Monday, April 11, 2011

Whether Your Heart Is Full Or Empty

Prayer is a tricky thing for me.  At times, I don't feel like I totally understand either how to do it or what it is.  This something that I have been struggling with for a long time and it wasn't until just recently that I realized it.  I have several distinct memories of prayer before I dedicated my life to Christ in 2008.
  • When my mom told me and my sister that my parents were getting divorced, I said to myself (at 6-years old): "Please God let us be okay."  I don't know how or where I learned to say such things.  We didn't go to church and as far as I remember, my mom didn't pray in my presence.  It was just inside of me; He was just inside of me.  And I somehow knew then to ask God for His help. 
  • My next recollection of any prayer was in my Catholic grade school.  At that time, prayer became a race, followed by a reward as opposed to a conversation with or worship or request of God.  We would recite the "Hail Mary" as we rubbed our fingers over plastic rosary beads, or the "Our Father" to begin the day.  I never took the time to understand the words I was saying and my only goal, as was most of my classmates', I suspect, was to get done the fastest. 
  • In high school (also Catholic), I began to understand personal prayer more and would, at times, though very rarely, turn to God in prayer.  During these times, I fumbled through and couldn't find words to express what I wanted to say.  So, I abandoned prayer altogether.
  • At certain family gatherings, we would join hands and say: "Bless us O, Lord . . . ."  I can't even type it here because the only way I can say it is at break-neck speed aloud.  I don't know the actual words, unless said in a rhythmic, hurried incantation. 
  • Last, when I was about 4 months pregnant with my daughter, I was taking a shower and my back was bothering me.  I turned to crack my back to see whether that would relieve the pain and when I did, I felt a pop not only in my back, but in my stomach, where this baby was growing.  I panicked, believing I had somehow hurt this little life inside me and I said to God: "Please God, let this baby be okay.  Let this baby be okay, and I will never do anything again to hurt her."  This was almost 12 years ago and it rings in my head like it was yesterday. 
I have a feeling that many pray this way: Years go by without prayer and in times of desperation, we turn to God because there is just nowhere else to go.  What I have found more recently, as I've begun to be with others who are devoted to Christ and all that He is, prayer is still tricky.  Less common is no prayer and more common is wandering, direction-less, rambling words disguised or referred to as prayer.  Of course, there are books written about prayer -- what it means, how it works, how to do it, when to do it. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer defines prayer as finding "the way to God and [speaking] with him, whether the heart is full or empty."  (Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible at 10)  What has been interesting is that the more I have studied prayer and read books about it, the less I am able to pray.  I will sit in silence, with my hands turned upward and words will not come.  And this drives me crazy.  I stand up, pace the room, ask what is going on, say: why can't I pray?  Sometimes this alone is my prayer -- this crazed questioning pacing.  I am praying about why I can't pray.  Now that's something.  Bonhoeffer also says, though, that "[n]o man can do that [speak with God] by himself.  For that he needs Jesus Christ."  The logical place to start in understanding prayer or praying, then, is with Christ and the way He instructed his disciples (and us) to pray:   

"When you pray, say:
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come.
Give us each day our daily bread.
Forgive us our sins,
for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.
And lead us not into temptation.'"  (Luke 11:2-4)

This, we know, is referred to as the Lord's Prayer.  Bonhoeffer says that all the prayers in Scripture are summarized in this single prayer and "are contained in its immeasurable breadth."  (Bonhoeffer, Psalms at 15-16)  Martin Luther said that the Psalms penetrate "the Lord's Prayer and the Lord's Prayer penetrates [the Psalms], so that it is possible to understand one on the basis of the other and to bring them into joyful harmony."  God's words are so much clearer and powerful than our rambling.  In my human-ness, if I am honest, the Lord's Prayer becomes for me too easy to recite, too easy to memorize, and thus too easy to remove all meaning.  I hate that this is true, but it is.  I know it by heart and like so many other things I take for granted from overuse, this too has become true of the Lord's Prayer.  I need to understand it or see it in a new way.  And so, I turn to the Psalms and other passages of Scripture to, as Luther said, help me understand and soak in the Lord's Prayer and vice versa.

As Thomas Merton quoted in his book "Contemplative Prayer," St. Macarius explained a loss of words in prayer this way:  "Only stretch out your arms and say: 'Lord, have pity on me as you desire and as you well know how!'  And if the enemy presses you hard, say: 'Lord, come to my aid!'"  This is enough. I have compiled and set forth below the words from the Psalms, or elsewhere as noted, that have of late become primarily my prayers as framed by the Lord's Prayer.  There are so many more you could put into these categories. 

Father, Hallowed Be Your Name

"You are mighty, O Lord, and your faithfulness surrounds you."  (Psalm 89:86)

"I love you, O Lord, my strength."  (Psalm 18:1)

"Praise the Lord."  (Psalm 135:1)

"Abba, Father," I belong to you.  (Rom. 8:15; Brennan Manning, the furious longing of God, at 46)

Your Kingdom Come

"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for your, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water."  (Psalm 63:1)

"Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you."  (Psalm 143:8a)

"My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.  Yet not as I will, but as you will."  (Matt. 26:39)

"Come, Lord Jesus."  (Rev. 22:20)

Give Us Each Day Our Daily Bread

"Keep me safe, O God, for in you I take refuge."  (Psalm 16:1)

"My soul finds rest in God alone;
my salvation comes from him.
He alone is my rock and my salvation;
he is my fortress, I will never be shaken."  (Psalm 62:1-2)

God, may you give me the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that I may know you better, that the eyes of my heart may be enlightened in order that I may know the hope to which you have called me, the riches of my glorious inheritance in the saints, and your incomparably great power for us who believe.  (Eph. 1:15-20)

Father, stop my worrying.  You know what I need.  I will seek first your kingdom and your righteousness, and all I need will be given to me as well.  (Matt. 6:28-33)

Forgive Us Our Sins For We Forgive Everyone Who Sins Against Us

"Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I call to you all day long." (Psalm 86:3)

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your unfailing love." (Psalm 51:1)
"Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." (Psalm 51:10)

"Be merciful to me, Lord, for I am faint; O Lord, heal me,
for my bones are in agony.
My soul is in anguish.
How long, O Lord, how long?
Turn, O Lord, and deliver me because of your unfailing love."  (Psalm 6:2-4)

Lord, help me to forgive those who sin against me not seven times, but seventy-seven times.  (Matt. 18:22)

Lead Us Not Into Temptation

"Rescue me and deliver me in your righteousness; turn your ear to me and save me." (Psalm 71:2)
"Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck." (Psalm 69:1)

"Set guard over my mouth, O Lord; keep watch over the door of my lips.
Let not my heart be drawn to what is evil, to take part in wicked deeds with
men who are evildoers; let me not eat of their delicacies."  (Psalm 141:3-4)

"Set me free from my prison, that I may praise your name."  (Psalm 142:7)

"Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul."  (Psalm 143:8b)

If you find yourself asking why and how to pray, or if you have lost your words and your prayers just seem to ramble without end or direction, think about the prayer you would pray as a child: simple, straightforward, blunt.  See if praying these words doesn't spark something and open a conversation with God whether your heart is full or empty.

Remember, if you still can't find your way: "the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.  And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God's will."  (Rom. 8:26-27)


  1. I loved the line, "praying about why I can't pray". A frustration very familiar to me. Thanks for the tutorial. I'll try it.

  2. What is prayer, but a communication between you and He, acknowledging Him. The best advice that I have received, is to speak in relative terms which you understand, for surely he does.