By nature, I’m an orator. I think out what I’m going to say, not only so as to make sure it makes sense to the person not privy to all of the connections in my own mind that support what I’m trying to explain but also so that it sounds good. I delight in language and all that it can do when used by someone who knows what she’s doing. Now, that all sounds horrendously arrogant, and it may well be, but what that translates into is an abhorrence of simply “shooting from the hip” when trying to speak of important things.
And it doesn’t, in some ways, get a whole lot more important than prayer.
It’s been interesting, this Lent, to see the many places prayer and references to prayer are popping up in my life. Of course, many of them are always there, but when you focus on something (like I’m doing for this series), you see it everywhere. One of the places I’ve stumbled on the idea of prayer is in reading Anne of Green Gables, a book I somehow missed as a kid. Anne, an incredibly extroverted and imaginative red-headed orphan, comes to live with the stern-but-secretly-soft Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. Marilla, being of course a Good Christian Woman, has Anne say her prayers—but, Anne never having really been around Good Christian People, has no clue what she’s doing.
“You must say your prayers while you are under my roof, Anne.”
“Why, of course, if you want me to,” assented Anne cheerfully. “I’d do anything to oblige you. But you’ll have to tell me what to say for this once. After I get into bed I’ll imagine out a real nice prayer to say always. I believe that it will be quite interesting, now that I come to think of it … Well, I’m ready. What am I to say?”
“You’re old enough to pray for yourself, Anne,” she said finally. “Just thank God for your blessings and ask Him humbly for the things you want.” (Anne of Green Gables, pp. 50-51)
I’m not overly fond of this book (though I’m only on page 121), but I had a deep connection to that scene. I, too, want to know all of the right words to say. I want a handy guide to how to make God listen to me—I had one, actually, for the brief few months I was part of a group at church who would stay after the final service and pray with any who needed it. One of the group organizers gave me a sheet of prompts for how to pray in this direction or another.
It was, as far as it went, very nice. And the one time I had a woman come ask me for prayer, I completely forgot it. I have no idea what I said in that prayer, because whatever was coming out of my mouth was absolutely an attempt to cover the alarm-bell panic in my head that I was trying to pray about someone I’d never met with someone I’d never met to Someone I really don’t engage that often in front of others. It was like public speaking—your first time out, you can’t just go off the cuff. (Well, I can’t; I need practice. Lots of practice.) But can you practice prayer? Seems a little artificial.
One of my favorite stories in the Gospels is in Luke, when Jesus hands out what is now called The Lord’s Prayer. Its cousin is part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew, and that’s where we get most of the feel and language of the prayer, but the one in Luke is my favorite because it’s much more human (I think). At the end of Luke 10, Jesus & Co. have A Moment with Mary and Martha and Jesus tells everybody that Mary “got it” in terms of ditching housework to soak up His teaching. Some time apparently passes between that and the beginning of chapter 11, because then Jesus is “in a certain place praying,” as He was wont to do. The disciples, knowing that it was a habit of His and being mindful of Jesus’ praise to Mary about learning from Him, say, “Hey, Rabbi? Could You teach us how to do that? John taught his people.”
I love this so much, both because it’s “give us the words so we know we’re doing it correctly” and “the other kids got help.” A part of me envisions it as the guys pushing each other to ask the question and Thomas being the one who finally says, “Look, will You tell us what we’re supposed to say?” And I know, I know, there’s a whole tradition of being taught prayers and the Jewish aspect of prayer practice and so on, but for my point right now I just love to pieces that fact that they wanted a script, too. Jesus had the red telephone to God; perhaps He could give them the phone number.
And He did give them something to work from, to be sure. But we’re never meant to say only one thing to God, and we’re for damn sure not meant to say it beautifully all the time. The tricky thing about an omniscient God is that He knows all of the thoughts we have in the formulation anyway, so trying to speak smartly to Him is a bit useless—like having your dressing room onstage and then expecting the audience to believe you’re really that character when they just saw you go through your quick change.
But as much as I love to poke fun at the disciples and myself for wanting that script, I appreciate the hell out of the fact that Jesus gave one. Sometimes—often—I have no idea what to say. So I go back to that prayer, or prayers from medieval mystics, or Church fathers, or Victorian missionaries, or whatever. The beauty of a Church with a lot of history is that you get to borrow from the storehouse of generations of people trying to figure out how to have this conversation.
That’s pretty helpful. If you have any prayers you gravitate toward, Reader, I’d love to know them. I’m always looking for a good script.
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. (Matthew 6:5, NIV)