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I Was a Failure at Prayer

And what I learned because of it

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Ever since I became a Christian, I've worried about praying. Should I pray to God the Father? To Jesus? To the Comforter God sent to advocate for us after Jesus left our world? Should I favor unmistakably sacred topics—gratitude, praise, others' salvation—over my daily worries and complaints? And how, precisely, does one go about conversing with someone not physically present?

Expert advice on prayer abounds. At the Christian university where I teach, chapel speakers promote everything from praying directly from Scripture to "just being quiet and listening." Orthodox speakers recommend the "Jesus Prayer": "Lord Jesus, have mercy upon me, a sinner." Other speakers say prayer is simply a conversation with God, and I think, Simply?! Just a regular old conversation with someone I can't see, hear, or touch, and whose voice is so tricky to sort from others', especially from the voices of my own hopes and fears?

My measly prayers typically amount to internal gasps of Help! in a crisis or middle-of-the-night anxieties I call "pray-worrying." Occasionally I add a perfunctory—and usually long overdue—remembrance of someone else's problems. Or let out a "Wow!" in recognition of some dazzling evidence of God's creativity. Sometimes, though, I go whole days without conversing with God at all.

I'm especially ungifted in the area of public prayer. I covet others' ability not only to remember long lists of others' needs but to reformulate them into communiqués that don't sound, as mine do, wacky or false.

And whether I'm praying publicly or privately, I seem incapable of praying for very long. After a minute or two, I get distracted. In bed, I fall asleep. At church, I find myself gazing over the bowed heads around me, trying to remember if I turned off my daughters' hair straightener. Although I'd like to follow the apostle Paul's advice to pray continually, I can't do it.

Once, on a plane trip, I sat next to an elderly woman wearing a funny little diaphanous bonnet. When I asked about it, she called it her "prayer hat" and said she wore it because the Bible says to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17, NRSV) and that women should cover their heads while praying (1 Corinthians 11:5-6). She was a sweet, earnest woman, and I wondered if, somewhere beneath our conversation, she was praying for me even then. I hoped so. Later I discovered she was. We'd exchanged addresses, and she sent me occasional letters over the next years saying she was still praying for me.

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I Was a Failure at Prayer