Knowing how to pray
July 22, 2013
A friend recently confessed that not only had he never prayed, he had never found an adequate opportunity to do so. Why bother, he asked, to resort to empty words to a God who is at best noncommittal and at worst uncaring?
I gave him an appreciative nod. There had been times in my life when I suspected God to be both, but in the end the opposite had always held to be true. But his words struck me. Prayer was much a part of my life even in my darkest days. Not praying, no matter how far the distance between myself and God, was never an option.
I’d always assumed there were many in the world who never lifted their voice to heaven. I’d just never known one.
I figured I prayed about seven times a day. Not bad, really, until I started thinking about some of the things I prayed both for and about. Asking for God to watch over my loved ones is a lot different than asking Him to let the Yanks win and the Sox lose. I asked for both over the weekend.
And while asking Him to make my headache go away is maybe an okay thing, asking Him to give the person who caused my headache sudden and uncontrollable diarrhea probably wasn’t.
It all got me thinking not only about how and when I pray, but how and when others do the same. Prayer is something many of us take for granted. I doubt we pause enough to consider the gravity of actually speaking to the Creator of the universe.
Prayer is serious stuff. Fascinating, too. Nothing says more about us than how we talk to God. So I decided to take last Sunday and observe both family and friends in a sort of super secret prayer survey. I wanted to know who got it just right, who didn’t quite, and why.
Church seemed like a logical starting point. Lots of people pray in church. I listened to the Sunday School teacher, the pastor, and an usher pray with both an eloquence and spirit that I could aspire to but never quite accomplish. Eloquence has never been my strong suit. Me often don’t talk like that pretty.
Lunch with my wife’s family, however, seemed more promising. There are a lot of things country folk can do better than others, and talking to God is among them. Country prayers are not as flowery as church prayers. There are plenty of ain’ts and gonnas. It’s not praying, it’s prayin’. Big difference.
So we prayed for the hands that cooked the food and the ground that grew it. For the rain that would make the corn grow and the closeness of family. That prayer was nice. Homey. But it still wasn’t quite…right. Something was missing.
Bedtime found my family gathered around my daughter’s bed, knees to floor. And though I normally assume the traditional pose of head bowed and hands folded, I cheated that night. I kept my eyes and ears open as my children prayed. Together.
“Thanks, Jesus,” my son said, “for all the cool stuff You showed me today.”
“And,” said my daughter, “for the green grass. It’s my favorite color.”
“Thanks for the macaroni, because I love macaroni,” added my son.
“I didn’t like the broccoli,” my daughter said. “Can you please do something about that?”
“You made pretty clouds tonight.”
“I love you, God.”
“I love you too, God.”
“We both love you.”
Then, together: “Amen.”
I walked outside a while later to make sure the stars were still there and say goodnight to God. I’ve always liked praying outside. For some strange reason, I’ve always thought my words could go through a ceiling of clouds much easier than a ceiling of plaster.
I’ll be honest. Prayer has always been a little confusing to me. Like the people at church, I’ve tried to be eloquent and flowery. Like the people I shared lunch with, I’ve tried to be folksy and homey. And like my children, I’ve tried to keep things simple.
It isn’t always easy to put thoughts and feelings to words, no matter to whom we’re talking.
I guess in the end it isn’t so much what we say to God as it is the heart with which it’s said. What we can’t explain, He knows. What we can’t say quite right He knows exactly.
And sometimes, many times, a prayer needs no words at all.
Which is why that night, there beneath the stars, I simply looked to heaven and smiled.
The Billy Coffey Collection