In the long run, prayer is not about formulas, lists and methods. It’s about being with God and God being with us in freedom and love.
I admit it. In the tradition I come from, I am a terrible pray-er. Try as I might, I’ve never been able to sustain a prayer list and formulas fall apart in no time at all.
Lists of things that I need to do in a day or week work for me. Write it down, get it done, check it off. That I can do. But keep a prayer list to pray through each day? Somehow that gets tedious, monotonous and boring very quickly; and, so it gets laid aside and ignored.
While I greatly admire those who can do it and who can maintain that discipline ... I’ve struggled with it.
However, the tradition that shaped my early faith and life in Christ is one big on formulas, lists and patterns. Which means that with each failed attempt at that kind of prayer, I have felt progressively more guilt.
Over the years my prayer life has taken on a shape and form that is different than that way I was taught it should be. It’s become less about a list of stuff that I pray about and more like an ongoing conversation with One who is with me and near always. It’s not so formulaic, with steps to follow and patterns to abide by. And, I confess, I’ve felt guilty about the difference.
Sometimes prayer for me is a deep, inner sense that my Father is talking to me in quiet hushed tones, reminding me of His love, calling me His beloved child.
Sometimes I feel like I hear God laughing at the stupid things I do or think or say, and all I can do is say, “I get it.” And I find myself laughing along.
Sometimes, when there’s a glimpse of beauty or a moment of wonder amidst God’s creation, it comes as a quiet “thank you” followed by a whispered “you’re welcome.”
Sometimes it’s reassurance of His concern and provision.
Sometimes it’s just a nudge to do or say something – an impression that I sense of God’s still, small voice speaking to my heart.
Sometimes it’s pouring out what I’ve been worried about, frustrated over or afraid of ... and sensing that my good and loving Father is listening ... that He knows and that He cares.
Often, it’s first thing in the morning, as fresh thoughts come into my heart and mind, things which will totally reorient a sermon or lesson I’m working on or reset the direction for the day.
Recently I came across an incredibly freeing insight from the Baptist pastor and teacher Daniel Vestal in his book, Being the Presence of Christ: A Vision for Transformation. Vestal says:
“It’s not enough to read about prayer or study the lives of the saints or have theological conversation about spiritual practices. We learn to pray by praying. Prayer is both an act and an attitude. We pray in response to the reality of the Triune God by paying attention or by being attentive. God is always present and attentive to us, always pursuing, blessing, and loving us. God is always reaching out to offer grace and goodness to us. God is inexhaustible and unrelenting in pure presence. Prayer is then our attentiveness to God. It enables us to live in this presence and to engage in actions that keep us responsive and attentive. We often speak of prayer as conversation, communication, or communion with God, and this is true. But for me, the word prayer describes what Brother Lawrence called “the practice of the presence of God.”
Prayer is our attentiveness to God. That’s what struck me like a lightning bolt. “Yes! That’s it!” Someone else experiences what I’ve found myself learning to do and called it “prayer.” Seeing that, I felt a surge of new freedom to pray as I can, not as I can’t.
Maybe that’s what prayer is meant to be all along—an ongoing conversation, back-and-forth with the One who loves me and who I love in response: being attentive to our God who is with us, who lives inside of His own by His indwelling Holy Spirit, who is closer than our next breath. Maybe, just maybe, prayer really is about being with God and God being with us in freedom and love.