At a staff meeting recently, we were having a conversation about prayer. The overall outcome of it was that none of us felt we were very good at it. But, to reduce the conversation to that blanket outcome is to do it an injustice.
I love a good tuna sandwich.
I know that came out of nowhere, but stick with me.
The first time I ever visited the McMenamins on Broadway near Lloyds Center in Portland I ordered their tuna sandwich. It was the best tuna sandwich I had ever eaten. Still is, in fact. Now every time I visit a sandwich shop for the first time, I’ll try their tuna sandwich. Not just because I love tuna sandwiches, but because I’m trying to find another unforgettable tuna sandwich. I’ve even tried to duplicate that sandwich at home. A little dill, a little curry powder, a little celery, a little onion…I’ve come close, but it isn’t quite the same. I’ve even gone back to that McMenamins, but it has never been quite the same.
Good conversations are like that with me. When I’ve been in a conversation that has affected me, I tend to roll it over in my mind and analyze it. What made that conversation stand out? Why did it seem more profound than other good, meaningful conversations I’ve had? What is that secret ingredient that I can’t quite figure out?
Sometimes it is simply that those conversations come at the right time.
Once on a summer bicycle tour from the Canadian border to Government Camp, I spent the night in Winthrop, WA. When we rolled into town it was close to 9pm. The day had started about 7 that morning, and by the time we arrived we had ridden about 75 miles which included climbing 3 mountain passes. Lunch had been shortly after noon, and our bodies had been working on empty for a couple of hours—we were starved. There was one café still open in town and there wasn’t even a discussion. Unanimously and spontaneously we decided to eat there rather than wait to fix our freeze dried meals after we pitched camp.
I ordered a chili burger. It was the best chili burger I’ve ever eaten. Granted, it may well have been a burger patty warmed over from the lunch rush covered with a generic can of chili, but I remember it as the best chili burger I’ve ever eaten. Part of me wants to go back to that place in Winthrop and order another chili burger to see if it really was that good; another part of me wants to leave the memory enshrined as it is. Chances are it seemed so memorable because it was exactly what I needed at the time.
Honest, this post really is about prayer and conversation, not food. It is just that those three seem to be perfect metaphors for each other.
Anyway, this conversation at our staff meeting was so profound to me because it came just when I needed it.
With all that is going on in our Church body lately—Marta resigning, the budget struggles, the ongoing wrestling with the debate about human sexuality, I often have trouble sleeping through the night. I’ve always awakened once or twice every night, but I’ve also always been able to go right back to sleep. Now when I awaken it seems my mind wants to immediately sprint down one of these trails and keep running until I finally give up and go sit in the living room and read for a while.
The night before our staff meeting, I awakened at 3am. My mind began running as usual. It couldn’t decide what trail it wanted to take, so it ran down one after another until it was time to get up. I had no ability to control or fix any of the things I was fretting about, especially at 3 in the morning, but even telling myself that didn’t help. It has in the past.
Then we had our staff meeting conversation.
That night I pleaded with God for a full night’s sleep. At 1:45 am, my eyes popped open and my mind started revving up for its nightly run. In desperation I mentally reached into the box of tools I had acquired during my training in spiritual formation and I pulled out the Jesus Prayer. If you’re not familiar with the Jesus Prayer it is just what the name implies. No one quite knows where it came from; it probably started with one of the Desert fathers or mothers. It consists of the simple phrase, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me.” That’s it.
I began repeating that prayer over and over in my mind—the next thing I knew it was 6 o’clock and time to wake up.
I guess one could easily argue that the Jesus Prayer functioned much like counting sheep. I focused my mind on something and then droned it to sleep.
But the Jesus Prayer helped me do far more than that. By praying the Jesus Prayer I was acknowledging that I needed to pray, and recognizing who I needed to pray to. At the same time it helped me admit that I didn’t know what to pray about or what to ask for even if I did know what to pray about.
Praying the Jesus Prayer helped me to grab ahold of what Paul was talking about when he said, “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words”(Romans 8:26-27).
I grew up in a tradition that believed a prayer wasn’t valid unless you made up the words yourself. But when I think about it, when Jesus’ disciples asked him to teach them to pray, he taught them a rote prayer. I know, I’ve been through the workshops that teach the Lords prayer as a model—our prayers should contain the same components as the Lord’s prayer, ie. adoration, confession, etc. All that may be true, but I think it misses an important point, a point Paul makes in the verse above.
When the disciples asked to be taught to pray, Jesus gave them words. I realize now Jesus understood that prayer is one of the rare things in life we do best when we are the worst at it. Our best prayers are often those we can’t wrap our minds around—those that we cannot put into words. So, Jesus gave us words. Those words may not be the exact words to express what we feel or want, but they are words that we can groan out so the Spirit can say what our hearts can’t.
I think that is the beauty of the Jesus Prayer. The prayer simply asks Jesus for mercy. Asking for mercy is a broad request, and most often that is exactly the right prayer. We need mercy because we don’t understand. We need mercy because we don’t know what to say. We need mercy because we don’t know what to ask for and if we did ask for something it would probably be the wrong thing. So, we ask for mercy and the Spirit fills in the blanks.
Please understand me, I’m not saying we should never pray in our own words. Sometimes a heart to heart with God in our own stumbling words is exactly the thing that is needed. What I am saying is that there will be times when our own eloquence fails us, but the Holy Spirit’s eloquence never will. That’s a promise.
So, the next time you feel like a failure at prayer, thank God for that. Then grab the Lord’s Prayer, the Jesus Prayer, or a Psalm and pray away. Nothing will get lost in the translation.