Ways to Pray

When you were little, did you say prayers when you went to bed each night? Maybe your mom or dad said them with you, or you might have prayed by yourself in the quiet of your room. Every night I prayed that little prayer we probably all know by heart:

Now I lay me down to sleep
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I should die before I wake
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

And then I followed that with a long list of “God blesses,” listing all my family members near and far, and then my friends and of course everybody’s pets. For me at that time, praying was a bit like rubbing a lucky rabbit’s foot—it was something I thought I needed to do each night to keep bad dreams away. It also helped me feel reasonably certain I would wake up in the morning, which was important. We all know how hard it is to sleep when we’re worrying about things.

But I can’t really say it felt like I was talking to God. It was more like wishing on a star, hoping that someone up there heard me. I wasn’t sure, at that time, whether there was anyone listening on the other end of the line.

But I remember a time, when I was around 12 years old, that I was actually talking to God. I was sitting on the floor of my bedroom, starting to put my Barbies back in their case, when a thought suddenly struck me. “You know, God,” I said, “When I play with my Barbies, they get to have lots of different adventures. But when you put us away (meaning death), you don’t get us out again. That’s not very nice of you,” I added.

Cheeky, preteen criticism notwithstanding, as I look back on that moment, I notice a few interesting things about it. First, I talked to God like I really knew and was comfortable with God. And second, I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, to say the hard things, to share what I was thinking about, and to let God know I thought He was being unfair. That says to me that there was some trust, and that I wasn’t afraid of God. Both of those things—trust and lack of fear, safety—are important in all our close and growing relationships. I can see that I was on a path of prayer, even then.

E. Hermann’s classic book, Creative Prayer, is about overcoming the struggles and deepening the connection we feel when we pray. She writes, “Our prayers are blighted by self-consciousness. When we are not paralyzed by doubt, we are preoccupied with the recital of our woes and wrongs, our aspirations and ambitions. We tend to forget that in God we live and move and have our being, and [we] approach Him as if we had come to reason and plead with one like unto ourselves, ‘only bigger.’”

She goes on to say, though, that there is a deeper life we can discover in prayer, one that brings us into the highest human friendship we can have. She writes, “We come to the friend of our heart, and as we open our soul to him we realize that it is of his own that we are giving him. That impulse of love, that worthy aspiration, that new outlook upon life—it is of his creating. As we are initiated into the mystery of friendship, we know that our friend is not merely “another”; he speaks to us not from without, but from the center of our being. He is in us and we in him. Deep down in the mystery of being was the thread spun that linked soul to soul. My friend creates and recreates me. In him I come to know my true self.”

Toward the end of us seeking together a deeper life of prayer, I’d like to share a few simple and practical ideas that can help us renew, refresh, and revitalize the way we pray.

#1: Start with What You Know about God

Often we go into prayer because we have a need. Maybe something is bothering us, or we’re worried about a situation or someone we love. We pray for help, we pray for jobs, we pray for healing, we pray for protection. And all of those things are good and helpful and are often answered. But when we’re preparing to pray, maybe getting settled in our favorite chair, it is helpful to think first about who God is and start off our prayer by focusing on God’s qualities. Jesus often started with gratitude and reminded himself and those listening that God always hears and answers our prayer.

We might start with ideas we feel are foundational, rock solid about God, like:

  • God is good;
  • God is love;
  • We’re created in God’s image, as spiritual beings;
  • Nothing ever happens outside the love of God;
  • God is everywhere, always, all-powerful, and all-knowing;
  • God doesn’t have any grandchildren (this is something I like to remember when I’m praying for my kids and grandkids—God loves every single person as His own beloved child and each one is equally precious and valuable to God)
  • God intends good for every one of us, and
  • God is near us, hears our prayers, and cares about the tiniest details of our day

This is echoed in our Old Testament reading from Jeremiah. It’s a beloved passage that shows the love and tender closeness of God:

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

#2: Reach Out from the Heart

You may have heard the saying, “The longest journey you will ever make is from your head to your heart.” It is talking about the vastly different experiences of thinking about something and really feeling it. When we pray in our heads, by simply saying words—maybe reciting the 23rd Psalm or the Lord’s Prayer—but we don’t feel anything as we pray, we miss out on what may be the most vital blessing that prayer offers: feeling God close to us in that moment. Words are just an empty exercise if they aren’t arising from the heart.

Instead of offering God a lot of words, we can let ourselves feel the spirit of the ideas we’re sharing. We can connect to the deeper meaning of it all, maybe feeling the love that inspired our prayer to begin with or our hope for a good outcome for all, or our gratitude that God is present, God is listening, that God cares. We may get to a point that we pray without needing words at all, just feeling ourselves smiling at God—that’s a prayer. Or looking out the window experiencing a bounding sense of appreciation for the great beauty we see. That’s a prayer of the heart.

That reminds me of this lovely poem from Mary Oliver. It’s called, Praying:

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

A few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

Into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

#3: Let God Help

Depending on the tradition we grew up with, we may have learned a great many rules about prayer—what to say or not say, whether to stand or sit or kneel—or we may have had no rules at all. For Quakers the most important rule, if there is one, is probably to remember to listen and make room for Spirit to speak into the quiet of our minds and hearts. But no matter what we may think about how someone “should” pray, the best one to teach it is Christ, who comes to teach each one of us himself.

