On Prayer Shirley Macemon
Luke 11:1-13 July 25, 2010
This week I had the privilege of working with a group of amazing people. The Lodestar Kids’ camps: Super Camp for Middle school youth, and Super Kid Camp for elementary kids. About 70 kids, 7 Leaders in training, 12 counselors and 6 program staff. We were from as far away as Arizona and Hawaii, and as close (to Lodestar, that is) as Jackson.
In the past, I’ve directed Super Kid Camp and led the Leader in Training program. I’ve settled into a group of activities that make me the Crazy Craft lady, Camp Pastor, (only) fire builder, and campfire song leader. The adult heading up the Leader in Training program continues to use some of my materials for these youth learning to lead. They include prayer journaling. This material starts with a scripture passage, then asks the youth to think about specific aspects of the passage, then finally to write – as a journal – a prayer in one of several forms. Sometimes that form was a “Dear God” letter. One suggestion was to write out our thoughts as a dialogue with God. Another suggestion included drawing.
Roberta Bondi, a church historian and one of my favorite authors, writes a good deal on prayer. (In fact, since she is primarily a church historian, she writes A LOT on prayer!) Bondi points out several obstacles to prayer – but one stands out as really resonating with my own experience. Often, I think, we are intimidated by prayer. In liberal United Methodist settings, we don’t talk about prayer a lot. Growing up, I got the feeling that there is a “right” and “wrong” way to pray. Bondi (helpfully) goes on to say those rights and wrongs come off as “oughts” and “shoulds” shaping our relationship to God in terms of duty: How we “ought” to think of who God is, and how we “should” be perfect as we come to God in prayer.
One of the favorite activities of Super Kid Camp over the past couple of years is an activity that takes simple spring clothespins, challenges the kids to write “blessing” words on them, and give them away. This year, not unlike other years, words like friendship and love are used over and over again. The kids and the counselors talked a lot about friendship – not only with eachother, but also with God.
Bondi points out that a key aim of prayer is to grow in friendship with God:
If this is the case, then let's consider what constitutes a friendship, and then try to pray in accordance with that. One of the things about friends is that they want the same thing for each other. Not that they necessarily both want ice cream at the same time, but that the well-being of one person is tied to the well-being of the other. This doesn't just mean that God wants what we want, but that we want what God wants out of friendship for God. That is a basis for intercessory prayer. If God's deepest longing is for the well-being of the world, then God wants the wellbeing of Bosnia, and we pray for that out of friendship with God.
Another thing about friends is that they speak their minds to each other. When friends don't tell each other what they have on their minds, it destroys the friendship. This is another grounds for intercessory prayer. It doesn't matter that God already knows everything. For the sake of friendship, God needs us to say what we want. Whether we get it or not is a different matter. You don't always get what you ask for from your friend -- maybe most of the time you don't get it -- but you need to say what it is you need and want.
Several years ago, Carol Carter was our Camp Pastor. She led morning devotions each day, and had a wonderful and gentle way that led the campers – young and old – to raise their concerns in prayer. For Carol, every topic was a valid topic for a prayer request. Two sisters dependably raised their mouse and hamster in prayer; also their father who was caring for their pets while they were gone. We reliably had the camp, nature, trees, food, and other pets held up in prayer. And one evening, one of our young boys only got part of his prayer request out before he fled the campfire in tears: He wanted to pray for the soul of his mother, who died almost exactly a year before. His sharing was like turning on a faucet: The same sisters lost their mother two years ago, one camper’s grandfather is fighting pancreatic cancer, and another lost a cousin to the same disease. One raised his parents “who fight too much and might get a divorce”. After lights out later that evening, there wasn’t a dry eye among the staff: many of us realized that our own lives are so much easier than those of the children in our care – that we haven’t had to face the life issues these children deal with each day.
What struck me about that particular evening was that we had been successful in creating a place where these children felt safe enough to voice their deep feelings and concerns to God. And that by being able to voice these deep feelings, their lives were becoming a prayer.
Often our understanding of prayer is too narrow. We exclude from our prayer life powerful experiences because they do not fit our definition of what prayer is or what prayer is supposed to be. I define prayer as any activity that nurtures our relationship with God. If reading Scripture brings you closer to God, that is prayer. If having tea with a friend nurtures your relationship with God, that is prayer. If sitting still in a summer garden feeds your soul, that is prayer. Listening to music, teaching Sunday School, serving in a soup kitchen -- all can become prayer.
At some level, most of these kids know that prayer is not a magic bullet: Prayer doesn’t make everything turn out “alright” as defined by our own wants and needs. And many knew all too well that although prayer helped, but it doesn’t immediately put us at peace.
Bondi writes: Like a lot of people, I had thought that if you turned everything over to the Lord, you would be at peace. So I had expectations about prayer that ran quite contrary to what else was going on in my life. One of the important things I learned… is that prayer is a lifelong process. Friendship with God is the goal, not the starting point.
In her role as professor of Church History, Bondi makes daily prayer a requirement for her class on the Early Church. The Desert Mothers and Fathers spent most of their life in prayer; she is convinced that you can’t understand them unless you try to come at things from their angle – which includes prayer.
“ I ask everybody to include three elements in their prayer. One is some portion of scripture every day…. The other part of their prayer is conversation with God in which they really speak their minds. We talk about the things that make it difficult to speak our minds to God, especially about being afraid of God. The third part of their prayer is silence: just sitting in God's presence without saying anything or having any expectations of God or of themselves. I call it kitchen table prayer. Just spending time with God as we spend time with a friend without talking.” Prayer is a pretty ordinary, everyday kind of thing. Yes, it has its high moments, but a lot of prayer is just a matter of showing up.
I’m convinced that her three elements are a healthy way to learn to be in relationship with God. They don’t take a specific “formula” to be right, or an attitude, or posture – eyes open, or eyes closed, hands up, or hands folded. The important thing, the MOST important thing is just showing up. Whether your concern is your hamster or mouse, world peace or family health, you’ve got to show up. Like the relationship that our campers are developing with God, showing up makes all the difference.