I’m 24 years old. I’ve been a Christian for roughly 20-21 (as a good infant-baptized Calvinist, I don’t get too hung up dates) of those years. But yesterday was the first time I learned how to pray.
Or at least, that’s what it felt like. I’m probably not being fair to myself. I’ve prayed most of my life, and I’m sure I knew something about prayer during those 20-21 years. And I’m also sure that another day will come where I will learn something new, and it will feel like the first time all over again. It’s something of a question of perspective.
But for most of my life, prayer has felt like a wrestling match. Not wrestling with God, but wrestling with myself. Wrestling with God is more of the right way to pray, in fact, but wrestling with myself is barely prayer.
I search the seemingly shapeless void of my emotions and thoughts, trying to form them into the right emotions and the right thoughts. Penitence, supplication, intercession. At times a certain conviction and guilt lead me to realize, in despair, that these largely manufactured responses and emotions are not good enough. I am afraid of admitting to myself that I don’t feel what I should. So I ask to feel the right things. And I try and say the right words. And I self-analyze, and remember Bible verses, and try to repent of feeling the wrong things.
I am still a big believer in discipline, and that there are times and days to ‘go through the motions’ when the heart is not in gear. That really wasn’t my problem. My problem is that I wanted to figure out, with my own mind and spiritual power, how to say the right things, feel the right things, so that I could get what I want from God; so that I could bargain and earn what I needed from Him. So that I could stand before Him with the right formulas and the right laundry list – the right set of commands to punch into the computer and without which I may not get what I’m looking for. And I come expecting a failure, expecting to not receive anything I want or need because, like computers, and like people, He’ll let me down. And I’m really to blame. Because I didn’t do the right things.
Really, I this is just trying to fix myself, trying to avoid a real encounter with God, all under the guise of prayer.
I’ve been teaching sunday school on occasion the past few months. And the curriculum being used has been currently going through the ‘king’ narratives – I & II Samuel, etc. When I have taught, I have been struck by a reoccurring theme throughout: The many times and ways that God tried to pound it into the Israelite’s heads that He is not like other gods. He is not there to be bartered with and treated as a good luck charm to get what one needs or wants. And that is a very gracious statement – He is not looking from the right incantations or magic words, the right work, from us in order to give us what He wants to give us.
He just wants us. And that is the hard thing for me to realize. That is what stifles my prayers. I want to pray without vulnerability. I want to hide my wounds and my sins and my pains far away, (even though) I long to have them healed. I want to tell Him the prescription I need without letting Him see the wound. Instead of bearing these things before Him, instead of being honest and raw and real, I twist myself into knots until my chest is tight and my fists are clenched trying to figure out what I missed, what I did wrong: Did I not pray hard enough? Was I too distracted by the growl of my stomach, the conversation I’m anxious about, the beautiful woman two rows ahead of me? Did I fail? What did I do wrong this time? Why is my heart so formless, so un-penitent? Where are my ‘religious affections’? Did I not cry enough? Why didn’t I cry?
But yesterday, I learned to pray.
I sat in a coffee shop with my journal and I exploring certain fears and insecurities. I explored the brokenness I am always so scared to admit and see. And the temptation to pray the right prayers, do the right things, in order to get that healing, was heavy upon me. I formulated my spiritual laundry list – sins to confess, pains to profess, theological truths to meditate upon. And I drove to church.
Not my church. A different church I just visit on occasion. Not where I teach sunday school.
And when I walked in, I knew this day would be different
The pastor preached. And by some miracle, he was preaching back to me the sunday school lesson I had taught that morning.
“We do not put God into our story, He puts us into His.”
And the lay-prayer leader prayed my sunday school lesson: “remind us that you have plans above us and beyond us and beyond anything we could do or earn, to bless us.”
And I was quiet. And I rested. I wrestled some. I fought some despair and frustration. I didn’t ‘pull it off.’ I didn’t get all the answers. I didn’t get through my list. But I learned the first lesson on how to pray.
I can’t twist God’s arm into giving me what I want. And I can’t afford to be afraid to admit my failure, my brokenness, my shame. I can’t be afraid to admit that there is nothing I can do for myself. And these are all the same thing: To admit my brokenness is to admit my inability. It is to give up the form and the shape that I’ve desperately tried to create for myself out of my seemingly void of a soul. It is to let the Jerusalem and all the idols I’ve put in her for relief from the pain, burn, and be pulled apart brick by brick. It is to lose the identity I’ve scrapped together for myself. It is to risk becoming nothing, with nothing I can do, nothing I can say, nothing of my own but only God – not knowing if anything will be left on the other side.
Somewhere, beyond my emotions, I believe. I have faith. I have hope. Barely. But just enough… Enough that I felt a stirring in places in my soul that have seemed long left dark.Though, even my hope may have to be relinquished, inasmuch as my hope is a form of guilt: I must believe, I must have hope, or He won’t heal me.
But I think I now know how to pray. Or at least, I’ve started to learn, for what feels like the first time. I am learning how to give up. I am learning how to die. I am learning how to be nothing. I am learning that every attempt to construct the story and bend it to my will, is going to fail me. It is that deceitful coping mechanism by which I keep things under my control – stealing rest and peace and joy from myself. It is even stealing that healing I so desperately desire. But I have to learn how to stop trying.
And suddenly grace seems like a big and expansive, unexplored world for me to inhabit, instead of something to insert inside of the habitation I’ve made for myself: A story to enter into, instead of something to wedge into my own story.
There is grace to explore
waking up and realizing you haven’t even read the first page
and it feels like
you haven’t even prayed your first prayer
you haven’t even sung your first hymn
it’s the day before spring – all is cold but you can almost hear the seeds in the ground beginning to burst
and for once there is nothing to say, nothing to do, nothing to gain
but explore, and play, and cry, and wait, and slowly, drop by drop,
accept the Love that you have been running from.