Pray without ceasing. – 1 Thessalonians 5:17
As ridiculous as it sounds to me now, it was only fifteen years ago or so that my religious imagination around God moved away from the image I’d been given in Sunday School – an old man with a white beard, somewhere “up there” in a control room, pulling levers and pushing buttons, controlling the world. Today I gravitate to metaphors like, ‘God is the river of life and love that flows through all things, connecting it all.”
Not long after my image of God began to shift, I noticed that many of my spiritual practices no longer made much sense to me. Especially prayer. Like my image of God, my understanding of prayer hadn’t grown much past my Sunday School days. Prayer was telling God what I wanted, and then God decided whether to answer “yes”, “no” or “not now”. God, I was told, had a plan and I just needed to trust it. But I became increasingly uncomfortable with the notion that the God revealed in Jesus would intentionally answer “no” or “not now” to my prayer to cure my 4-year-old neighbor of a painful, terminal cancer.
And so, like my image of God, my understanding of what prayer is and how I practice prayer has changed significantly. Much of my prayer these days is contemplative silence, being still and allowing my thoughts to pass by like leaves on the surface of a rushing stream. And when I get caught up in my thoughts (which I do over and over again) I gently turn my attention back to the God in whom I believe I am fully immersed. This way of praying has profoundly changed me, making me more aware of God’s loving presence in daily life. It has also taught me to turn my attention back to God throughout my day.
At other times, prayer is a wrestling match, though like Jacob (Genesis 32:22-32) I’m not always sure who my opponent is. When I’m seeking wisdom, discerning a pathway forward, sifting through options or just seeking to understand what’s going on inside of me, this kind of conversational wrestling match is often helpful. Sometimes it feels as if I’m only talking to myself, but I trust that the Spirit breaths and guides me, sometimes pinning me into surrender and at other times leading me to the other side of a river I had been hesitant to cross.
And then there are times when the troubles of this world or the suffering of people I know and love drive me to prayer. But I no longer tell God what to do. I simply hold that trouble or that loved one in my heart and mind. I visualize them wrapped in the arms of Jesus. And I simply dwell there with them. I have come to believe that thought and intention have real power when they are placed in the River that enlivens us all.
I’m not suggesting that my way of praying is “right”, just that it is right for me for now. I share all this because I frequently meet people who have given up on prayer, in part because they have never been taught anything more than what they learned in Sunday School. And I believe that prayer is too precious a gift to abandon because it has the power to awaken us to the loving presence of the One in whom we are graciously and constantly immersed.
Want to learn more about silent contemplative prayer. Here’s a book I highly recommend. But a word of caution – reading is no substitute for doing.
Jeff Marian serves as lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN