Tree63 lead singer John Ellis once remarked to me, “You know Xavier, you can tell a lot about a person by the books they read.” At the time he was holding my hard copy of Rob Bell’s Drops Like Stars.
I think there is some truth in his observation.
A disclosure about prayer
Bell’s book on suffering is kept company by other spiritual formation sojourners, such as Lewis and Lucado, as well as other thought travellers from different genres, such as Nelson Mandela’s autobiographical account ‘A long Walk to Freedom’, Frank Herbert’s science fiction fantasy ‘Dune’ and Kass Morgan’s young adult dystopian series ‘The 100’.
Each of these do reveal something about me.
It is perhaps most noticeable that I have more books about prayer than on any other subject, which says less about my knowledge or expertise on the matter of prayer and more about my life-long wrestle with a subject that is central to my following of Jesus. As author Philip Yancey writes, “If prayer stands at the place where God and human beings meet, then I must learn about prayer.”
The idea that prayer is the most important conversation I can have in my day has been one of my most important ‘learnings’.
A variety of conversations fill my day. There are conversations with real people in real time. I talk with my wife during a lunch break about the ever-increasing list of DIY projects that we’re going to take on over the next few months. I chat with my son about his latest gaming adventures and with my daughter about her weekend social plans. I catch up with an old friend over the phone and discuss an upcoming youth webinar with some work colleagues via Zoom. These conversations involve both speaking and listening.
There are some conversations in my day which are more one sided. I talk to my laptop when it’s taking too long to start up. I talk to my dogs (regularly) letting them know that our neighbours don’t appreciate their barking. I talk to myself as I drive and hear a new noise from the car’s engine.
There are conversations which for me, carry greater weight and feel more consequential to my life, such as conversations that involve decisions of some kind. I converse with my spiritual director about the stewardship of my gifts and talents, and discuss areas of church involvement with my local church minister. Lara and I talk through a new financial commitment.
There are conversations which are brief and seemingly less important. I acknowledge the person who lets me in to a traffic queue (moaning at the ones who push in without invitation). I say a few polite words to the shop attendant and greet another parent in the school parking lot.
All these conversations are integrated into the activities of my day.
I can’t imagine a day without them. In fact, not engaging in these conversations would make my daily life extremely difficult and totally impractical. They all serve a necessary relationship function, and a disengagement from any of them would have consequences of varying degrees.
I can’t imagine a world without these conversations. Except maybe the ones with my laptop.
Talking with God
On a belief level, I would say the same about conversing with God. As a follower of Jesus, it would be unthinkable to not have prayer included as part of my relationship with Jesus. It would feel more like following the teachings of a wise sage from history rather than having a relationship with my Creator with whom I can be in dialogue.
However, despite my belief in the importance and significance of prayer, it’s often given a minor role in my day. Days fill up with deadlines, lifts, meals, meetings and chores, and regularly I find myself in bed at the end of a day, feeling guilty that I was mute with God.
There are days however (I’m encouraged to say on the increase) where prayer takes it rightful place. There are a few ‘learnings’ which have helped me with this shift. I offer them here with the hope they would shorten your wrestle and give you a renewed commitment to the gift of prayer.
God is already waiting for me
Although I don’t recall anyone ever teaching me that you needed to get God’s attention, on reflection my approach to prayer was always framed with the notion that God was ‘up there’, and unless I used the dutiful keys of adoration and praise, the door to a conversation with the King would remain closed. Prayer, it felt, was an attempt to draw God’s attention to my needs and the general affairs of the world.
The unfolding story in Scripture though seeks to correct this unhelpful and untrue picture of God. As David, who sought the heart of God and whose prayers are recorded for all to read, declares:
Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me and the light become night around me,” even the darkness will not be dark to you; the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you. (Psalm 139: 7-12)
God is present in the world he created. He is present in my world. I don’t go to prayer hoping or waiting for God to show up. The reverse is happening. God has already prepared a place. He is waiting for me to join the Trinitarian conversation that is forever taking place. When I start my day with the belief that God is waiting patiently to converse with me, prayer seems less like a duty and more like a coffee catch up with an old friend.
