Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.
I can never figure out why people get so excited about rules for prayer. There are prayer forms and prayer formulas, prayer rubrics and prayer mnemonics, structures for prayer and prayers to memorize while observing certain postures and facing a certain way. It’s all a bit Dr. Seuss-y for my tastes. Not that there isn’t any value in learning more about various traditions, or even in exegeting Scriptures like the Lord’s Prayer to better learn how God wants us to communicate with Him (“These are the words people have successfully said to God without getting burned up,” Phyllis Tickle says), but sometimes I think we over-complicate things.
In Dylan Thomas’ poem Fern Hill–one of my favorites, containing one of the most complex structures in a modern poem–there is a moment where he completely breaks his structure and bends his own rules. I love it. It’s like he was writing, up in some lofty place, trying to make the number of syllables fit his construction and trying to say what he meant in the form he meant to use. Then he just said: Screw it. I’d rather write a beautiful poem than a mediocre poem beautifully.
I feel like that about prayer. It’s so hard to pray “right,” even if you’ve spent most of your adult life teaching others how to do it.
When Carmel and I were dating, I used to write her poetry. (Please don’t tell anyone, I’m a little embarrassed by that [and some other things] now.) I used to try so hard to make these poems clever, but I don’t think, even with her background in English literature, she ever appreciated the poems themselves. She just fell in love with the poet.
When Peter miraculously walked out onto the water and then began to sink because his faith was weak, he prayed, Lord, help! What an honest prayer. No pretense. No flowery language. Just help! When I need help from God–courage, strength, hope, perseverance, grace, patience, or a million other things for which my resources are shallow and His are great–sometimes all I can pray is Peter’s prayer. And that’s ok. It’s ok for you to call God and ask for help.
Sometimes even that feels impossible, though. Like when we know that the reason we need help is because of a mess we’ve created. Or when we know that the help we want is not likely the help He’ll give (Lord, help no one find out what I’ve done comes to mind here…). Or when we’re still sinning, still living in rebellion and refusing to find a place of repentance before God and don’t mean to do so any time soon, but we need His help anyway.
In those moments I like to imagine God as my earthly father, Gordon. I know I have to ask him for gas money, but I also know I’ve been a jerk. I ask him for the money, and I see him frown–puzzling in his mind the best way forward, the way of grace and mercy but also the way of maturity and development. While he’s frowning, and before he can answer, I always cave in. I tell him I’m sorry and that I’ve been a jerk. I tell him why I did what I did and why it felt right at the time, though I always knew it was wrong. I tell him it feels horrible to ask him for money and that I feel stupid and ashamed of myself and of the situation. And then I find myself not caring whether I get the gas money. There’s such relief, and such closeness with dad then. I feel like so long as he’ll hug me and hold onto me, I probably don’t need to go anywhere anyway.
Dad wouldn’t always help me the way I wanted him to, but I was always glad I got his help. And I think it’s like that with God, too. It’s better to ask for His help than to keep dancing around stuck full of pins and needles, worrying about two problems: the thing you need help with, and the God whose help you need.
Every Sunday morning, before I get up to preach, I go through this same rigmarole. I know I’ve got to teach, but I feel totally inadequate to do so. I’m prepared, and I can speak in front of people, so my inadequacies aren’t skill-related. They’re sin-related. I know that most Sundays I do not feel holy enough, gracious enough, or spiritually-minded enough to get up and preach without getting angry, or feeling like I know what everybody’s issues are and how best to fix them, or giving myself permission to be extra caustic because that’s the only way “they” will listen, or going off on some rabbit trail because I’m bored with what I’ve prepared and have said it twice already. Every Sunday as I spend time wracking my brains for stray thoughts and my heart for stray desires, I come close to a panic attack because I know that what I’m about to do matters so much to God and to His people. I’m terrified to ask for His help because I know He will bring up other stuff that I’ll have to deal with. But I always ask, and He always answers, and it’s perhaps the most spiritually formative time of my week.
I think most of us pray this kind of prayer because it’s the kind we find helpful. We pray without form, clumsily, but honestly. It’s like we’re driving our prayers without a steering wheel, foot hammering the gas pedal, holding on for dear life hoping we don’t crash.
Maybe our velocity comes from anxiety, or guilt, or passion. Whatever it is, once we get going, it’s hard to stop.
And that’s ok.
Because God isn’t in love with our poetry. He loves us amateur poets.
If you do want to work on your communication skills with God, like the two you of are in marital therapy and you plan on doing some exercises together so you don’t fight as much or as often, then I suggest you take prayers in the Bible and re-work them to be your own. Re-write the Lord’s Prayer in your own language, word-for-word, using your own words. When Christ says, “Our Father, who is in Heaven,” you say something like, “Dear Dad, out there in the universe, watching over me in the playground of the world.”
Try it with the 23rd Psalm (The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want…) or with Christ’s prayers on the cross (Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do…). Keep a journal of your re-written prayers; or, even better, write them in the margins of your Bible next to the originals. I’ve always been a fan of illuminated manuscripts; I like to see the Bible as a string of replies between myself and my Father. And writing in your Bible means you have one less thing to lose.
The point is that the Bible teaches us to pray without confusing us. There is no calculus, no doctrinal statement, no confusing conjunctions. When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he said: when you pray, pray like this. When you want to learn to pray, find a prayer in the Bible (there’s a few to choose from) and pray like that.
I’ve re-written and re-prayed Lord, help! in every conceivable fashion.
Lent is a time for prayer, a time to ask for God’s help, a time to thank Him for His sacrifice and to sacrifice ourselves for Him.
This post is from Seasons of Christian Spirituality.