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Prayer Envy

Ever since becoming a Christian, I've worried about praying. Should I pray to God the Father or to Jesus or, although I'd never heard anyone do so, to the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus promised would advocate for and comfort us in his absence? Should I favor obviously holy topics—gratitude, praise, others' salvation—over my daily worries and complaints? Most importantly, 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 remark that 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 my own hopes and fears? If only I could feel as secure about my chats with the Deity!
My measly prayers typically amount to little more than 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. But I may 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 communiqu?s that don't sound, as mine do, wacky or false. Most public petitions sound as premeditated as sermons, probably because, unlike me, my fellow believers don't have to be reminded to pray those petitions in the first place. They've been praying them for weeks.

Whether praying publicly or privately, I seem incapable of praying for very long. If I keep it up past a minute or two, I get distracted. In bed, I fall asleep. At church, I find myself spying at the bowed heads around me, trying to remember if I turned off my daughters' hair straightener, making judgments on the choir's new robes, dreaming. 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 over the back of her head. When I asked about it, she called it a "prayer hat" and said that the Bible says to "pray without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17) and for women to cover their heads while praying. So, she told me, Bible-believing women should always wear hats. 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 found out she was. We'd exchanged addresses, and she sent me a few letters over the next years saying she was still praying for me. I wish I could pray as she did: for a stranger, years after a chance meeting, continually, and with childlike confidence and trust in even the oddest scraps of Scripture.

My efforts to have regular "private time with God," as some call prayer, usually fail. Many of my Christian friends have devotions every morning, at a set time. Some go to a special place and meditate. Others follow a reading schedule—the Bible in a year's time or a segmented book of devotions—that keeps them on track or helps them focus on some area of growth. One friend has tea with God, filling two cups to visualize God's actual presence. My husband kneels in our walk-in closet and usually, over breakfast, reads a chapter from the Bible. I set out to follow his example, but soon I'm mechanically grading those last three papers or reading one of the magazines that accrue at my place at the table.

I suffer, in short, from prayer envy. I wish I could pray like my friends, like my husband, with their steadfastness and regularity. Or with the abandon of some of my students, who raise their hands or cup them reverently. I try to mimic their gestures, hoping to share what I imagine are the accompanying feelings of rapture, but even in private I feel embarrassed and have to quit.

I envy the prayer habits of biblical figures like Abraham, Moses, Hagar, and Cain, who wheedled and wailed just as they likely did with their spouses and children. In the Old Testament, conversing with God sounds so natural, so normal. As if the exchange featured not only words but gestures and facial expressions and the Creator of Heaven and Earth stood before them in the flesh.

I even envy the blithe prayers of my own childhood: stream-of-consciousness comments on daily life—oh!, oops!, please let me, help me, let me not get in trouble!—to an always interested God aware of everything going on in my head at every moment. I wish I could pray with such trust and candor still, instead of stressing about whether my prayers are in the right form and about the right thing and thus acceptably holy.

Often I pray about praying itself, thinking to hope into happening what an old farmer in my first Bible study class said had happened to him as he matured in faith. Over time, the man said, God had changed his "wanter." Change my "pray-er," I pray. Make me desire your will, instead of the handy miracles I tend to ask for. Make me pray bigger, longer, less selfishly, more trustingly, more continuously, more as you would have me pray.

I try to console myself with a friend's advice that however one prays is okay. The variety of opinions on prayer, though makes it hard to stay convinced, and I'm guessing many of my fellow Christians secretly beat themselves up about prayer, too. We're probably all like the disciples, for whom prayer clearly did not come naturally. They begged Jesus to teach them how to pray. They failed to cast out demons because they didn't pray enough. In Gethsemane, when Jesus expressly asked the ones accompanying him to pray, they fell asleep.

Jesus himself often suggested that some prayers are better than others. Responding to his disciples' plea for prayer instruction, Jesus gave them the Lord's Prayer—and believers ever since have debated whether he intended it as a conversational model or a prayer to be memorized and recited. He faulted a Pharisee for praying too ostentatiously and commended a tax collector who, by contrast, "stood at a distance … would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast" and prayed, in essence, the Jesus Prayer: "'God, be merciful to me, a sinner'" (Luke 18:13).

My best prayers, I think, are borrowed. Sometimes, in remorse, I find myself unconsciously mouthing the Act of Contrition of my Catholic childhood: "Oh my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended thee!" Or silently reciting from the Mass, "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed." With the father of a demon-possessed boy, I whisper into my skepticism, "Help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24). And I often pray the simple prayer of the little girl protagonist of Flannery O'Connor's short story, "Temple of the Holy Ghost": "Hep me not to be so mean."

Once I got an email from a former creative writing student who, in the wake of several personal disasters, had stopped believing in God. In his e-mail, he reported his life was shaping up and his faith slowly returning. He'd also started writing again—"weird little devotional essays," he said, like those he remembered me reading aloud in class.

"Does it ever seem to you that your writing is prayer?" he asked.

His question was transformational. Afterwards, I felt as though this struggling young believer gave me my prayers—not just my weird little devotional essays, like this one, but all the other prayers I'd been praying all along. Self-centered, semi-conscious pleas for help I send up to my invisible Creator and Parent and Guide whenever I'm in trouble; botched efforts to pray through lists of others' needs; even someone else's words I memorized as a child that rise unbidden to my tongue in a crisis are all efforts to acknowledge God's presence. They're all, in other words, prayer. Failed prayer, yes. God knows my prayers are vain at times, often ridiculous, always mal-focused and inadequate, at best mere mindless moans.

Indeed, as Paul points out, "we do not know how to pray as we ought" (Romans 8:26). Our most effectual prayers, he says, are little more than "groaning in labor pains" along with the rest of creation (Romans 8:22). Nevertheless, "the Spirit helps us in our weakness" and intercedes for us with its own "sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit" (Romans 8:26-27).

So, having pray-worried the matter of prayer to death, I've decided to just do what I do, however inadequate, and trust the Holy Spirit to keep on groaning.

Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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