I am a spiritual being
The physical governs my daily activities and interactions. The reality I experience is often a sum of what I touch, see and hear. As I write these words my fingers are touching the keyboard. If I look outside the window, I see the trees and flowers in my garden. I hear a car in the distance and sounds coming from our kitchen.
What I think and feel is often a response to the physical. My mind is at work as my fingers type, helping me push the right buttons and form the sentences. It plays with the words and considers you the reader and your reaction as I write. This evokes an emotional response in me. Do I like what I’m writing? Does it make sense?
This ‘process’ of experiencing my physical reality occurs all the time throughout my day. Almost automatically, outward stimuli inform my mind and responses happen and conclusion are drawn. This is my physical reality.
Stories from the Bible awaken me to another reality.
A reality which occurs in the spiritual. One which is often hidden from my senses. Elisha’s servant is awakened to this other reality when his eyes are opened and he “saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire” (2 Kings 6:17). The reader of the story of Job is privy to a ‘behind the scenes’ experience of Satan and God in conversation over the faithfulness of Job. The birth of Jesus is announced by a host of angels appearing to a group of shepherds outside of Bethlehem (Luke 2:8-14). Paul reminded the church in Ephesus that our “struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12).
This knowledge of a spiritual reality, which impacts upon the physical and vice-versa, transforms prayer into an essential part of my day.
When I pray, I am reminded that I am not just ‘flesh and bones’ but a person who has eternity set in his heart (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Pray helps me ‘loosen’ my grip on that which I can see and touch, in order to hold firm to that which cannot be destroyed by ‘moth and vermin’ (Matthew 6:20). Pray signs me up as a participant in ‘the Lord’s army’, where I fight with weapons not of this world (2 Corinthians 10:4).
As philosopher and Jesuit Catholic priest, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin SJ wrote:
“We are not human beings having a spiritual experience. We are spiritual beings having a human experience.”
Prayer defies the gravity of the physical, lifting me into the heavenlies to engage in a spiritual conversation, and then hurtles me down to earth again, to live as a ‘foreigner and exile’ (1 Peter 2:11). I am part of a ‘peculiar people’, a ‘royal priesthood’ (1 Peter 2:9). Without prayer, I may forget who I truly am.
Putting down anchors
A challenging seed was planted early on in my journey with prayer through the quoted words of German theologian and reformer, Martin Luther:
“Work, work from early until late. In fact, I have so much to do that I shall spend the first three hours in prayer.”
A busy work day appears to have been a catalyst for Luther to prayer. My experience was often the opposite with busy days pushing prayer to the periphery. This decision though, conscious or not, led to a pattern of behaviour which in hindsight was unsettling.
I came to see that I was the worst version of me on the busy days. I was given to greater impatience, treated people like a means to an end, spoke more than listened, had less energy for my family and made decisions which I would later question. From God’s perspective, it must have been frustrating watching me go about my day relying on my own strength, limiting decisions to my wisdom, approaching others from only my perspective.
My spiritual director provided me with a helpful image to understand what was occurring on my busy days. He encouraged me to ‘put down anchors’ throughout my day. Without these anchors I was like a ship adrift in my day, pulled and pushed by the tides of my own nature.
God is trustworthy
I have come to see that ‘putting down anchors’ or choosing to set aside time to talk with God through my day, is a matter of trust. I trust that the minutes given to prayer through the day aren’t robbing me of valuable time but are in fact redeeming the activities of my day. I trust that when I act or respond out of those conversation with God, that there is more of Christ and less of me (John 3:30). I trust that what I often see as interruptions to my day are opportunities of divine learnings, entrusted to me by a loving Saviour, who knows me fully. I am more inclined to pray when I approach prayer with the assurance that the One who I pray to is trustworthy.
The most important conversation
Before I sat down to type these concluding words I spoke with God. I stood for a moment, looking out my bedroom window, and listened. I heard many things. Dogs barking (not mine), a neighbour sanding, a car passing, a bird chirping, a door closing. And in faith, I heard the whisper of a present creator in all these things “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). I then asked God to guide my writing. To give me wisdom and insight. To shape the words. I then prayed for you the reader. I prayed that God would encourage and challenge you through these words to a deeper prayer life. And then, as I sat down to write I knew that I wasn’t just writing an article about prayer, but in faith, I knew that I was a spiritual being doing an eternal work for a trustworthy God.