I love the way Paul puts this is his letter to the Romans. He starts off in the passage we heard this morning talking about how God’s children will struggle only for a time, but their hope and patient efforts toward goodness will ultimately win out. Why? Because “we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.” That’s us. We can count on that.

Whatever the circumstance may be that brings us to prayer—pain, fear, anxiety, illness, grief, uncertainty, loneliness, doubt, or simply the desire to spend time with God—Spirit is right there with us, helping us all along the way. It is a tender and transformative realization when we find we are not praying alone. Spirit helps us with it all–the feelings and the words and the understanding and the insight–as we offer up what arises in our hearts. In fact, it’s possible the situation that brought us to prayer is helping us grow closer to God, which is the hidden gift always present even in the most dire circumstance. Paul says, “he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” God wants us to have help. God knows our hearts. And Spirit intercedes—is our partner as we pray–help to lift our limited, human attempts at prayer right to the heart of God.

We can trust Spirit to lead us to pray in the way that is right for us, the way that will connect our heart to the divine heart and help us feel the closeness and compassion of God. We know our prayers have been heard when we feel that gentle settling of peace, the warmth of connection, or a lighter sense of ease. We feel—again, that’s why it’s important to have the heart involved—we feel a sense that All is Well, even though outwardly our circumstances haven’t yet changed. Prayer helps us know God is on the job, and we can rest secure in that. What a relief that is, to turn our hurts and worries over to Him and know we’ve left them in the perfect Hands.

#4: Trust God to Answer

Sometimes we get impatient wanting an answer to our prayer. Especially if it’s something that’s making us anxious, something or someone we’re worried about, we pray with feelings of fear and upset and we want God to fix it immediately. We want to feel better, and we want the people we care about to be okay. I know God understands that—we see through a mirror darkly. But it’s also true that God’s time is not our time, and that the answers which unfold for the good of all sometimes depend on circumstances we don’t see. One who is all-knowing, all-present, and all-powerful will understand what’s needed far better than we will.

In those moments we need to go back to our sense of trust in God. Maybe we remember the ideas we started praying with—the things about God we know to be true. We can think about all the times God has helped us, has calmed us, has brought about a good result when we were worried about something less. We can remind ourselves that God is trustworthy and knows what we need and that—as Jeremiah said and Paul echoed—God’s plan for all of us is good, to give us a hope and a future.

If we don’t give God the time to work—we Friends refer to this as “outrunning our Guide”—we may take matters into our own hands and push the situation in a way that’s not helpful. Or if we’re upset while we wait for an outcome, our own stirred up emotions can get in the way of us hearing or recognizing the answer we are waiting for, an answer that might already be clear, if we’d just calm down a little.

But when we are caught up in all the swirling emotion that brought us to prayer in the first place, we can miss one of the biggest ways that prayer can help us, which is to lift all that confusing upset up to God and leave it in God’s lap, for God to sort out in the best way. And then, feeling heard and understood, a sense of peace arrives, and the jangly emotions that have so much to do with fear are gone. God has lifted them. God has heard us. We can trust God to bring about the perfect answer in the perfect way at the perfect time. Because everything God does and loves and is, is perfect.

And that returns us to where we began, with a peaceful and reinforced sense of what we know to be true about God: That God is with us, that God loves us, that we are God’s beloved children, made in God’s image; and that God is our ever-present help not only in times of trouble but in times of joy and celebration too. God is our companion in every breath and every step. And prayer—felt prayer, listening prayer—can help us know that in an everlasting way.

I’d like to close with two passages that spotlight the vital role of prayer in our Quaker tradition. The first is from Douglas Steere’s 1937 William Penn Lecture, called The Open Life.  

“When we grasp the real nature of prayer as an exercise of devotion we may then see why the man of devotion "has no need of a book or a method or of great efforts of the head or even of the will" in his prayer. The further a man goes in devotion, the simpler the prayer may become, until [like] Francis of Assisi, he may in the later years of his life murmur only, "My God, my all," and there is nothing more to say. The apparatus is wholly secondary. But the recovery of the root, the being brought low, the being baptized into the condition of those in need, the yielding to the principle, the becoming subject to the root, coming into holy obedience, into devotion: that is the heart of prayer. And only the regular practice of that can hold a man in his vocation in the midst of the diversions of our day.”

And in closing, these much-loved words of George Fox, which speak to the intimacy and immediacy of the presence of God with each of us as we learn more and more to listen and pray and trust:

"Be still and cool in thy own mind and spirit from thy own thoughts, and then thou wilt feel the principle of God, to turn thy mind to the Lord, from whom life comes; whereby thou mayest receive His strength, and power to allay all blusterings, storms and tempests. That is it which works up into patience, into innocency, into soberness, into stillness, into staidness, into quietness, up to God with His Power.... Be staid in the principle of God in Thee that it may raise thy mind up to God . . . and thou wilt find strength from Him and find Him to be a God at hand."

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