My pastor taught a brilliant message this week, in which he unpacked one of the most challenging actions (or non-actions) of the faithful: Prayer.
Most religions pray, or offer some sort of communication to their object of worship. Humans long for connection – we are wired that way, it seems, and so it’s no surprise that we talk to our gods.
But do they talk back? Do they act? You’ve probably seen the t shirt (or the bumper sticker):
Prayer changes things.
But does it?
I’ve been going to church all my life; there’s not much that surprises me anymore. For me, sitting with a group of people on a Sunday morning is an experience, one that is not replicated anywhere else in my life. I go to church to be part of the church; and yet, inevitably, I learn something. A shift in perspective, a different angle, a new thought – about myself, about people, about spiritual things, about scripture. About following Jesus. This week was no exception, but it was compelling in a unique way – and I keep returning to the experience.
There’s also this: I am not only a parishioner and a congregant, but a coworker and a good friend of my pastor. Often, by the time Sunday rolls around, I’ve already heard at least part of the teaching. Occasionally, I’m literally part of the teaching – for example, that story about somebody on the creative team having the bright idea of throwing him out of an airplane?
Yeah…that was me.
For the record, it was also me who suggested we rethink the entire thing, based on the fact that losing the senior pastor of the church in a skydiving accident for the sake of a great creative moment would be a tough one to live down…
Anyway, you get my point. I know this guy, I’ve heard a lot of his stories already, and since I’m part of the planning process, I usually have a pretty good idea how the message will play out.
But this week the message and my own spiritual journey aligned in a unique way, and I am still processing. Not the facts – not just the intellectual appreciation of the material, but a powerful awareness that this mattered, and I needed to pay attention.
I’ve written here before about spiritual direction, sharing that I am exploring this new (to me) way of learning and experiencing God. I see a spiritual director myself – kind of like going to a counselor, a therapist, a mentor, a friend – all of these things and yet none of these things, simultaneously. I am learning how to be a spiritual director through courses and a practicum via Richmont Graduate University. And the essence of this entire process is learning to be.
Learning to be.
I know it sounds weird, but at this stage, those are the best three words I can find to offer insight. I’m learning how to be, and I’m doing so under the strong, sustaining umbrella of grace-filled activity – and non-activity. It’s amazing, truly, how life-changing it really is; not that it’s all new stuff, but that the invitation into new ways of being with God are really just connecting the dots between a lifetime of experiences. And things I thought I knew already are broadened and stretched and presented back to me through the teachings of my pastor.
So this message was like – if you’ll indulge a heavy-handed metaphor – the umbrella of grace settling quietly around me, drifting down from the cosmos to drape kindness and assurance and safety around my shoulders, even as it did the same for the one hundred people who surrounded me as we had church at Amelia High School. As Brian unpacked the meaning of prayer, he settled into this statement as one reflecting an ideal attitude toward God:
I care more about you, God, than I care about what requests you will grant.
He emphasized that prayer represents the dialogue of relationship, and that relationship is the point. And that’s where things really clicked into place for me this morning, because if there is one thing I have heard repeatedly during these past few years as I have journeyed into this different area of spiritual growth, it is the immense value of the relationship – and the incredibly difficult challenge of letting go of old ways of thinking.
I’ve seen that bumper sticker, too; it’s a cliché.
But here’s the thing: It’s not.
It is about relationship, and the invitation to allow vulnerability to lead the way, to risk being open and authentic and accepting of love, to truly discover your spiritual identity – it’s all centered on a relationship. It’s thorny, to be sure; everybody has their definition of God and what it means to be spiritual, and we like it when others affirm what we believe and believe it, the same as us. We like our tribes. And there’s this; so many of us settle for pithy posturing and shallow statements of faith, but shy away from the deeper, harder questions about ourselves, and others, and why we believe what we believe about ourselves, and others, and God.
But there is this relentless invitation; it is quiet and calm, it is patient and kind, and it is TRUE. Truer than most anything I’ve ever done or believed. Stepping into this invitation turns the gray into technicolor, warms the heart.
Brian quoted Philippians 4.6-7, and said, The path from anxiety to peace is prayer; and I began to think then and there about how I knew this to be true, and therein lies the reason for this entirely-too-long blog post and all these words, because I do know this is true, and while I could have given intellectual assent and a loud ‘AMEN’ to this for most of my life, only within the last year have I really understood it, and I felt like I needed to tell you the answer to this question that, quite frankly, nobody has even asked.
But in that moment this morning I sensed a certain presence and a sure whisper, clear words.
This. This is what I have been trying to teach you, all along.
This is what you learn when you continue to keep an open mind and an open heart.
This is what your friends can show you. This is the deeper teaching you long for. This is the undercurrent of the spiritual transformation that is happening right now, all around you.
This is what I am doing in you.
In spiritual direction, prayer is central. While listening to a directee speak, the director is in prayer. When a directee shares something they are struggling with, they are generally asked, What is God saying as you pray about this? This entire process has shown me that prayer -while still a fine place to make your requests known to God – is, quite simply, a way to be.
I am learning to be.
And finally, the point: The secret to learning this kind of prayer is simple.
Seriously – silence. That’s where it starts making sense, where things find their way, where the peace begins to trickle in. I struggle with stillness and silence – shouldn’t we always be doing something? I’ve never been good with the whole Be still and know thing. But after sharing this with my spiritual director one morning, she suggested that we ‘practice’.
So we did. For fifteen minutes, we sat, silent, facing one another in a small room. Breathing.
Yes, indeed. It was weird.
But then, suddenly, it wasn’t. It was okay.
And then it wasn’t just okay; it was wonderful.
And then it was brilliant and full and all sorts of amazing things, and I learned – and am still learning – how to be okay with silence. Not just silence like Driving Somewhere Without the Radio On, or Going For a Walk By Myself Without Headphones.
It’s a form of meditation. It’s mindfulness. It’s all that.
It’s prayer, and it’s relationship, and it is powerful and life-giving and will pretty much upend any reason you thought you had to dismiss spirituality as being boring and useless.
I love my church; I love my pastor/friend. I love that the meaning of life includes stillness and peace. I love that it is all a mysterious, supernatural, completely unknowable thing – one of beauty that we are invited to step into with eyes wide open, carefully moving toward safety – or with eyes scrunched shut, leaping with wild abandon into the great unknown.
You can watch Brian’s message, ‘Hard to Believe That God Hears Me When I Pray’ here.