December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
Precious Heavenly Father
It was my grandfather who first prayed for me, who prayed for our whole family. His prayer was lush and full as his silvery voice and white hair. “Our precious heavenly Father,”he began after we joined hands around the dinner table and shut our eyes. His closing words never varied, “Thank you for the food prepared here, and bless it to our bodies. Amen.” I squinted at my grandmother’s china through my eyelashes, blurring the pink rosebuds and gray leaves.
I knew leaves should be green, but I didn’t know about prayer or God. I wondered what it was like to have a heavenly father, especially a precious one you liked better than a regular father, like mine, who drove a squad car, kept his gun in his sock drawer, and took my sister and me miniature golfing on weekends after the divorce.
My grandfather liked to thank this precious heavenly father, who I figured out was God, for the most ordinary things: that my mom and my sister and my father—before he left us—and I were there for dinner and that we had arrived safely, even though we lived less than an hour away and my father was a good driver and our car had never broken down. My grandfather asked God to bless our travel home, and it seemed to me God would be too busy taking care of the movie stars who lived in nearby Hollywood, or the president, who lived far away, to be interested in traffic on the 405.
Bless and Protect
I was ten the first time I prayed for myself. My mother spent the night at her boyfriend’s apartment. My father was in the next county, patrolling the streets. My little sister was asleep. I was wide awake, frightened by nighttime noises—the refrigerator cycling on and off, car doors slamming in the alley, my dogs padding through the house. My pulse thumped threateningly against my pillow, sounding like footsteps. I needed help. Phoning either of my parents was inconceivable, so I folded my hands over my bony ribs, stared at the ceiling, and called to God, as if summoning a cosmic cop.
“Dear God, bless and protect everyone in the whole wide world,” I said, remembering my grandfather’s prayer, but omitting thank you and moving instantly to my concerns. “Don’t let anyone hurt them or try to hurt them, break in or try to break in, steal anything or try to steal anything. Keep them safe and warm and protected. Amen.”
I didn’t attend church. I didn’t call myself a believer. But I recited my prayer every night through my teens and early twenties with only one variation. After studying the Constitution in eighth grade, I added “and happy” before amen. Even during college when I called myself an atheist, I said my prayer before sleep, a bedtime routine as automatic as brushing teeth.
At twenty-four, I began a journal. “Dear God, today I was baptized. Thank you for finding me.” Necessary words, but so inadequate to capture the experience that led me to church, to the font: I was in the shower one morning, soapy water swirling around my ankles. I felt the last of the shampoo suds drip past my eyes and with it, the water changed. It flowed softer, filling me from inside out with love, pure love. This love wasn’t the zingy, romantic pulsing I’d felt for my husband. It was elemental, the absolute and unconditional love I would later feel for my daughters. This love was expansive, excessive, a gift I hadn’t known I’d asked for.
For reasons I will never know, I had no doubt this love came from God. Later, when I came to know Bible stories, it seemed entirely plausible that if Jesus could turn barrels of water into wine at a wedding reception to please his earthly mother, then his unearthly father could change water to love in my bathroom pipes. Water trickled into my mouth tasting of salt and chlorine. I opened the curtain and reached for a towel feeling like a different person. Raw, alive, claimed.
From then on, I wrote prayers to God scrawling “Help” as often as I penned “Thank you.”
Soon after I joined the church, another new member and I began teaching a Sunday school class. The teacher’s manual provided detailed instructions on how to pray. The book suggested I encourage my students to approach God with the stuff of their daily lives without feeling unworthy and ridiculous. Every other Sunday, I sat with the children in a circle on the carpet, asked them what they were thankful for and what they were worried about, and then we held hands and took turns voicing those very thanks and troubles in short declarative sentences. I liked the simplicity of the prayers of six- and seven-year-olds. They asked for what they wanted and didn’t worry about theology.
One Sunday I found a sheet of poster board tacked on the classroom wall, the Lord’s Prayer written in fat purple marker by the other teacher, who had grown up attending church. “Our Father, who aren’t in heaven,” she wrote. The words didn’t sound right, but I hadn’t read the Bible and had only heard this prayer at weddings. Who was I to say she had it wrong?
In the prayer group, after an hour of sharing, we scooted our chairs into a tight circle, closed our eyes, and began to pray. We held hands so long mine grew numb. I listened to the words. My pastor was eloquent and spoke about love and intimacy and his “dark night of the soul.” The retiree addressed us, not God, but wanted God to fix her husband. The toothless widow with her sunken cheeks gummed her requests, sounding old and defeated. As we made our way around the circle, and it grew closer to my turn, my heart pounded and I felt nervous perspiration prickle under my arms. I didn’t know how to pray aloud among adults. I didn’t know if the rules were different. I kept it short, practical. Please help my daughter’s teething. Please help me be patient with my daughter’s tantrums.
