Listening to Oprah’s “SuperSoul Conversations,” with leading spiritual teachers, I’ve observed eight recurring questions Oprah asks of her guests. As I’ll likely never be a guest on Oprah’s podcast, I thought, “Why not write a series of blogs, based on Oprah’s questions?” This is what I might tell Oprah, if given the chance.
“What is your personal prayer?”
I wish I could say my prayers are entirely selfless and altruistic. They aren’t.
I wish I could report spending hours on my knees, bowed before God, praying for the state of the world. I don’t.
I wish I could say I pray – daily – for an end to poverty, hunger, sickness, and war, and for God to break the chains of injustice, forever. I don’t. I almost never do.
I wish I could say I weep before God for the sin, brokenness, and suffering of so many. I would be lying if I said it.
I wish I could. After all, isn’t that how “good” pastors are supposed pray?
The truth is, I don’t pray for myself, much, either – at least not in the traditional ways we think of prayer.
But, I do devote significant time to prayer, everyday.
Though I certainly believe there’s power in prayer, and that God wants to hear the deepest longings of our hearts, I struggle with the kind of prayer that approaches God like a genie in a bottle, always asking God to grant my latest wishes, or as Santa Claus bringing the goodies I ask for, if I’ve been a very good boy. Maybe the problem is, I’m never a very good boy!
That sort of prayer feels too one-way and distant to me. It feels like I’m sending a telegram to God, with my latest list of demands, hoping the message doesn’t get lost in transmission.
Don’t get me wrong. Just today, I had a long conversation with God regarding my hopes and dreams for the future. But, I didn’t really ask for anything. We just talked. I certainly pray for people, places and situations. I certainly pray when people ask me to. But, most of the time, that’s not my “personal” prayer.
I suppose, since I’m aware God already knows the needs of the world far better than me, as well as the concerns and desires of my heart, I trust God to do what is right. God doesn’t need my input, or direction, or encouragement! So, I just bring myself to God, in prayer, assuming God sees everything inside of me. God is omniscient, caring and wise, after all!
My prayer is mostly silent. My prayer, primarily, is simply resting in God’s presence, being as fully present and attentive to God as I can manage, as I’m confident God is fully present to me.
And, I try to listen.
Think of the people you share your deepest intimacies with. I’m sure there’s frequent conversation. I’ve no doubt there is deep, personal sharing. I’m certain there’s focused, attentive listening. But, also, there are those precious moments when you can just be present with someone you love, when no words are necessary, and each is comfortable relaxing in the other’s presence. Imagine staring deeply into the eyes of the other, without awkwardness, nervousness or self-consciousness – just enjoying a long, loving gaze. To me, though I cherish meaningful, intimate conversation, those moments of silent, attentive presence are the most rich.
Thus, while I do converse with God about intimate things – and trivial – I mostly try not to pollute my prayers with lots of unnecessary words – especially requests or demands. I’d rather just be with God, basking in God’s calming, healing, loving presence.
Most often, before I pray, I read a bit of Scripture. If I’m drawn to a word, phrase or image, I repeat it several times, or picture it, and perhaps write it in my journal. I then close my eyes and relax, starting with my shoulders. I intentionally slow my breathing. Then, I seek to feel God’s presence, which usually happens in the middle of my chest, around my heart. I feel a particular sensation I know is the presence of God within me, and me within God. After all, God isn’t far away. God is as close as the air I breathe. I focus on that.
How do I know it’s God? I just know.
Then, I rest in God’s presence. I focus on the connection between us – God in me, and me in God. If something is on my mind, I say it, or picture it. If not, I just sit with God, quietly.
Occasionally, I ask, “God, is there anything you would like to say to me, for me to hear? I’m ready and listening. Help me to hear you.” If I sense God is speaking, I write it in my journal, as I receive it. How do I know God is talking, and that I’m not just making something up? I don’t. Whatever I “hear,” I try to receive humbly, knowing I might not have heard anything, as well as sufficient faith to believe God does speak, even to me.
Often, something will arise within me – a thought, concern, or question. I either lay it before God, or let it pass, depending on what it is. Either way, I try to not allow it be a distraction.
But, mostly, in my praying, there isn’t much talking or listening. Just presence. My prayer is mostly being with God, which is a beautiful experience.
Why bother with such prayer? I once heard prayer compared to a cat, resting on a windowsill, soaking up the sun’s warmth, on a cold winter day. Likewise, when I pray, I’m placing myself directly in God’s presence, soaking up as much light and life of God, as I possibly can. In the prayer of presence, I’m inviting God into my most intimate places; my secret, hidden shadows. I’m exposing before God my longings, my dreams, my insecurities, my wounds. In prayer, God meets me where I am, connecting me to the only real source for healing and growth. In prayer, God bestows wisdom, knowledge and insight, and hopefully greater spiritual maturity. In prayer, I re-center my life on the only Source of life, rather than the countless tasks, duties, and demands bombarding me the rest of the time.
In my prayer, I find peace.
In short, I believe in prayer as intimate, focused, centered, connected, unity with the God who changes me. At least that’s my hope. And, if God changes me, then I have a much better chance of being a better me, as well as a better husband, father, person, preacher, pastor, writer, friend, etc. As God changes me, perhaps I have a better chance of changing the world around me.
If I can be whole in Christ (which is also my understanding of salvation), perhaps I can offer God-centered wholeness to others. As others become whole, perhaps they can offer health and healing to those around them. As more people become spiritually healthy and whole, perhaps our society could become healthier. And, on, and on, and on. Isn’t that what Jesus meant when he talked about the Kingdom of Heaven expanding like leaven in a lump of bread dough?
It begins with me, but hopefully doesn’t end with me. That’s my personal prayer.
So, yes, I pray. Yes, I ask God for things, sometimes. Yes, I pray for myself, and others. Yes, I pray with words. Yes, I pray with others, and I lead my congregation in prayer.
But, mostly I don’t. Mostly my “personal” prayer is entirely about being with God, in God’s presence. Because, in God’s presence – connected to God’s presence – anything is possible.