Intro: As I worked with my writing coach through the process of authoring Adopting Grace: A Parenting Journey from Fear to Freedom, there was one chapter that was cut from my original manuscript. But it is an important piece of my personal journey. Moving toward a more contemplative stance in my faith practice has at times saved me from chucking the whole thing out of the window. This is part two in a four part series on Becoming More Contemplative.
Before I begin: After a recent exchange with a dear friend about this topic of prayer, I was challenged to examine my perspective more fully. I recently listened to an interview with Eugene Peterson (author of The Message and many other books) on the On Being podcast. He said something that resonated with me. "I don't think it is a very good idea to give people a pattern for prayer. We are all different." Because we all have particular stories and life experiences, I find this statement to hold truth. We are the product of our own specific journey. I hope that each of you can find the spiritual pathway and expression that is best for you. I am working on doing the same.
Not only did my earlier faith practice purport a formulaic approach to parenting, there were formulas offered in other areas as well. Prayer was one such area. Though there was great emphasis on something called “quiet times,” in actuality, these times were not in fact quiet. They were often filled with a great deal of one-sided talking.
I remember learning the prayer acrostic of ACTS at a young age. Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication were all encouraged as part of a well-rounded prayer life. I agree that each of these attitudes is important as we approach God, but for me it became a dogmatic checklist anytime I attempted to engage the divine.
As I observed my own prayers as well as the requests and out loud conversations with God I was privy to, the S of the ACTS acrostic seemed to rule the day. God was most often thought of and approached as the great Santa Claus in the sky. Words most often spoken had to do with the sick, the wayward, and a great desire to get what we wanted in any number of pain filled and problematic situations. We all knew to throw a thanksgiving or two into the mix, but most of us were preoccupied by how God as big sugar daddy in the sky could intervene and give us the desires of our heart.
For some, the more people we could get to pray on our behalf for any given matter, the greater the chance that God would say yes and give into our demands. Prayer requests and organized prayer chain efforts were created. First there were telephone trees. The advent of the Internet and email helped the cause and extended the reach. Social media has enabled an explosion of the places that one single prayer request can travel. Pleadings by some to pass specific requests far and wide to as many people as possible were accompanied by the hope of increasing the odds that God would give in and give us our desired happily ever afters.
I spent time and energy keeping organized prayer notebooks. Inside of these, I would list out specific appeals to God. When I deemed that the matter was settled and that God had acted, I would write down the date and perceived divine intervention. Of course, this exercise was approached from my very own narrow and limited perspective. Looking back, it seems that I was somehow keeping score.
As I took a step back and observed my own as well as others’ behavior in this area, it didn’t add up. People I knew and loved had legions praying for a specific outcome, and they still were disappointed or died. Tragedy, pain, and suffering seemed to be no respecter of “prayer warrior” abilities. Was it all a big waste of breath?
Over time, I became open to new ideas about prayer. The concept that prayer was more about changing the heart and mind of the one doing the praying rather than affecting the actions of God resonated with me. The anxiety and fear that bounced around inside of me was in desperate need of a change. Maybe I could start there. I heard much proclaimed about the peace of God for the true believer, but when I got honest with myself, peace was nowhere to be found for me. Rather than spend a great deal of time and energy laying out Tricia’s wishes and plans for any number of situations, my prayer stance began to pivot toward an attitude of letting go.
One day I was eating lunch with my friend Sarah. We were catching each other up on our kids and life. She shared about one of her daughters and how concerned she was about a certain relationship in this daughter’s life. She spoke of another child and post-college challenges. And then she went into great detail about what she was asking of God on their behalf. I said, “You sure are specific with God.” I used to be as well.
My current posture toward prayer is quite different from the days when I had such an organized system. When a sorrow or a joy or a sickness or a fellow human comes before me or into my thoughts, I both literally and figuratively open up my hands and lift the concern or gratitude up to heaven. I have a greater understanding of the apostle Paul’s admonition to “Pray without ceasing.”[i] I have mostly stopped telling God how I want matters to be handled. I rarely pray about specifics for my children. Praying for them to have an easy life where all things appear to work out seems disingenuous. The truth is that I don’t have a clue what is best for someone else, even if that someone is my child. Pain filled times have ushered in my deepest growth and healing, and I imagine this will be true for my children as well.
I believe that God does indeed know the desires of my heart. But I also understand that there are so many complex perspectives, entanglements, and needs across a world of people that I know nothing of, and these can only be entrusted to one with much deeper and broader vision. That feels like faith.
[i] I Thessalonians 5:17