"The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing —
to reach the Mountain, to find the place where all the beauty came from —
my country, the place where I ought to have been born. Do you think it all meant nothing,
all the longing? The longing for home? For indeed it now feels not like going, but like going back."

~C.S. Lewis

Saturday, August 20, 2011

From prayers of darkness to prayers of light

It was early in the morning, and I walked along the road, under the soft light of the morning sun. I always think better when out in creation.

Tears slipped down my face.

“Jesus, I know it says that Elijah was a man like us, and he prayed, and You answered, but I am not Elijah. Maybe I never will be. And I’ve got to stop trying. I am so tired, I don’t know what I’m doing—how can I know you for years and never, ever be able to do this. How do people pray for hours? They want to pray, they love it, they get up at the crack of dawn to pray for hours, and I struggle so much to pray for even a few minutes and have a shamefully low desire to even do that much. I know it could be the source of the greatest joy I could ever imagine… yet it is dead. I feel dead.

“It’s like talking to a wall, or not talking at all. It’s meaningless words, it’s nothingness. It’s disconnected from any heart or soul or desire; it’s the repetitive prayer You told the Jews to avoid. I pray while I think about other things. I pray while not caring. I pray like a dead person. This is stupid, Jesus, absolutely stupid and I'm sick of it. I am tired of trying and failing again and again. I get distracted, I say the same things, I feel like I’m running through a laundry list of things I’m supposed to 'fix' by my prayer. They say to just talk to You like you’re sitting in a chair in front of me, but I can’t do that. I don’t see You in a chair. They say to just let the emotions flow without words. But I need words, and my heart is a dam and nothing is flowing and I’m just dead—so dead, Jesus.”

I paused in my diatribe. It was ironic that, here I was, praying passionately that I had no idea how to pray. I didn’t care. I thought back over what I had just said. My prayers were going through a list with Jesus—I had to bring up this person and that missionary, pray for this country and that politician, fix this problem and that concern.

When I am talking with a friend, I try not to go through a list. Even if I have many things on my mind, I don’t seek to rush through the topics, but instead, just bring up one, the one closest to my heart, and then wait and talk and discuss until it had been fully satisfied in both my mind and the mind of my friend. Only then, do I want to move on. Only then can I move on. Maybe this was something I had been missing with Jesus.

In fact, I had been treating prayer like I have treated so many other things in my life: an exercise in productivity. It was all measured by how many things I could accomplish: how many missionaries I could pray for and how many Scripture verses I could weave in and how many topics got the supposed honor of my attention in prayer. I had to do it; I had to be productive; after all, wasn’t prayer supposed to change the world? The more I prayed, the more God would work, somehow, and, so, driven by a sense of performance—and guilt when I did not perform, for now the problems of the world were my fault, for perhaps I could’ve fixed them if I just had prayed harder—my prayers turned from conversation to ritual, as I single-handedly tried to save the world by my prayers.

And I was tired. God never meant for me to save the world. He sent His Son to do that.

My words kept pouring out like my tears.

“Jesus, maybe this is wrong, but You have cared for the world for 6,000 years without my prayers and You can do so for the next year or month or week or however long it takes me to figure out how to pray, but I just cannot have productive prayer anymore—I can’t try to fix anything. Maybe it’s selfish and wrong, but I’m only going to pray about what’s on my heart—what I keep getting distracted to in my prayers, what is occupying my thoughts and worry and concern and joy, even if what's on my heart just concerns me and no global cause. I am going to talk to you about just that for as long as it takes for it to not be on my heart anymore, because that is the only place, Jesus, where I feel like I am really talking, really engaging—where I am praying.”

So, I did. I started pouring out my heart about the things on my mind that morning, as I walked along the road. Yet it was different, for, like asking advice of a friend, this time, I had no list. I was going to talk with Jesus about this one thing until I felt I had said everything I had to say and I had heard everything He had to say. I poured out my heart, and I listened, and I talked with Jesus about what I felt He was saying, and this went on and on until, suddenly, what was on my heart—wasn’t. It was gone. I was at peace.

But there was another topic that had been bothering me. So I began to speak about that to my Lord. And this went on until—there was nothing. There was nothing else I felt compelled to pray about. And then, for a moment, I struggled. What about all of the missionaries who needed my prayers? All of the countries? All of the hurt and the pain and the fear that needed the healing of Christ? Should I not now pray for them?

No. And yes. Jesus did not need me to pray for them. He already knew. He knows everything; He sees each tear that falls. I need to pray for them, but not through some dredging up of a manufactured compassion. I could not deny that, deep down, I was not concerned. I did not want to pray for them and had no real concern for them—or else they would be on my hearts, and I would be praying at that very moment. That was my problem, then. It was not the prayer—it was my lack of empathy and compassion. That was what needed to be fixed first, and if I ignored that and tried to force the prayer, it would be falling right back into the hypocritical, dead prayers I had been struggling with for years.

Ironically, suddenly, I had a new topic that was now deeply on my heart: my lack of concern and compassion for the hurting world. There was something I now needed to pray about, and the words began to flow again.

This prayer—it was, it is, so beautiful, so much more beautiful than I had ever before experienced. I wanted to pray, I wanted to speak, I wanted to listen. I did not have to say anything, or, I could say everything; there were no rules. I could see how I would want to get up early to pray like this, to pray all the time if I could. I knew Jesus better at the end than when I began and I became more at home in His presence. And, what I knew, deep down, would happen, happened: this time of prayer was far more “productive,” far more filling of grace, far more life-changing, than any of my so-called “productive prayers” of before. It was a bittersweet irony.

Yet, eventually it ended. There was nothing left on my heart. I was quiet. That did not mean I was not praying; I did not say “amen” and sign out of my prayer like I was leaving a counseling session. I would never seek to leave His presence, not for a minute of my day, but that did not mean I had to be speaking.

And within my quietness grows a new prayer—a prayer of praise and worship of my King. I see the beauty around me, the light through the trees, the flowers in the grass, the sound of the birds; I feel the peace within myself and the heart-wrenching joy of being at home with my Lord; and my heart fills with pure gratitude and glory to Jesus. Words may come or perhaps it is simply pure emotion, like music that speaks in a language not composed of words but designed in the soul.

I had left the prayers of darkness, for these were prayers of light.