(I was going to write on Ecclesiastes this evening, but became depressed halfway through, so I shall save that for another day.)
I listen to country music. My sisters will tell you this is my greatest fault. About a year ago, I hated it: the sound, the lyrics, the accent (I was obviously an idiot). But something flipped, and its all I listen to. Now, I love the sound, the dropped g’s, and the love stories I hear whenever I turn on the radio or my ipod and sing along. It makes me smile, especially the low, deep, manly voices saying “darlin’.” Sigh.
A few weeks ago, I heard a song by Rodney Atkins that gave me pause. About halfway through, he sings:
Then this side of bedtime later that night,
Turning on my son’s Scooby Doo nightlight,
He crawled out of bed and he got down on his knees.
He closed his little eyes, folded his little hands,
And spoke to God like he was talking to a friend.
I remember praying like this. When it was the most simple thing in the world. My dad even taught me a special prayer, which I’m sure many of you know, that goes:
Now I lay me down to sleep and pray the Lord my soul to keep. And if I die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.
Hearing it now, it is a little bit creepy and pretty vague. But as a child, I was proud to pray that prayer. I was proud I knew it. I would close my eyes and fold my hands and say my little prayer every night before I went to sleep. Eventually, I grew out of that prayer and learned how to ask God from help, how to give Him praise, how to thank Him for the things He had given me. I learned to make my prayers my own. And then I slowly forgot.
Over the years I’ve forgotten how to do a lot of things in my relationship with Jesus. Maybe it would be better to say that I didn’t try to remember. But prayer, from about the time I was ten, has always been difficult. Not that is was difficult to think of things to say thank you for or things to ask for, but it was hard to finish a prayer. My mind would take off halfway through, and I would end up thinking about what people like to eat for breakfast in London (and this is no exaggeration). My mind works a mile a minute and sometimes it can carry me away in distant lands and thoughts until eventually I would just drift off to sleep (if was night time) or forget that I was even praying to begin with.
While in high school, my youth group went to a district youth conference made up of other churches in the area. We listened to sermons, worshipped, fellowshipped, and attended classes and workshops. One of the classes was about prayer. The speaker discussed how the Bible presents the idea of prayer. He mentioned that there isn’t Scriptural support for praying with our eyes closed, hands folded, on your knees before you go to sleep. Jesus, in Matthew 6, says, “when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret” (verse 6). Our prayers are to be private, our personal time with God. They aren’t not meant to be paraded in front of everyone.
This was very freeing to hear, like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I didn’t have to pray like everyone else. I could pray the way I felt I needed. I didn’t have to do it the way my dad showed me.
Prayer, for me, has always been defined as a conversation between God and I. In my prayers I talk to Him, tell Him my troubles. Sometimes I would remember to give thanks, but most days I would forget to listen. A couple years ago, one of my sisters asked me how often I pray. I thought about it for a moment and asked what exactly she meant by praying. She said talking to God. I answered that I did that everyday. And it was true. I would randomly tell God things throughout the day. It’s a bit like talking to myself, but minus the craziness. We are told that the Holy Spirit dwells within us, and I saw no reason not to have conversations with Him while driving or studying or doing my laundry. I talked to Him like a friend, and I was okay with it.
God, however, I’m sure was not as pleased with the arrangement. There have been horrible moments over the last few years when He has literally brought me to my knees in prayer. Two summers ago, I was waiting to hear from the final graduate school to which I had applied. The other programs I applied to hadn’t accepted my applications, so this was my last chance at graduate level studies. And I wanted it. I wanted it something fierce. I absolutely love school, academics, and learning. I find pleasure in it, and I was good at it. And even though my undergraduate degree was completed, I wasn’t ready to be done. There was more to learn, and I wanted to discover it.
School has always come easy to me. God most definitely blessed me in that area. But somewhere along the way, I believe I forgot that. My grades were my accomplishment, my hard-won achievements, my crowning glory. (I was a book nerd, in case you were wondering.) I praised my skills, but not the one who gave them to me. So when it came to grad school, I looked at it as something I deserved. Something I was owed.
But that letter of acceptance didn’t come on the date it was supposed to. Nothing did. I was an absolute wreck. There was probably a cloud of despondence that followed me around, but I tried to ignore it. Then a few weeks after I found out my friend had been accepted to the same program, I finally broke down. Like most women, I had my emotional collapse in the shower. (It really is the best place to cry.) There I was, kneeling on the floor of the bathtub, shivering and sobbing, and started to pray fervently. I pleaded with God. I asked Him to bring me strength, to give me peace, and to bring me the answer I needed. I told Him I wanted to go to school, but I asked for His guidance. And then I started to say please over and over and over again. I’m not exactly sure what I was asking for at that point, but God knew, because “your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matt 6:8).
Apparently, God knew I needed to wait another week for an answer (which turned out to be positive). He wanted me to lean on Him, to learn to give Him the power and control. But most of all, I think that He wanted me to relearn how to pray. He wanted me to see that the “prayer” I thought I was engaging in, the conversations I was having with God, were my way of trying to turn something difficult into something easy. I wasn’t getting anything out of those prayers, at least not spiritually. I wasn’t growing in my relationship with God. And I wasn’t having a conversation. I wasn’t listening. I was rambling on and on about nothing. There was no intentionality in my prayer. There was no direction.
I’m still learning how to pray. How to approach God and allow the rest of the world and distractions to fall away. I’m understanding that while I don’t necessarily have to close my eyes, fold my hands, and bow my head, such things speak to intention. But most of all, I’m realizing there isn’t any formula on the perfect prayer (though no one can really dispute the Lord’s Prayer since Jesus invented it). So some nights, its enough for me to say, “Dear God, thank you. Amen.” Sometimes that simple prayer means more than hundred flowery words. Because God, our all-knowing Father in heaven, knows just what we need and what we mean. We may not always get the things we want or ask for, but God will provide us with what is most necessary. He will always give us the right answer, whether you ask on your knees or in the shower.
And some more country music just for fun…
Be a best friend, tell the truth
And overuse "I love you"
Go to work, do your best
Don’t outsmart your common sense
Never let your prayin’ knees get lazy
And love like crazy. (Lee Brice, “Love Like Crazy”)