By Amy Butler
Looking back over my life I realize I’ve traveled a winding road as it relates to the spiritual practice of prayer. Lately I’ve turned another corner, and this week I’ve been thinking a lot about that journey.
My earliest memories of prayer are memories of kneeling bedside with my parents before bedtime. Every night we’d review the day, express concerns and gratitude for the gifts of the day and pray for people we loved. This ritual was so comforting to me, until I heard a childhood pastor preach a sermon about something he called, “pillow prayers.” I remember him saying that prayers offered right before bed were afterthoughts, unheard by God.
When I heard that, I thought that maybe the prayers I prayed next to my parents before bedtime didn’t really mean that much after all.
Later, when I was very holy — as evidenced by the fact that I was president of the youth group my senior year in high school — our youth minister taught us how to keep prayer journals. He explained that this was, in fact, the right way to pray.
My very holy prayer journal was a very detailed log of all the prayers I prayed, the dates I prayed them and the answers I received to those prayers. In neat, ruler-designated columns.
This kind of praying worked well, until I found that sometimes I was unable to fill in the answer column fully. This clerical deficiency, of course, mirrored a deepening in my understanding of how God works in the world. While my ardent teenage faith had led to the conviction that just the right words in just the right expression would certainly result in the preferred outcome, years of living began to invite me to consider the possibility that God doesn’t act in the world in direct response to a carefully lined prayer journal.
I began to think that maybe those prayers didn’t mean that much after all.
After that I went to seminary, where I began the process of examining every little thing I knew about God, my faith, the church, myself. I learned that there were others who understood God differently than I did, even names for God I’d never heard before. Shockingly, I was asked to consider the possibility that God was not, in fact, constrained by the cosmology I’d understood my whole life long.
All of this shook the foundations of my prayer life. If I hadn’t even been calling God by the right name all of this time, did my prayers mean very much at all?
Prayer as a recent reality in my life has often found expression like this: whenever a prayer needs saying and I’m the only minister in the room, folks automatically ask me to say it. Quite a lot of the praying I do is public and on behalf of others: at the hospital, in the pastor’s office, at the family gathering for Uncle Fred’s 80th birthday. Sometimes those prayers seem rote, words expressed out of obligation just so everybody can begin to eat with a clear conscience. I sometimes wonder: do any of these prayers, offered in public on behalf of others, mean very much at all?
It’s probably against some unwritten rule of ministers everywhere to even say something like that, but in the recounting of this strange and winding prayer adventure, I can only confess this has been my experience. When I kneel to pray, or write in a prayer journal, or voice a prayer in the language of my heart, or pray an invocation extemporaneously at the local community prayer breakfast because the guy who was supposed to pray didn’t show up and I’m the only minister there — do those prayers really mean anything?
Of late, my experience of prayer has taken another turn. While I’m sure that many have prayed for me over the course of my life, recently the prayer experiences I’ve had look like this:
Sitting with a dear friend in a pew, light streaming through the stained glass in the chapel of my new church, she clasps my hand and says: “I want to pray for you right now. Is it okay if I pray?” Tears stream down my face as I hear her voice words I cannot summon myself.
Or, receiving a note from a friend that says: “I want you to know that every day for the entire first year of your new pastorate I will pray for you, for your family and for your new congregation.” In moments of conviction that I can’t possibly take one more step, I remember that there is someone who prayed for me today. I know it.
Or, email after email from a group of colleagues committed to offering prayer for me in this time of transition. When I stepped up into a brand new pulpit last week, I could feel their prayers — sure as their presence — walking there with me.
Or, ending a telephone conversation with a dear colleague when I heard him say, “I generally think praying over the telephone is kind of weird. But I feel like I want to pray for you right now. Can I?” As I listened to his voice, I felt his words coming through the telephone like a blessing.
This life of prayer and I have walked a winding journey to get to this day, where sometimes I look back and wonder whether the prayers I prayed — as good intentioned as they were — meant much of anything at all.
But this newest turn in the road has answered that question resoundingly. Hearing, reading, feeling the prayers of those who are praying for me means something. In fact, it means more than I could ever have known.