If I'm going to be honest with you, I have to admit that one area of my spiritual life that has always been lack-luster is prayer. While my grandmother didn't have a problem with prayer, I have always struggled with the notion. I recall watching her, from a distance, my head peeking through the screen door. She was knelt down in the flower bed, her hands sifting through the black dirt and pulling weeds. It was there my grandmother didn't seem to have a care in the world. She was enjoying the beautiful weather and carrying on a conversation with...herself; or so it seemed. This was a regular occurrence. One day curiosity got the best of me. I stepped out from hiding and confronted her right there in the serenity of the moment. "Who are you talking to Grandma?" I asked with the most puzzled look. Her response will forever be etched into my memory. My grandmother, in the most serious, yet loving voice, echoed some of the most comical, yet profound words a young boy would hear. "God, he's the only one who will listen!" But it wouldn't be until later in life I realized how true that was.
You see, my complacency with prayer is deeply embedded. To begin with, prayer wasn't really something that was consistently modeled throughout my formative years. This is partly due to the fact that I didn't grow up in what most people would call a Christian home. On second thought, I did grow up in what most of America would call a Christian home. We went to church just about every Sunday. My parents dropped me and my brother's off at our Wednesday night services every week. Summer camps were even a highlight of the year for me. But, you see, a lot of times that was the extent of it. The only time prayer was a significant part of life was in church. Even then, it seemed like it was more of an afterthought or "this is just part of the routine" kind of thing. On occasion, prayer made it's way into the routine of regular life. There were times it was part of the routine for family dinner on Sundays. And my mother would occasionally ask me to pray when the proverbial, uh...stuff...hit the fan. If things weren't going well, that was the time to turn to God in prayer.
My other hesitancy with prayer has always hinged on the idea of opening up and sharing my hopes, dreams and feelings with this invisible, omniscient being. I'm a guy, so I tend to shudder at the thought of baring my soul to another person. What made this even more awkward was the fact I was supposed to do this with someone I couldn't see. To me, this seemed like a ridiculous notion. First off, since God wasn't physically present I always felt as though I was talking to myself. And they lock people up in padded white rooms for less. To top it off, if God knew everything already why did I have to voice it to him anyway. The way I saw it, I was doing the big guy a favor. He had better things to do than listen to my first world problems that he was already aware of. By remaining silent, I was allotting God more time to take care of more important things like world hunger.
If any of this sounds familiar, you're not alone. I'd go out on a limb and say that you are probably in the vast majority. And take comfort in knowing that prayer was just as awkward and confusing for those who walked with God in the flesh. Even Jesus' closest friends seemed to be at a loss when it came to prayer. The crazy thing is they saw it modeled right in front of them on a regular basis. Jesus would retreat to a quiet place. Jesus would break bread with them and offer prayers toward heaven. When he healed the sick and crippled, he would lay hands on them and pray to his father. But still, the disciples weren't sure about the whole thing. Eventually, curiosity got the best of them as well. The time came when they approached Jesus and asked if he would teach them how to pray. Of course, Jesus obliged (Luke 11:1-4).
When it comes to prayer there seems to be a lot of confusion as to what that means and how it looks. Here are some lessons I have learned (rather, am still learning) about prayer. A lot of these principles have come through trial and error. Even more have come from Scripture and the examples Jesus gave us (like in Luke).
Just start praying! Anything is better than nothing. Does that seem too simple? Well, it is! But somehow the most basic things have a tendency to turn into the most painfully difficult and laborious activities. Open your mouth. Put letters together to form words and words together to form sentences. Big theological words don't impress God. They don't increase the chances of your prayers being heard. They don't make God work faster. You aren't required to speak some crazy language. Prayer is all about opening up the lines of communication between you and God. He's there 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. And the craziest part of all is that he is eagerly waiting for you to talk to him. If speaking is too difficult, just sit there in silence. When words aren't adequate, Scripture tells us the Holy Spirit intercedes on our behalf (Romans 8:26).
The next thing is to pray consistently (Philippians 4:6). I'm not talking about retreating to some secluded place and setting aside hours at a time every day. While there is nothing wrong with this approach, I have a hard time making it happen. I'm quite envious of people who can do this. Unfortunately my mind starts to wander off after a few minutes. So I have to attempt to offer shorter prayers throughout the day. When my patience is wearing thin because traffic is at a stand still, it's time to stop and pray for patience. When I get some exciting news, I try to take a moment and thank God in prayer. Those short prayers offered every so often keep me constantly in communion with God throughout the day. In addition to that, pray for the same thing. Again and again and again. Until you have an answer. Do I fail at this sometimes? Of course! But, I just pick up right where I left off.
The next two coincide with one another. When you pray, pray specifically and pray big (John 14:12-14; 1 John 5:14-15)! It seems to me we utter these broad prayers that can be taken numerous ways. "God, please provide for my family." Provide what? He's given you a house. You've got a steady job. How do you want him to provide? If you're $100 short for bills this month, specifically ask for it. I wonder how often we don't reap the full benefits because our faith is so minuscule. We limit the blessings God is waiting to bestow; all because we tend to lob the ball over the plate in order that it will be easier for him to knock it out of the park. That way, if God doesn't come through the way we hoped it requires less explanation, we are less disappointed and it's easier to make excuses. In short, we have a tendency to limit God. It's here I should offer a disclaimer. Just because you pray specifically and pray big doesn't mean God will grant that request. It may not fall in line with what he is working out for you right now.
Navigating the path of life and coming to wise decisions requires communication. And as my grandmother pointed out, sometimes God is the only one who will listen. So keep praying. And do so audaciously, because of this you can be certain--he will answer.