In my “Neurotic’s Guide to Prayer,” I’ve compared public prayer to getting naked at the YMCA, complained about guitar players in prayer circles, and opened a window to my scatterbrained devotions. In this last post in the series, it’s time to pick up my towel and cover my shame. I also want to pick up a thread that was hopefully running through my posts–prayer doesn’t all depend on you.
I already said that most everybody feels just as nervous about public prayer as I do. I didn’t realize this because of some Sherlock Holmes deduction. I was at a prayer group recently with some other guys. One of them, Evan, had just become a Christian that past year. He was still learning the eccentricities of the faith that I didn’t even realize were eccentricities. He would ask what “quiet time” was, and what we meant by controlling our “thought lives.”
One time, he confessed he was having trouble with his prayers. Each morning he dreaded them, and was relieved when they were over. But public prayers were even worse. He always felt like a bumbling idiot, and worried that everybody else was more eloquent and spiritual than he was. Eyes to the floor, he asked if we ever felt the same way.
The question pegged Evan as a newbie—he didn’t know the unspoken rule of faking it. But hearing it was an unexpected breeze. The worries I had for years about my mangled words, my awkward phrasing, my simplistic requests, suddenly seemed less shameful.
There’s also more to prayer than I realized. For many evangelicals, the assumptions behind prayer are daunting. If you can’t muster the willpower to plough through a prayer, conjuring reverence and holiness and contrition along the way, then your faith is chaff. But Paul tells us that when it comes to prayer, we’re not alone:
“The Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
When I’m fumbling through catchphrases in my quiet time, the Spirit is there. He fills in the gaps, translating my groans and sighs into something beautiful before the Father.
In his book Worship, Communion, & the Triune God of Grace, theologian James Torrance recounts meeting an old man on a beach. The man, though raised Presbyterian, had wandered from the faith. But now his wife was dying, and he was trying to scrape together some prayers for her. He was failing. Torrance answered the man:
“In Jesus Christ we have someone who knows all about this. He has been through it all—through suffering and death and separation—and he will carry you both through it into resurrection life…You have been walking up and down this beach, wanting to pray, trying to pray, but not knowing how to pray. In Jesus Christ we have someone who is praying for you.”
Then Torrance pointed him to Romans 8:34. Growing up in church, I’ve heard more sermons on Romans than I could count. But hearing the verses in this context startled me: “Who is he who condemns? Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” Even when I’m tripping over my words and drawing blank during my Bible study, and clumsily flinging words of intercession for others, Jesus is praying too.
And now, as required in evangelical blogs, I have a closing thought from CS Lewis. In The Horse and His Boy, a kid named Shasta is trying unsuccessfully to get to Narnia. He’s riding his horse in the darkness and feeling sorry for himself—something I can relate to—when he meets Aslan. Aslan shows how he orchestrated all the troubles to bring Shasta to Narnia and to himself, working in the background while Shasta muttered and stumbled in the foreground. Shasta doesn’t respond with a speech or flowered words. Instead, “after one glance at the Lion’s face he slipped out of the saddle and fell at its feet. He couldn’t say anything but then he didn’t want to say anything, and he knew he needn’t say anything.”
That can be my closing thought of my Neurotic’s Guide to Prayer Series–sometimes, it’s okay if you can’t find the words.
Anybody else have a closing prayer thought? Maybe a CS Lewis quotation?