The other day I sat down to pray. I don’t say this to make myself seem especially virtuous. I have the added inducement to pray because it’s part of my job description. Although I do recall the story of one pastor praying in the office and later hearing the complaints that congregants found him regularly asleep at the desk — “he just sits there with his eyes closed and his head down.”
So I was praying the other day, and as is prone to happen when praying, my mind wandered; I spilled a little coffee so I had to clean it up and then I was writing down some thoughts from the daily lectionary reading and realized that my email was open and saw one alert pop up on the computer screen and it only took two seconds to answer so I had that psychic benefit of having accomplished something tangible which is a feeling that prayer doesn’t often engender but I was about to close my eyes when another Outlook notice appeared and told me that my calendar had allowed only 15 more minutes for my devotional time and I needed to start working through the pile of things on my desk after that so I buckled back down, really closed my eyes this time, and then felt the buzz in my pocket which was a text telling me that I forgot to switch out the car seats and would I mind doing that when I came home from lunch and I said OK I would and put my phone on silent before seeing another reminder pop up for an event that for some reason wasn’t happening for a few days and OK I get it so I put my phone in a drawer and closed my eyes again and unsurprisingly my mind wandered a little from the task at hand to a schedule for the day, obligations for school pickup, after-work errands and an idea for a sermon I just had to write down before I could really get out some deep breathing, a few perfunctory words and an amen. Mission accomplished. Prayer offered.
Maybe this has happened before to you too. When we pray often we feel good about it — look at me, I’m actually doing it! And then the thousands of distractions — our emails, our phones, our wandering minds — conspire to get through it as quickly as possible so that we have checked one item off the list for the day. Maybe this has happened to you that you have stopped praying altogether because what’s the point? What’s the point when nothing happens and you get anxious about what feels like the deep inadequacy of your soul before the silence of God? What’s the point when something meant to be holy and profound becomes pointless and rote — another distraction in a world full of them?
Or maybe you never really started — because who even prays any more? Who has the time? Or the attention? Or the expectation that anything will happen? The idea of talking in your head seems foolish. At least the mindfulness exercises encouraged by your work-based health care plan promote neurological benefits that boost your professional productivity, we think.
The notable pastor and writer Eugene Peterson said that every once in a while people came to him wondering how they might learn how to pray. His prescription was always the same; come to worship on Sunday. That is where you learn. That is where you learn that the God who speaks to us also listens; that God actively engages in each human life — forgiving, helping, challenging, redeeming; and that this work is often accomplished through prayer.
It’s also where you learn, with the help of a grounded and rooted tradition, that there are other people who have come before you who have had to ask, “Lord, teach us to pray,” and have received answers along the way. The answers are in worship books and prayer journals; they’re printed in bulletins, sung in hymns; they appear in the Psalms, with hearts poured out in gratitude and penitence and worry and praise. The tradition doesn’t leave us alone to mumble our emotional states into the void. We have well-walked paths that offer a destination to God, paths that can teach you how to pray — in words or in silence. It doesn’t have to be that difficult. The writer Anne Lamott is well known for condensing it all into three short words: help, thanks and wow.
So I was praying the other day beside my daughter’s hospital bed. There were no distractions this time: no respite from the fear and the deep loneliness that stalks behind darkened rooms and privacy curtains — only the soul open before God. Sometimes the words were muddled, half-remembered phrases of Scripture. Sometimes they were honest pleas. Sometimes they were helpless cries. Sometimes they were irreverent frustrations. “Lord, teach us to pray.” That’s one prayer God always answers.
Later that day one word sufficed: thanks.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.