Prayer hasn’t always been important to me. Actually, for a good chunk of my life, prayer has been a bit of an afterthought. For a long time, I believed God had larger concerns in the expansive universe than my minuscule life. Other times, I prayed and asked for results, and much to my dismay, the prayer wasn’t answered. These unanswered prayers headed me straight towards a “Why bother?” attitude. I heard the claim of prayer being essential for my relationship with God, but, truthfully, when I prayed to the one, true God, it felt a bit dry and crusty. “Hello, God. Are you there? It’s me, Ally.”
As I started hanging with people whose lives centered around God, I got a glimpse of new, progressive beliefs. Like the belief of God’s radical, all encompassing love of little old me. It turns out Christ does have many concerns in the universe; and one of them happens to be me (and you too)! As this truth settled into my soul, I simply wanted to know Christ more. God more. The Holy Spirit more. If the Trinity’s love was for real, I needed to understand it better. This is when a more structured prayer life began to seem important.
Through relationship with others, Bible studies and weekly worship, prayer was discussed and modeled in different ways. Some friends awoke in the morning with a prayer of gratitude for their day. This seemed simple enough and I vowed to take it on. Yet, as the days turned, my day was half over before prayer came to mind. Some prayed before bed to review their day. This didn’t sound too hard. But, sleep drifted me to dreamland and no review of my day had been done. I recited memorized prayers before meals and with my kids before bedtime, but, the structure of rote prayer left me distant from God, whom I longed to know better.
If my own struggling prayer life wasn’t enough, intercessory prayer (prayer for others) was even more of a burden. Friends told me they would pray for me, but I had doubts. I knew how I was: I had great intention when I said I would pray for people and often, I would forget. There were also times when I didn’t have the words to pray. Something so heartbreaking had taken place and I was left speechless. Others were easily able to speak beautiful prayers aloud. Was I supposed to pray aloud with my voice? Allowing my soul thoughts to be heard scared me to the core. I read books recommending written prayer lists. “Write down your list of people and check their name when the prayer is answered”. I tried. But, there were too many people. Keeping up with every person who came to mind was overwhelming. How could I make sense when one prayer for a friend was answered and another wasn’t? The pressure of prayer closed in on me, and truly, I wanted to shut the door on it. For me, all these complexities of prayer left my communion with God hazy.
Enter Jane. Jane Vennard was my instructor for a class I took not so long ago. She wrote a book entitled, “A Praying Congregation”. Her instruction and book changed my vantage point of prayer. She led us through several exercises to experience prayer in different ways. One exercise that touched me deeply was to sit silently and hold our hands in different prayer positions: folded hands, open hands palms up, hands open and lifted to shoulder level, hands raised completely over head, hands held with our neighbors. How did our body inform us in these different postures? How did we feel connected or not connected to God in these common prayer postures? I was blown away at how simple body posture could bring different awareness to my relationship with God.
Jane also asked our class to reflect on a relationship of intercessory prayer. I immediately thought of my friend, Genevieve, who had passed away the summer before. Gen reached out to me early on in her diagnosis of cancer. Her bold outreach to me prompted me to courageously pray over the phone with her, one of my first attempts at a fumbled and desperately spoken prayer for a friend. I committed to write prayer cards for Gen on a regular basis. Interestingly, my simple act of sending her a card regularly was the gateway to a treasured relationship.
Prayer became the bridge binding Gen and I together. We met occasionally for lunch and she shared with me her struggles & pain, but mostly, she shared with me her hope. Christ always seemed to be coming from Gen’s lips, through all the suffering she endured. She permitted me to willingly walk beside and learn from her journey of cancer. By revealing her heart; I, too, revealed mine. The Sacred was at the center for us. This simple reflection of my relationship with Gen allowed me to see our relationship as a living prayer. It also helped me to see how prayer is the bridge that binds me with God. God reaches for me, and prayer is the avenue for me to reach back.
Essentially, this was the blessing of learning from Jane. I began to see prayer in a new way. No longer was prayer about lists, guilt for not remembering or dry, crusty words. Prayer was not about my spoken words needing to be answered the way I wanted. Rather, prayer became all about bridging my connection to God. Jane wrote on page 45 of A Praying Congregation, “I believe that anything we do that honors, strengthens, or deepens our relationship to God can become a form of prayer… to fashion our actions into prayers, we need to examine our intention for the activity and God’s intention for us.” This one statement gave me permission to dream large for prayer in my life.
Jane’s class ended with about half of the class partaking in dancing as prayer with God. I remember being on the outside of the circle, as a spectator, seeing faces of people who made eye contact as they moved to the music. Their movement was clearly of love and worship. Their gestures were holy. Tears streamed down my cheeks. This was the power of prayer. Not that my words to God matter, but the deep realization of God’s presence. God’s eyes gaze lovingly at me. Prayer allows me to gaze back. This sacred prayer, while not typical, was a powerful reminder prayer cannot be shoved into a box of what it “is” and “isn’t”. Jane asks, “can our lives be a living prayer?” and my inner spirit shouts, “Yes!”
Since this class, prayer is no longer about one more devoted act I need to fit into my day. Instead, I ask, “how can my life be a living prayer?” Are my natural inlaid desires, gifts, and passions a possible prayer bridge to connect me with God? Is my daily routine an opportunity to follow the Spirit of prayer? Prayer lists do not work well for me. However, I find if I sit and color with prayer as my intention, people’s names and circumstances will arise for me. This may prompt me to action: a phone call, a card sent, or simply more prayer. Sharing fruitful time with friends around a table is enriching for me. These soul conversations pointing towards a loving and just God can surely be titled “prayer”. Journaling has long been a place for me to pour my heart out, yet only recently have I realized how journaling has been a gateway to God for me.
Certainly, I still honor traditional forms of prayer: some mornings I stretch with a morning prayer; spoken words of the ‘Our Father” in weekly worship; prayers before meals thanking God; and nighttime prayers over my children. But, I also know God is creative and full of variety. So, these days, I’m exploring the expansive quality of prayer. If prayer is the great bridge builder connecting us to God, why limit it?
“I believe that anything we do that honors, strengthens, or deepens our relationship to God can become a form of prayer. Yes, but everything is not automatically a prayer. To fashion our actions into prayers, we need to examine our intention for the activity and God’s intention for us.” – Jane Vennard
When in your life has something you were doing become a prayer?
What activity do you do regularly that you think could become a prayer?
Resource: p. 45-47 of “A Praying Congregation”, by Jane Vennard
With a Child:
Ask a child, “What kind of dancing do you think God loves?” Then, put on some music and dance with God!