We’re accustomed to being told there are right ways to do most everything. Anything else is the wrong way. At the same time, we’re told there isn’t one right way but many; however, some ways are more preferred than others. Then we’re told that failing to meet standards of rightness or wrongness can have serious consequences. Confusing as it is, it’s a theme applied in every culture throughout human history.
The protocols for the right way to address important persons are a good example. Consider all the do’s and don’ts for talking with the Queen; the military rules for speaking with persons of higher rank; the propriety of calling some people by their title (senator, governor, mayor). How to stand, when to sit or speak, we have protocols for all of it.
Maybe that’s why pastors are used to parishioners asking about the right way to pray. They’re reasonable questions: after all, we imbue worship with special religious language not used in ordinary daily life, and ordain persons to the special role of mediating between us and God. The implication is clear, there must be special ways to engage with God, protocols to observe, proper language to be used. Fail to get it right, and things could go wrong.
The lectionary lessons for Sunday, January 17 suggest something altogether different. In them are three examples of communion with God that may help answer the questions. The cast features the boy Samuel who ministered to Eli, the elderly judge of Israel; Philip, a fisherman who became one of Jesus’ first followers; and Nathanael, Philip’s skeptical friend who was in no hurry to believe without proof.
In Samuel’s story, God literally called his name loud enough to wake him up three times. Unsure who was calling him, Samuel went to Eli to ask what he wanted. Eli’s experienced wisdom instructed Samuel to listen more carefully and report back when he heard more clearly. If there is a primary protocol for prayer, it is to listen, but how is one to know if it’s God, one’s own self, or maybe a figment of imagination? It helps to have a wise, trusted mentor to guide in the hard work of discernment. In fact, it’s never a good idea to proclaim that God has given you a word to share, without first exploring that word with such a mentor who will help you test it against the greater likelihood that it isn’t, or that you haven’t heard it right.
Philip’s story begins with his friend Andrew who spent a long time listening to Jesus, long enough to believe him to be the long awaited messiah. In turn, Andrew led his brother Peter to Jesus, and no doubt told Philip about him also. The gospel writers had a habit of compressing time, so their stories hit the high points but leave out much of the development leading to them. Although the calling of the disciples seems to take place with an immediate response, I’m certain it took a lot of conversation over many days before real following began. God’s call to follow is also a call to be in the give and take of conversation for as long as it takes for understanding to take root.
Philip went to Nathanael to tell him all about Jesus. Nathanael was not about to be suckered in by another wannabe messiah. The very idea that Jesus was from the no account town of Nazareth was proof enough that Jesus was a phony. Then he met Jesus, and was surprised to learn that Jesus already knew all about him. ‘Wow!,’ he may have said in mock submission, ‘you really are the king of Israel.’ But Jesus gave as good as he got: ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet kid. Hang with me and I’ll show you the entrance to heaven.’ God, it seems, enjoys a little banter, a little humor, and isn’t put off by honest skepticism.
Prayer, conversation with God, begins with listening. It’s important to have a trusted and wise mentor whose counsel can help you discern the godly from that which is not. Prayer, conversation with God, means taking time to hear, ask questions, raise objections, and pay attention to the experience of others who have gone before. Prayer, conversation with God, means being yourself, using your everyday language, and daring to have a laugh with God. God will laugh with you.
The other day I watched a short video featuring Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz on the question of prayer, and the right way to begin in conversation with God. He reminded his viewers that the ancient Hebrew translated as payer doesn’t mean to ask God for anything, but to engage in self examination. Prayer begins, said he, when we examine ourselves in relation to what God has already required of us. It creates the opening for earnest conversation with God. He’s mostly right, but also needs to leave room for the joy God has in going face-to-face with skeptical Nathanael, having days long conversations with a curious Philip, or working through a wise old mentor as ‘he’ did with Samuel and Eli.
So what does that mean for the ordinary people of today? I think it means not to worry so much about how to talk with God, just begin. I think it also means recognizing there is no official God language that has to be used. Finally, I think it means laundry lists of requests posted to God’s ear fall short of being the kind of conversation God desires.