That was the night I learned how not to pray
God does what God wants to any way
And I never did tell my mother, I kept it from my sisters and all my brothers
That was the night I learned how not to pray
Chorus to song by Iris Dement
When I heard this song I took a different meaning than when my wife heard it. I’m not sure what meaning she took away – she was always more of a concrete literalist. When I heard the song (it’s about a little girl praying for her younger brother who has fallen down the stairs and is rushed to the hospital – he doesn’t make it) I understand the lyrics to be about someone growing up and deciding that prayer isn’t about trying to tell God what to do. I think my wife thought the song was about getting mad at God and giving up on prayer. There are a lot of people I know who have gotten mad at God. Many more who have given up on praying. I’m not sure why I haven’t.
As I’ve grown up, praying has changed in many ways for me. It has become a much larger territory to explore. It has kept me alive and kicking during times when I was ready to lie down and never get up again.
During my whole life of faith has involved prayer. Here’s what prayer has never accomplished for me:
- I never had all my problems solved (not even most of them!)
- Financial problems always remained – although I did often get mysterious money in the mail – but it was never more than just enough for that moment
- My difficulties and situations at the different jobs I had were never easy or solved just like that
- My wife eventually died from cancer that had moved into her brain – countless people prayed for her to be healed
Prayer has always been a method of survival for me. It’s a practice that keeps my center, my sanity, a longer perspective. Praying keeps my feet on the floor and my head above the waves. Quick fixes, even long solutions are external and eventually pass away. Instead, prayer is the path I take through each obstacle. Sometimes things get fixed, sometimes they don’t. Prayer is the method of transformation that is taking place in my eternal life.
I have prayed in all kinds of ways:
- laying on the ground with my face to the floor
- holding hands with others
- out loud in front of a group
- when hearing a great song (usually in the car, alone)
- nowadays, each time I walk out of Starbucks
- alone on a long walk
- in writing
- with someone on the phone
- while writing on the wall of a room
- when worshiping with the church
- laying hands on someone
- joining with others to compose a single prayer out loud
“When I pray for another person, I am praying for God to open my eyes so that I can see that person as God does, and then enter into the stream of love that God already directs toward that person.” ― Philip Yancey
Praying is a private activity. There is also a very public dimension. I pray with others all the time. I pray on behalf of others out loud. Sometimes just one or two come together and pray about personal matters. Praying is a social activity as well as an intimate relationship with God.
I know that prayer isn’t a
- private internal meditative practice
- a religious ritual
- some way that I have to earn God’s love and favor
Instead, for me, prayer has always been centered around relationship. One that I have been building with God and a way I can help people I know and love. Praying for other people (intercession) is wonderful way to build relationships and to keep myself from being too stuck in my own problems.
“We never know how God will answer our prayers, but we can expect that He will get us involved in His plan for the answer. If we are true intercessors, we must be ready to take part in God’s work on behalf of the people for whom we pray.” ― Corrie ten Boom
Why have I never stopped praying?
- I have always heard words of comfort, guidance, correction and assurance when I pray
- Because I have grown up with a lonely soul and needed someone to talk to
- It seems the only way for me to maintain this essential relationship in my life
- When I pray, I receive answers – I know that God is listening and responding to me
“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” ― Soren Kierkegaard
In an American society that has taught us all to want results now and to take charge of our own lives – prayer is usually a last resort. It’s not a habit that reflects how we’ve been raised to approach life. The practice of prayer demonstrates dependence, waiting, and following. Praying shapes our self into another direction, a different way of thinking.
Each crisis I have faced in life – betrayals by closest friends, the bottom falling out of my life’s work, cancer destroying the only person who loved me – so far, I have survived these only because I was able to pray. I was never alone in any of these terrors. I didn’t know how to escape, but I knew I wasn’t alone. God keeps walking me through the darkness.
“No one can believe how powerful prayer is and what it can effect, except those who have learned it by experience. Whenever I have prayed earnestly, I have been heard and have obtained more than I prayed for. God sometimes delays, but He always comes.” ― Martin Luther