on relearning to pray

It was Good Friday when I pulled into Fayetteville with a car load full of boxes. I had said goodbye to my sick grandfather just a day earlier and had cried the four hours it took me to drive from Southern Arkansas to my new home, knowing the next time I’d be with my family would likely be at Pop’s funeral. I didn’t want to be alone that evening. I didn’t need to be alone that evening.

I found a Good Friday service and joined a small church gathering for Tenebrae, where there were no more than ten folks in attendance. I didn’t mind, though, because I wasn’t alone. I joined them again on Easter Sunday in a warehouse behind a paint store, where I was not only fed spiritual food, but actual food, and then sent home with an Easter Lily. These were good people, and they soon became my people. These were my people.

These are the people of Fayetteville Anglican Fellowship. These people and this church are teaching me how to pray again.

I don’t remember exactly when it was when I started to struggle with prayer. Perhaps it was when my perfectionistic and controlling tendencies became dominant and started suffocating all that was spiritual and creative inside of me. These tendencies took hold of me in college, where the intellectual trumped the spiritual and the creative time and time again until I hardly recognized myself. Praying became harder, especially out loud and especially around other people, because I wanted so much to say the right thing, the best thing, the most Biblically-accurate thing. I feared saying something wrong or sounding uneducated or appearing to be spiritually unprepared. I didn’t want my prayer to be perceived as too short, too long, too fake, too rehearsed, too enthusiastic or not enthusiastic enough. I didn’t want to say ‘um’ too many times or run out of things to say and embarrass myself and that holy ego of mine. I eventually stopped praying out loud altogether because I felt that there was too much pressure. It felt more like a stage performance in front of a critical crowd rather than a sacred moment for and with my creator. I had always been a terrific religious performer, but I had lost what was once a well-honed skill.

When I stopped praying out loud, I started prayer journaling. I wasn’t very regular at it, but it’s how I best prayed. Last month I was describing my struggle with prayer to a couple of women in my church, and shared how I needed a pencil and paper in order to really connect with God through the sacrament of prayer.

“A pencil, not a pen… I need to be able to erase if I mess up or write the wrong thing.”

They stared at me in a kind of shock and awe.

“That’s probably not a healthy prayer life is it?”

Why have I never been able to shake the concept of prayer as performance? I have stripped so many religious expectations from my life over the last several years, but this one I haven’t yet been able to overcome. And it’s likely because I didn’t realize it was something I needed to overcome until now.

I am so grateful that this new church of mine emphasizes prayer.

“We want to be a people who pray.”

They recite the Lord’s Prayer. They lay hands and pray for healing. They pray silently. They pray aloud. They are liturgists and they are charismatics.

And all the while I am relearning how to pray – imperfectly. Prayers that don’t sound pretty or look pretty. Sometimes they are simple and short. Sometimes they are long and complex. Sometimes I can’t find my own words to pray so I pray the prayers of the Church Fathers, an ancient liturgy that have been prayed and recited for ages. Sometimes they are the prayers found within scripture.

I have started writing my own personal liturgy for prayer. I journal them – in pen – and flip through my prayers for that season and read them, sometimes silent, other times aloud.

Here is an example of my August Prayer for mine and Sean’s grandparents:

Lord, please be with our grandparents
With Clifford and with Lorraine
With Cleta and with Louis
With Mamaw and with Jesse
With Re
I pray that you care for their greatest needs
their health, their minds, their spirits
Surround them with friends who love them
With family who will take care of them
Thank you, Jesus, for these special people
Thank you for their wisdom and guidance in our lives
Thank you for taking care of them so well, Lord. 

It’s not perfect, but I’m starting to think that it’s still somehow beautiful.

This is how I pray best in this season. And the fact that I’m praying at all is an answered prayer.

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