“Fill ‘er up.”
As a high school student, my first job was a mystifying experience. I was officially a gas emissions technician, but you would recognize me as the guy walking up to your car to fill your gas tank. If you were really nice, I might have even washed your windows.
“Hey, can you check the fluids?” What a question.
That’s like asking a zookeeper to make you a deluxe pulled-pork sandwich (go heavy on the barbecue sauce, please). The extent of my automotive prowess extended to gasoline and windshield wipers, but I never let that hinder me from going further. That never stopped me from trying to learn more.
With your car.
The helpful secret of automotive engineering is that there are only three or four openings into which one can pour fluids. With faith invested in me as a gas emissions technician, I would pick one of those openings and pour in a can or two of engine oil/windshield wiper fluid/transmission gunk. And then happily fill your gas tank and, perhaps, wash your window. Nobody ever came back with a greasy windshield.
I was savvy enough to know that oil was important to an engine. I just didn’t know where to put it.
Praying through the seventh inning stretch
I often approach prayer in much the same manner. I know prayer is important. I know that if there isn’t much heart behind my words, or if I’m not praying at all, then my spirit seems to jam up. My relationship with Christ struggles. The difficulty comes in knowing where to “put” prayer within the continuum of my day.
Looking around our culture, the most heartfelt prayers I have publicly witnessed seem to occur during the World Series. Fans, usually dressed in their team’s jerseys, plead with God to give their team the victory. They pray into their baseball gloves in agony and tears, as though somehow God will hear better through the telephone line of broken-in genuine leather.
Stumbling around the unsearchable
In Jeremiah 33:3, God encourages us to call to me and I will answer you and tell you great and unsearchable things you do not know.
I look through the Old Testament, and I see that prayer is a big deal. People cry out to God.
I often stumble over this phrase – crying out to God. It makes me feel guilty or somehow less-than-adequate when it comes to prayer. I watch as other people are able to manufacture tears when they pray, or pray in wonderfully spiritually-moving paragraphs of unbelievable depth. (It helps if they have a deep voice too!) I see great people around me praying throughout the day, or starting and ending their day with prayer, or devoting significantly important portions of their day to prayer.
Meanwhile, in my world, I default to sludging through my telemarketed prayer life. I do my part, say the words, and then end the conversation. (With my kids, I confess that often the ‘amen’ is the most exciting part because we sing it at various pitches and decibel levels). There have been moments of meaningful engagement in prayer — but they are rare enough that they have become highlights in my prayer life. So how do we achieve a deeper prayer life? How does the guy sitting next to me in prayer meeting do it?
Fishing for the shore
Unlike oil, there’s no perfect formula in putting prayer together. Prayer, in its truest form, is not about stringing together perfect phrases, or praying during a certain time (although that can be helpful to make it consistent). Prayer is about conversation with the One who knows your life more intimately than you do. Prayer allows me to tap in to a Spirit who is loving, all-knowing, all-powerful. As one theologian wrote, “Prayer is surrender to the will of God and cooperation with that will. When I throw out a fishing line from a boat and catch hold of the shore and pull, do I pull the shore to me, or do I pull myself to the shore? Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to His.”
Perhaps that’s just it. I’ve approached prayer as a merit badge, similar to how boy scouts earn fire-making badges. Maybe the time that prayer demands is something I need to let go of in my own life. Not that I achieve 12 hour prayer sessions, or only pray with words that have more than ten letters in them, but I need to simplify my approach to prayer.
Prayer is not pulling God to my will, but the aligning of my will to His.
Perhaps I need to grow up, allowing my faith to grow into a Christianity that extends beyond my demand for time. My one-sided appeal needs to stretch to listening for the sound of the shore.
Over the years, I’ve found a few insights that have abundantly helped to deepen my own prayer life. (Please note, these tips don’t include a list of words that will make you more eloquent.)
> Don’t feel guilty for missing a prayer time. Take a deep breath. When you miss a prayer time, the double-edge of guilt will appear. “Not only did I not pray today, but I also missed my prayer time!” How many times have we beaten ourselves up over this? Don’t let guilt become your motivator (or discourager) to pray!
> Don’t restrict prayer to a specific time. Yes, scheduling events into our life does help with consistency, but allow your prayer times to happen throughout the day. Begin by saying “thanks” when you’re walking through the park or looking at a great piece of artwork. Saying thanks doesn’t necessarily mean a ten minute prayer…it’s just one word. It’s a great way to keep a conversation going!
> Don’t restrict prayer to words. When we’re walking with God, often words are not enough. When you’re in a meaningful moment, let your spirit bask in the wonder. Let your heart cry out to God a spirit of thankfulness.
So I continue to walk each day, hoping to learn how to pray a little less eloquently. I hope for a little more conversation, and a little less monologue. I glance the shore and see that it is a little closer today than it was last week.