I google the word “prayer”
And there I am,
Against a backdrop
Of God’s warm and welcoming glory.
Clicking through these search results might get me re-thinking my prayer life a bit. Perhaps my prayers are lacking because my arms aren’t raised high enough. Or maybe I’m not holding them at the right angle? Just as likely, it’s the way I’m kneeling! Is the one-knee posture preferable to the two-knee posture? Kneeling on both knees seems really prayerful. But being down on one knee makes me feel like I’m in a huddle with the Lord on the gridiron of life, ready to chalk up a play that will cap off the winning drive of the Holy Spirit’s movement! Either way, I’m clearly not kneeling correctly. More than all of this, my search results tell me I’ve been praying at the wrong time of day. Prayer, or at least effective prayer, is a sunset activity! Alas, nobody told me.
I hope it’s obvious that I’m being facetious. I don’t actually take image search results seriously as models of effective prayer. Or at least I don’t consciously do so. The trick is that, as much as I want to dismiss and poke fun at those exaggerated, heavily edited, on-the-nose images, something in the back of my mind says “If your prayer life doesn’t feel like these images look, at least occasionally, something must be wrong with the way you pray!”
If I’m honest, part of why I joke about those images is that I want distance myself from them. See, I haven’t had that kind of peak prayer experience for years. And the further I get from the experiences I did have, more I doubt my own memory. And I don’t want to do that. I also don’t want to make a practice of questioning the authenticity of other peoples’ “sunset” prayer experiences. What I want to do is avoid making those peak experiences a primary metric for my spiritual health.
Here is something I believe to be true: A relationship with God is fed by the practice of that relationship. And while that relationship can be enriched by its peak moments and by working through its valleys, chasing those experiences for themselves can come at the cost of the relationship itself.
I’m writing this from Vancouver, WA where I am visiting my good friend Scott Erickson. He and I co-authored the book Prayer: 40 Days of Practice, the completion and release of which was a peak experience. And while we remember that moment as highlight, it’d be a terrible mistake to make our friendship about what we accomplished, much less how we felt when we accomplished it.
Perhaps more importantly, we didn’t get that peak experience because we sought it out directly. We climbed to that peak by way of the hours and days and weeks and months of work we put in. That steady pulse and consistency drives and defines my friendship with Scott. So it is with just about all great relationship or friendship stories; the highlights and lowlights provide poignant and lasting memories, but you have to be around and connected years later to enjoy those memories. In other words, consistency and faithfulness over time set the stage for “moments” of any kind to have meaning in a relationship.
So it is with what Christians have come to call a “relationship with God.” If what I’m chasing in that relationship is an experience, I’ll probably end up with experience at the cost of relationship. Sadly, I think a good number of sisters and brothers settle for periodic experiences. And I think those google image search results are symptomatic of that settling.
When Scott and I put our first prayer book together, our hope was not at all to create another experience. Instead, the book is designed to work as tool by which readers can excavate their own souls and uncover the good, loving Presence of the Divine already at hand; remembering the joyful
After nearly 20 years as an associate pastor in a local church setting, I have a storehouse of memories consisting of conversations with sisters and brothers who felt distant, frustrated and disconnected. Diagnoses ranged, predictably, from some fault in their prayer life to some unresolved theological question to flat out believing the whole God/religion thing might be garbage. Retroactively, my suspicion is that our experiences of God invariably differ from what we’d expected or hoped them to be, leaving us wondering what’s really going on. A lot of those expirations are set by devotional tools and religious products sold to us, not with the promise of simply teaching us to practice prayer, but sold with promises about what will happen or what it will feel like if we do. And more fundamentally than a difference between experiences, I think we also invariably come to grips with the reality that there is more (far more) to the God we are coming to know than our experiences can capture or express.
A few years ago, I sat across from my therapist, tangled up with interpersonal emotions and justifications and injuries. A long-term friendship of mine appeared to be coming apart. I felt distant, frustrated and disconnected.
“Tell me about this person,” Terry asked me.
For probably fifteen minutes, I talked all about the ways this friend of mine was doing me wrong. Words he chose. Words he didn’t choose. Things he remembered or forgot. Ways he acted, etc… She listened patiently, finally replying “You just told me a lot about your experience of this person. Can you tell me anything about who they are?”
I stammered and tried responding but stopped at the realization that I didn’t understand what I’d just been asked.
“I think,” Terry continued, “you need to learn the difference between your experience of people and who those people actually are. Your experience of someone usually says more about you and what you want from them.”
I also want a prayer life that allows God to be more than my experience of God.
I want a prayer life in which I can experience disappointment and still seek to know God.
I want my faith practice to be marked by steady pulse and consistency of practice. Sure, I’d love to feel like I’m glowing from the inside out with wings sprouting from my shoulders while I stand atop a mountain in the orange-golden glow of a glorious sunset. I’m just not going to chase that feeling. I’d rather have God, regardless of how it feels.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Justin McRoberts is the co-author of Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, an advocate, songwriter and retreat leader. He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and two children.