What a Prayer Is

My dad loves to tell the story of the dinner party we hosted for my childhood priest when I was maybe 8 or 12.  My parents’ best friends had joined us, and my dad was cooking steaks.

The conversation was lively, with everyone carrying on while my dad was finishing up dinner preparation.  When suddenly, a burst of flames came from the stove top where the steaks were broiling on the jenn-air, big flames, looking like they might just take us all out.

And as the flames rose, my mom jumped back and shouted out, really loud – Jesus Christ!

The flames immediately disappeared, and we were all left staring at each other. And then eventually, we all were left staring at the priest.   My mom was looking especially red faced, and guilty.

My parents’ friend broke the ice:  “Mary was just saying a little prayer, Father.”

The priest smiled, and said – “well, good thing it worked!”

I grew up saying lots of memorized words we called prayer. Our Father, Hail Mary, grace before meals, Glory Be’s.  At least in public, the act of prayer was not spontaneous, or creative, and it really didn’t have anything to do with responding to inner feelings.

It was scripted and routine, and a lot closer to the practice of reciting multiplication tables and words for the upcoming spelling bee than it was to an authentic expression of my heart.

Which may be why, as an adult, like Mary Oliver, I have often not been exactly sure what a prayer is.

I mean, I have studied about prayer, plenty.  And I’ve done quite a bit of praying, especially now that it turns out to be a big part of my job.

And I have come to some basic understanding, I suppose.  When someone asks me what it means to pray, I offer that prayer is a human act, and about our human lives.

And perhaps as with ritual, prayer is an act best understood as impacting the one or ones who are praying, rather than hoping it will influence or change anything or anyone else.

Prayer helps me know what I should do, helps me align more fully with compassion and gratitude.  You know that bumper sticker, “prayer changes things,” from this perspective, it might better read “prayer changes me.”

I do think this is true.

But also, I’ve started to wonder why it matters what prayer exactly is, and why we put energy into clarifying what we “think” about what’s going on in prayer.  Maybe it changes people.  And, maybe there’s some energetic force that our intentional thoughts and feelings help shape through prayer.

Maybe a bunch of us focusing on feelings of compassion and gratitude and love does change things, and change the world in ways we can’t possibly predict.  Maybe we should conceive of those changes as God.  Or maybe not.

But – does it really matter?  I mean – what difference does what a prayer “is” make in terms of what its practice is able to do, for us, and with us?

Do we have to clarify our intellectual beliefs in order to acknowledge and attend to our vulnerability, our gratitude, our wonder –  to name and claim our vulnerability, our gratitude, our wonder – which by the way, are according to writer Anne Lamott, the 3 types of prayer – help, thanks, and wow?

And when I sit in an interfaith circle in service of a shared concern, and one of my neighbors offers a prayer that seems to have a certain belief system around it (though I really don’t know for sure, I am guessing) in order to join in that prayer, do I need to clarify that my belief system doesn’t really jive with his? That the God he’s invoking isn’t a God I believe in? We can – do all this clarifying. We do – often – all this clarifying.  We can and we do.  Which means we also can and do – a really good job of keeping ourselves a little outside the prayer, a little outside the circle, a little outside the place where prayer’s gifts actually live.

A few years back, when my kids were both super little, 3 and not quite 1, Carri went away for an overnight trip for the first time, which left the kids me and on our own.  I remember so vividly one terrible moment late one night, where Grace just would not go to sleep, and she kept going in to poke Josef, and he would cry terribly, and of course I had a sermon to write, and suddenly I started to feel nauseous.  And then Gracie called out to say her tummy hurt.  And it was getting so late, and I was so tired from having a baby and a toddler, and….well, you can imagine where my mind went next about what I thought was about to happen.

At the time, I was a part of a spiritual direction group with other colleagues, a kind of small group ministry – and we’d been sharing about our attempts at prayer. I’d confessed that while I wanted to try, I didn’t really get it.  So when that moment came with my kids, it seemed pretty clear I should give it a shot.

It was my “make it or break it moment” in my personal prayer practice.  So, I just called out to the empty room I was sitting in the only word that came to mind: Help!

But because I was shy and feeling foolish, it was more like – help. (whispered) Help, help, help help help.   

