Reflections by Jerry Webber

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Few Notes on Prayer

Through the years I’ve had hundreds of conversations with persons who were interested in learning to pray. I think we each have an innate longing for God, intimacy and deeper meaning in life. Quite often folks connect that inner desire with prayer. We run into times when life feels overwhelming or when we come to the end of what makes sense to us, and something within us nudges us toward prayer. I’ve experienced it myself and seen it time after time in others.

Those moments in my own experience were pivotal. Most often they came in the midst of life that had gotten to be too much for me . . . they came when I faced crises of disease, or betrayal, or vocational crossroads.

I’ve learned through experience that prayer is not a quick-fix, short-term panacea. Prayer is hard work, and those who commit themselves to learn the rhythms of prayer make a long-term commitment.

I know that’s a hard word to hear. It’s liable to scare folks off at the very outset of prayer, but it’s the honest truth. Often I think people ask about prayer or read a book about prayer, looking for special keys or insights or motivations to pray. There have been thousands of books written about prayer.

Really though, there is no secret formula. There are helps for prayer, ways to enter into prayer that can guide us, but no one has a hidden key for prayer. There is no secret knowledge that some have and others don’t.

There are a number of obstacles to prayer, though. I’ll mention a couple of them.

First, if you want to learn to pray, you have to take time for it. And that’s an obstacle, because most of us live with our time already maxed out. Yet, I don’t know any way to soft-sell this. Certainly, there does come a point in prayer where you realize that everything you do is prayer, that your very breathing is prayer. But at least in the beginning, as we are learning prayer, we intentionally need to carve out some time for this spiritual practice.

Another common obstacle to prayer is misunderstanding who God is and what prayer is. For example, the way most of us have been exposed to prayer, it is little more than a wish-list that we present to God. God, then, becomes a Celestial Genie-in-a-Bottle who responds to our wish-list . . . if we use the right words and ask in the right way. For prayer to take root in our lives, I think this view of God and prayer has to shift.

In his landmark work, I and Thou, Martin Buber advocated personal, I-you relationships among persons and between humans and God, rather than I-it relationships that treat the other (or Other) as an object.

In healthy relationships (or friendships) there is a spirit of mutuality in which one party is not in the relationship for what he or she gets out of the other. That is true of friendships between people, and it’s true of relationship with God. In a mature, grown-up relationship with God, we are not in the relationship in order to see what goodies we can get from God. We are not faithful to God because of all the “blessings” we will get from God. We do not pray simply because it’s a quick and painless way to access the "storehouse" of the Creator of the universe.

Rather, prayer is about relationship, intimacy and communion. In a growing life of prayer, we are drawn ever-deeper into God.

Thus, some of our misconceptions about God and the world are dismantled and re-shaped. But you have to be willing to begin, and you have to be willing to stay at it.

Which brings me to the two key qualities necessary to learn how to pray. First, you have to begin. That’s right, begin . . . right where you are. Just start. If you wait until this happens or that falls into place, you’ll never get started. There will always be excuses not to pray. Begin where you are. Just jump in.

And the second quality necessary to learn prayer – like unto the first – is this: Keep at it! That’s right. Stay with it. Try out different prayer methods. Don’t be afraid to experiment. Try praying the psalms . . . praying for others . . . silent prayer . . . praying the scriptures . . . praying with a prayer book/guide . . . meditative prayer . . . prayers written by others . . . body prayer. As you keep at it, you’ll find a rhythm that fits you . . . your own unique way of being with God. That’s really the reason we pray . . . to connect with God and to be conscious of our ongoing connection with God in a way that is unique to us.

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