I remember as a little boy, my mom would tuck me in sometimes and she taught me to say my prayers: Hail Mary, the Lord's Prayer, the Act of Contrition and others. Once I asked her what one of them meant. I don't remember which prayer or what she told me, but I remember a few sweet extra minutes of individual time with my mom. As I got older, mom no longer tucked me in, but saying my prayers was an expectation and a well drilled-in habit. On those occaisional nights when I went to bed at the same time as my two older brothers/roommates, we would say, "I have to say my prayers; I'll say 'when'." Then we'd be silent for as quickly as we could run those memorized prayers through our brains, and literally say the word, "When." This was the signal that it was okay to talk softly for a few minutes before nodding off. I don't recall if I actually prayed silently during that hot second of silence: honestly, it's probably more likely I used that moment of silence to think about Batman, best friends, and batting averages .
Somewhere along the way- probably from my mom- I learned that we could make up our own prayers, too. What new-found freedom! I could ask for snow on Christmas, winning the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, making friends with the new kid and getting to stay up late on a school night. Of course, sometimes these requests were denied, but as a kid, I didn't really think about the theology of unanswered prayer. I just prayed about the next thing I wanted.
My first real experience of intense prayer was during my senior year of high school. By then the lady who taught me about prayer had passed away at the ridiculously young age of 49. Meanwhile, I had created a hybrid theology which blended the Catholic faith my mother raised me in before she died, excerpts from "Daybreak" (Joan Baez's autobiography), the George Burns movie "Oh, God", and a variety of other ideas from an array of long forgotten sources. At this time, my Freshman year of college was in the near future, and while I wasn't concerned about the workload I was very concerned about one thing: being assigned a roommate I did not know. While I didn't mind a good party, I was and still am an introvert. Parties are something you go to and leave to go to your quiet home. The thought of a party monster for a roommate terrified me. So I did the only thing I could do: I prayed. I asked whatever God was out there (I was confident there was at least one, but it could just as easily have been Thor or Lakshmi as the God of the Bible) to give me the roommate who was right for me. Did He ever!
My college roommate was the campus Jesus freak. He talked about Jesus as if He was our third roommate (I guess that wasn't too far off, when I think about it). Although I was still uncommitted to Jesus (or any specific God) Steve's influence on my thinking was huge. I both loved and hated him as he could be unconditionally kind to me yet uncompromisingly sure of his Christian faith. One thing I knew, though, was that Steve was clearly an answer to my immature teenaged prayer.
Ironically, my first major spiritual turning point came with no prayer in the traditional sense of the word. Sitting in the back of a little Methodist church in rural South Carolina, what I had come to know was true from watching Steve live out his faith- that Jesus was God incarnate; and his death on the cross was to take on the judgement from the Father that I deserved; and that He wanted to, could and,at that very moment, was forgiving me- happened in a part of me that is deeper and more real than words (spoken or thought) could reach. I was redeemed.
And prayer was such a joy. One lonely Friday evening I asked God for someone to befriend that weekend. The next morning I heard a whimpering coming from the woods in which I lived. Upon further investigation, someone had abandoned seven puppies in my yard. Although I only kept one, I spent that weekend loving and caring for this very unlikely surprise.
Even more importantly, I prayed intensely for the woman I had been dating to have the same encounter with God that I had. And in a matter of a very short time, that's exactly what happened. Alone in her dorm room, Jesus swept her off her feet, as it were.
And prayer has been part of our lives together for the last 37 years.
But as with all things of the Christian faith, there's always ways to mature and to go deeper. Somewhere along the way, my prayer life hit a plateau: Thanking God for the his provisions when they were obvious, lots of asking for things (both noble and selfish), and token blessings before meals. God, in his grace often answered these prayers, but my intimacy with him was often luke warm. Then, entering my 60's I began to realize that my time to grow closer to God was limited. I prayed - sincerely, and from that place deeper than words, to get to know him more.
And he began providing opportunities. It started with Sue and I commiting, at our oldest daughter's request, to pray daily at 7:00 PM for a young friend of Jo's who had cancer. That one request has grown into dozens. While this time is most still asking things of God, none of them are about us directly.
Then our pastor, instead of preaching, is using Sunday service to do an interactive study of Ephesians for the past few months, encouraging us to read this Epistle in its entirety several times per week. This has led Sue and me to read an epistle per night. It's hard to dig this deeply into scripture and not have it expand your prayer life.
A bigger influence has been Timothy Keller's book "Prayer". Arguably America's most influential theologian of the 21st century (Time magazine called him "a C S Lewis for the 21st century.") Drawing from Augustine, Luther and Calvin among others, he teaches through the Lord's Prayer. One striking and influential point I recieved from this book has been that each thought in the Lord's Prayer is something that can be build on for extended communication and meditation. "Hallowed be your name" for example is an opportunity to reflect on the various names of God: Cornerstone, Provider, King, Friend, Lion, etc. Sometimes at night I don't go any further than this when praying the Lord's Prayer.
Perhaps the most influential thing I'm realizing, in part from Dr. Keller's book, but through other influences as well, is that prayer is not meant to be a way to counsel, advise or convince God in order to get my way. A common theme of my prayers in the past could often be summarized as, "God, don't let me be embarressed." or "Please help me stay comfortable." The God who spoke the universe into existance does not need to be advised by me as how to run things. Now, instead of asking God for my shows to 'go well', I try to ask for a humble heart, and for my routines to communicate clearly whether or not my show goes technically well. Instead of asking to get over a cold or flu, I try to remember to ask for patience and endurance and to bear with it in a way that is pleasing to God. I think this is the power and danger of praying "Thy will be done on earth as it is in Heaven." To sincerely put God's will ahead of our own opens the door for all kinds of humbling, challenging, disappointing, and - dare I say- frustrating experiences. His ways are not our ways, and there's that pesky little truth that God is more concerned with the heart than the outward appearance of His people. I take comfort, though, that in Gethsemene, Jesus also prayed, "Not my will, but Yours be done." He did not get the deliverance from physical pain and torment he pled for, and instead humbly submitted to the harder, yet greater will of the Father.Why should I deserve to get off any easier?