still learning to pray

Prayer at the Wailing WallI took the day off of work today to spend some time praying and reading. For a long stretch of time, I’ve been moving from one thing to the next, without centering myself with God. I needed to stop everything for a day and spiritually reset myself. I came to the same conclusion that I always come to when I act on my good intentions to spend a long period in prayer: I will never be a prayer expert.

I have always struggled with practicing what is considered a staple of the Christian life. My feelings on prayer have cycled from guilt to apathy to determination and back to guilt once I fail to “get prayer right.” On many days I am barely able to get a word out. Plus, I am not a person who easily establishes routine, so my efforts to appease the god of the daily quiet time have always come up empty.

However, I’ve always had a glimmer of hope. In the back of my mind has always been Paul’s words in Romans 8: “We do not know what to pray for as we ought.” God has not given up in his efforts to help me enjoy prayer (instead of dreading it), so he gets the Spirit involved. “The Spirit himself intercedes for us”, which means our lack of wisdom in prayer is covered up by the Spirit’s ability to step in for us. He “searches hearts” and will find the buried things that I can’t dig up, as long as I hand over my shovel, and ask him to do the excavating.

Jesus was clear about prayer, and if I am to learn anything from anyone on the topic then it would probably be good to start by listening to the Alpha and Omega himself. I almost wish he would have been more vague about it, but he laid it out this way: Ask, then receive. Seek, then find. Knock, then watch the door open.

His disciples wanted to know how to pray, and his instruction was couched in terms of God’s paternal love and care: “What father among you, if his son asks for a fish, will instead of a fish give him a serpent?” (Luke 11:11). God doesn’t throw snakes on the porch when I come knocking for salmon. The answer may not come in the exact form that I had envisioned, but the end result is an answer from God that reveals his relentless love.

It’s not the shape of my words that matter when I pray. It is the posture of my heart. Knowing that I can’t come up with the ideal prayer, I pray knowing that my words––better yet, my entire being––is fully acceptable in God’s sight. I don’t need a formula to pray. What I need is an attitude of trust, believing that God will give the Holy Spirit (himself) to search my heart and bring forth the words.

So I clear my throat and start asking, listening, and learning… again.

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