I’d like to tell you that I felt better after that pleading admission. I’d like to say that help somehow came.  But that wasn’t at all the impact.  Rather than more confident, I felt less.  I felt scared, and alone, and in need.

And on top of that I felt dumb, because here I was an almost real-live minister, and I couldn’t come up with a better prayer than help.  With that one repeated word, in that one difficult moment, my prayer broke down any illusions I had been holding and telling myself, you know the ones – that I could do it all on my own, and perfectly, that I had it all under control.

We may tell ourselves we don’t pray because we’re intellectually opposed, or at least, confused about a prayer is. Or, because we don’t want to assent to a certain notion of God, or God at all, Or because we can’t find the right words, or offer them in the right way. But the greater obstacle to prayer, I believe, is what I came face to face with that night with my kids: prayer is a practice of vulnerability.

There’s just no way to pray with any kind of authenticity without being in touch with those feelings of being unsure, and even kind of foolish.  There’s no way to pray without admitting you’re a person who needs, who feels, feels overwhelmed or scared or amazed.

Thinking back on my parents’ dinner party, we all laughed at the thought that my mom’s accidental expletive in the presence of a holy man could be a prayer.  But these many years later, I have come to realize, that’s exactly what it was – her calling out came from that place of being acutely aware of just how risky and vulnerable it is to be human.

This practice of vulnerability is why prayer is such a potentially powerful practice, and as theologian Karl Barth observes, why it has the potential to change the world. Anything that has the capacity to connect us more fully to our shared vulnerability, and to teach us some resiliency for staying with that awareness, not to run from it, to put up walls – but to take those walls down – has the capacity to connect us in those three important ways I often talk about – connect us to ourselves, to each other, to something greater than ourselves.

Anything that has the power to remind us of how we can’t do what needs to be done on our own – we need help – also has the power to inspire us to reach out more honestly, authentically, and to say more clearly what it is we need, which lo and behold increases the chance that we’ll actually get what we need.

There’s no right or wrong ways to pray – as Ghandi observed, it is less about the words than about the feeling in your heart.  You can just as easily find authenticity in a repeated Our Father, as you can in a spontaneous “help.”

However, for a long time I felt stuck by the feeling of just not knowing what to say, until one of my colleagues, the Rev. Mike Morran, shared a formula he used in praying, one he had learned from a minister at the Unity church.  As I stumbled my way through a prayer practice, I found following this formula helpful and liberating, and so wished someone would have taught it to me earlier.  So in the case that it might be a gift for you, I want to end my reflection today by offering it to you.  It’s a five step formula.

  • Step 1, you begin with what you understand as the Big Reality.  “In this vast and beautiful universe beyond our comprehension,”
  • Step 2, you place yourself in that Big Reality.  So, “Our lives are so small, and yet somehow they matter.  They make a difference.”
  • Step 3, you move to a request, a petition, or an intention.  “May we have the courage and strength to do what we can with the time we have.”
  • Step 4, you give thanks.  “We are so grateful for this life and all its blessings, and all our many partners.

And the last step, you let it all go.  “It” being whatever is getting in the way of you experiencing life’s greater goodness and abundant love.  “We release to the air, to the room, our expectations, our fears, and our desire to control.”

Put all these steps together, you get:

In this vast and beautiful universe beyond our comprehension, 

Our lives are so small, and yet somehow they matter.  They make a difference. 

May we have the courage and strength to do what we can with the time we have.

We are so grateful for this life and all its blessings, and all our many partners. 

We release to the air, to the universe, our expectations, our fears, and our desire to control.

That only the greatest love will fill us up.   Amen.

Try it out.  Let me know how it goes. If you’re really feeling brave, respond to the Facebook post with your prayer.  And also, don’t forget that “Help” works just as well. As does, apparently, “Jesus Christ!”

No matter what words you may use, let them come from your heart. Give voice to that still, small – or loud and passionate voice, within.  Cultivate the courage for such a risky and powerful practice.

Pursue and rejoice in all the many ways we may discover to honor the precious reality of this gift of life – Life that just keeps on with its blessings and heartbreaks, life that just keeps giving us grace.

Amen, and blessed be.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
This entry was posted in Personal Stories, Sermons and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s