After the meetings, when I was cooking or folding laundry, I worried, carrying the prayer requests as if they were mine to grant or solve. How was the toothless widow ever going to get her dentures to fit? Was the retiree going to leave her husband? What about the house they were building? When I thought about my pastor’s situation, I was filled with dread—was he being punished for being faithful? Would God abandon me, too, one day?
Fifteen years ago, Becky and I became prayer partners. We began tentatively and I, at least, felt awkward sitting on her couch, holding hands and praying. I was used to praying in a church building or at home, where I prayed silently in bed and no one could have known by looking that I wasn’t simply sleeping.
It seemed very public and unnerving to pray together in our homes with all their signs of daily life. Cats jumped in our laps. The phone rang. When my family adopted a dog, we walked the neighborhood. Sterling tugged at his leash, barking wildly at squirrels while Becky and I talked about our children, husbands, parents and siblings, and our church, all the things we cared for most deeply.
Together we wrestled with what it meant to pray. Did we ask God for exactly what we thought we wanted? To heal my father from cancer? To lead her sister-in-law to sobriety? Yes, but we also recognized that our will and our desires weren’t really the point of prayer. Over time I began to release, if only for a few hours, the burdens I had carried for others. I asked less for God to help my sister find a home and more for her to find God.
Like my grandfather, Becky and I offered thanks, coming to prayer with joys and gratitude, choosing the most beautiful words and metaphors we could muster, squeezing each other’s hands tighter and wiping our eyes when words weren’t enough.
As prayer partners and spiritual friends we have been a gift and a laboratory, an exploration of prayer as relationship.
Joys and Concerns
In my religious tradition, we invite prayers of the people. Three Sundays a month for seven years I stood in front of the congregation, closed my eyes, bowed my head, lifted my arms in supplication, and listened to rambling stories, teary requests, mumbled worry, celebration of milestones, and simple thanks. I summarized and repeated the individual joys and concerns so all could hear, and then without self-consciousness or script I lifted the prayers out of our midst into a realm of spirit to which I felt intimately connected. People said to me, “You do such a good job with the prayer time.” But I never saw it that way. It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about doing a good job; it was about invoking the holy and giving our communal will over to it.
I planted my feet and claimed a posture and attitude of prayer. I held holy space. I observed silence and focused on breath (the Hebrew equivalent of spirit). Others joined me. We did not share our lives out of prurient curiosity or even for the sake of community building. We prayed because it was the least and the most we could do for one another. We prayed because we were God’s people, communicating with God in one of the few ways we knew how.
I’ll Pray for You
Sometimes I forget that most people didn’t have the privilege of traveling deep into prayer with a soul friend. I was startled when in my pastoral role I asked, “Would you like to pray about that?” and the answer was a frightened “Now?” or an uncomfortable “That’s OK. It’s not urgent.” I preferred to pray as soon as I was asked to “please pray for me,” to invoke God’s presence and give the concern over to holy love and compassion. But then I remembered the days when I felt awkward and too vulnerable to ask for prayer, let alone join my pastor in it.
So I often left an encounter saying, “I’ll pray for you.” Later, whether before the altar, or in my kitchen, I imagined holding the person in need—and we’re all in need—up to the light of an amorphous and loving God, coming consciously into the presence of the great power for good that is everywhere and ever-present.
When I was ten and composed my first prayer, I wasn’t trained or qualified. I didn’t know the right words. Once I joined a church, I tried to replace my primitive prayer with a better one. I thought if I invoked the precise and proper words, suffering would pass me by. I was wrong. Twenty-five years into my Christian journey I’ve shed expectations that prayer (and my own prayer specifically) should impact outcomes. God does not respond to my requests as if working in a worldwide order fulfillment center. Instead, prayer realigns my priorities and enlarges my view, so that sometimes I can step beyond my limited perspective of pain and sorrow to glimpse the universal love that exists in and around and through and behind and above and despite human suffering.
What was once awkward became something I craved. In prayer, I feel myself both sink and float. I breathe deeply and my body becomes heavy, settled, and relaxed as if I might fall asleep. Another part of me floats and absorbs the sun if I am outdoors, the ticking of Becky’s cuckoo clock if we are on her couch, the hum of the projection system if I am in church, the static of a cell phone connection when I pray long-distance, and I bob in a rhythm, connecting to a present energy.
When I am deeply in prayer basking in God, wrapped in love, words have no importance, no meaning expansive enough. In fact, their very inadequacy is a barrier. It is only when I go beyond words that I can come closer to God.
Holding my prayer partner’s hand or cradling the phone to my ear, in silence we are absorbed into spirit, into a dream state that our clock-driven day always interrupts. Reluctantly we leave our prayer by returning to the world of words. “Our Father,” we say, emphasizing each syllable of this refrain as if we are unfamiliar with language, searching for something lost. Praying for words.
Cathy Warner earned an MFA in creative writing from Seattle Pacific University. She pastored a United Methodist Church for seven years in California and now lives in Bainbridge Island where she hosts a retreat for writers. Warner’s writing has appeared in several anthologies and literary journals. Find her at cathywarner.com or thisorbetter.blogspot.com.