it.