“Did you say your prayers?” These are the words my mother spoke to me almost daily at bedtime. Little did I know how much those simple words limited my understanding of prayer. As a child, bedtime prayer was a repetitious recitation of “Now I lay me down to sleep” followed by a litany of “God bless” each and every member of the family by name. Prayers said before and after meals, prayers at church and prayers at school were equally formulaic and repetitious.
My childhood understanding of prayer stuck with me (and kept me stuck) for many years. I was in my 30’s before I ever heard a spontaneous prayer spoken in a church setting, learned of centering prayer, or first heard an expression attributed to St. Augustine, “He who sings prays twice.” Despite being introduced to these other concepts of prayer, I continued to struggle in my prayer life, especially with St. Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing.” (1 Thes 5:16-18) How is that even possible? I still believed unless I was repeating the formulaic prayers I learned as a child, I was not praying.
In my late 40’s, I was praying a version of that childhood “God bless” litany daily for many people I knew and many more I had never met who had been impacted by Hurricane Katrina. Then one day I heard a priest in his homily quote C.S. Lewis: “(Prayer) doesn’t change God. It changes us.” The priest went on to say that say that God can only answer prayers through us. I had been so preoccupied with telling God what needed to be done (as though God did not already know) that I could not hear God ask, “What are you going to do to bless them?”
Then another passage from Scripture surfaced, this one from James 2:15-16. “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it?” My prayer had to be more than words or thoughts directed at God. I also needed to give God time to respond, and I needed to listen for God’s response and act on it.
With that insight, my litany led me to sit with someone I had never met before and listen to her story of the hurricane’s impact on her family as we scrubbed dried mud off of her wooden furniture. Prayer was standing speechless at the sight of both the destructive power of nature and the resilience of nature. Prayer led me to rebuild porch steps rotted by flood waters, paint new sheetrock, clean up storm debris, bleach mold off of house siding and mix assorted colors of discounted paint to create a beautiful new color for that siding, all while listening to dozens of stories of things lost and blessings found. And in those experiences I realized God had blessed me, too.
Jan L. Richardson, in her book In the Sanctuary of Women, says this about prayer: We do well to remember that the practice of prayer must do more than reinforce what we already know and believe. Instead, the act of praying prompts us to question, to move beyond familiar habits and patterns and routines, and to imagine possibilities beyond what we can see. Prayer draws us onto a threshold that lies between what we have known and what God may yet be calling us toward.
The words we pray are important, but when we let the words transform us, our prayer becomes life-giving. When we can look at all we encounter through God’s eyes and treat all we encounter with reverence, our prayer continues “without ceasing”. When our prayer leads us to smile at a stranger, show patience in response to someone’s anger or frustration, take time to appreciate the beauty of creation, visit the home bound or those in hospitals and nursing homes, keep vigil at the side of someone who is dying, care for our common home, comfort the grieving, share the joy of a child at play, feed the hungry (whether they are family or strangers), teach a child to read, help someone carry a heavy load, attentively listen to someone’s story or do any of a thousand things that show God’s love and care for everyone and everything, those encounters have the power to transform us even more that the words we pray.
When you “say your prayers” today, reflect on how God is calling you forward through your prayer. What is God asking of you in response to your prayers? Or as one of my favorite hymns, The Summons, asks, “Will you let (God) answer prayer in you and you in (God)?”