This week I spoke to a classroom full of Christian educators about prayer. This, in itself, is funny. It is funny because I, in no way, have ever thought I would speak in public. I am the person who, if ever I talked in class, burned bright red and developed that weird wobbly voice that made me sound like I was going to cry but was really just nerves and adrenaline and….well, actually it did feel like I was going to cry. Speaking to people – especially when I don’t know how it’s going to be received – makes me want to throw up. Two days before, a friend mentioned that the date was the 21st and I immediately felt my stomach drop out of my body and my eyes roll back in my head and my breathing just stopped working because the 21st was dreadfully close to the 23rd, the day I was speaking. So, yes, this is just funny.
But I did it. I have no idea how it was received. There were a lot of blank stares. Some poor gentleman could not stop coughing. No one even smiled at my cute jokes and no one nodded their head with their eyes slightly misty when I said my most profound thoughts…… Seriously, being a preacher must just be awful. When I opened it up at the end for response, there were more stares – at the wall behind me, at the desks, out the window. There were a couple of thoughtful comments thrown out into the awkward silence so at least there was that. And a question about resources I could not answer. And one person did ask me for my email address. Yes! I can do that! I can give you my email! I promptly obliged by grabbing a juicy black dry erase marker and writing it on the Smartboard – to which the room finally came alive, erupting in gasps of horror and a collective “NO!!!!”
Seriously…..smartboards…..why???…..They are scary and look just like white boards. Where are the chalkboards!!!!!!
Anyhoo…..Ah well….. At least I still always have the internet–where I can expostulate all I want while not having to get out of my pyjamas 😉
But all that aside, I was talking about prayer. Again, this is funny. Its probably funny only in my own heart because.. well, I guess because its only me who knows how much I value and need to pray but also how little I understand it and how most of my “prayer” time is spent looking blankly at the wall.
Specifically, I spoke about the prayer that forms us. This has less to do with what we say but how we are when we pray. Inside of this could be included all kinds of prayer – the set aside times of prayer where we talk with God, the bookend, agenda-setting prayers we do in meetings and classrooms, as well as the organic outflowing of prayer we sometimes find ourselves in the middle of when we are working through something. No matter what and where we are praying, there is a quality of prayer that forms us – maybe transforms us. A prayer that changes us is also something more than the words and the mental activity of speaking words. The desert fathers talked about moving from the head to the heart in prayer. Not the heart in an emotional sense. But heart in the sense of it being the source of all our impetus and movement and being in the world. Henri Nouwen describes it as the seat of our “physical, emotional, intellectual, volitional and moral energies.” Formational prayer is one that happens there – where our actual whole self is.
During this workshop, I spoke of this quality of formational prayer – it would be present and attentive. Someone would have to be willingly right where they are without distraction or numbing. Formational prayer would also be prayer where the story of an individual’s life is grounded and understood and read within God’s Big story. And there is room for all parts of all our stories – the good and the bad – in God’s big story. And formational prayer would have room for our honest response – the angry, the tired, the confused, the hopeful, the joyful – all of it. All of these elements having the absolute need for honesty, for openness and for bringing the whole self, even the hard and dark parts. I am not at all sure that God wants those right thoughts, right ideas, right responses, right words. We maybe need to affirm them in ourselves, but what he’s looking for is our actual ourselves. And when I am alone and confused and questioning….that is where God wants to meet me. As excruciating as that can be.
All of these elements would include our physical and emotional and intellectual lives. Anything formational in your life is something that affected your whole self—your body and physicality, your mind and intellect and your emotions, your affections, your deep heart responses to the world. That is why early childhood is such a formational time for humans….we start off living so close to our bodies, so close to our emotions, so close to the beautiful and fascinating world. ALL of ourself is called to be “in prayer” at all times because it is only with ALL of our parts that we are formed – and indeed transformed into that likeness we long for.
All of these elements are part of the practice of prayer that re-discovers and re-forms the heart over and over. The practice of opening ourselves to that formational place over and over until we just reflexively know in our bones that that is where God meets us – that might be what formational prayer is.
Being formed in our whole being by a God who created our whole being. Letting God and ourselves know our whole being. Being aware of God’s whole self and big, beautiful story of the world in our very own self. And responding with our whole, big, messy, tangled-yarn heart to that voice we know from our earliest days.
I asked my 3 year old what she thought prayer was and she said, “God Magic……and rainbows…..and patience.” I laughed…..I’m not sure whose been talking to her about patience but yes, those are probably the essence of prayer. Looking to God and his big magic, seeing his beautiful promise in the world all around us….and waiting….patiently….. for our sight to return to us, for our ears to open. Waiting patiently for our hearts to relax and soften enough to swing open and invite our whole being to a place with God.
From there we ask God for the things we need, the things we deeply desire. From there we bookend our meetings and gatherings and classes. From there we bless our food and our sleep and bring God our dreams and visions. From there we reach out in our anguish and frustration and boredom and deep loneliness. From there we are known and from there we deeply know.