The Shortest Prayers Say the Most

I had one of those speechless days in which there was so much emotion going on in my head and in my life and in the lives of all those around me (hey… it’s a week until Christmas!) The itchy, unsettled, squirmy thoughts and emotions spun around so much that the more I tried to center on any sort of prayer or reflection, the fewer words came.

It always starts off with some snarky question that’s not really asking anything: “Hey God. Answer me this….

And then before waiting for whatever response (if any) there is going to be, with the very next thought I’m off on some diatribe of head preaching at God about whatever it is that has pissed me off  today. It’s not so much “Hey God, I want to ask you something” as it is “Listen up God, I’m going to TELL you something.”

Even in prayer, that isn’t conversation: it’s nagging.

I grew up in a religious tradition of very long, very verbose, and very pointed praying so that by the end of it, those who were still awake and alert had absolutely no question about what was on the pray-er’s agenda that day. Add lots of filler catch phrases about taking this food as nourishment to our bodies (that makes its way into nearly every blessing at meals my extended family says.) Mix in a bunch of “to the glory of Your name.” And in the last bit, top with a shake of “if it so be Thy will” (like the pray-er is giving God a choice) and pop it back in the oven for another minute under the broiler, et voila! Fifteen minutes of reciting every catch phrase in one’s larder and finishing with a prayer that has said Absolutely Nothing.

And most times with more thee, thou, and thine than Shakespeare would have used. Trust me here: God does have a full comprehension of contemporary English (or whatever your primary language is.)

But hey: we prayed, right?

I graduated to a standardized form of public prayer in which one could go to the book, look up an event type (or a date, or a Saint’s day) and there would be the prescribed prayer ready to go, no additions needed (or appreciated.) Those are in a standard 3-phrase context of

  1. Say something good about God
  2. Tell God what God has done for us around the topic at hand
  3. Ask God for whatever it is that the prayer is seeking on this same topic

It’s great for read-along and speak-along public services because everybody knows the words and it’s like a hymn or a psalm. And the assumption here is that the pray-er has an internal understanding of the message of the prayer, by reciting those words in community with others. The downside is that some folks out in the pews think of these communal prayers as “inpersonal” and even more “saying a bunch of phrases” and not off-the-cuff as the lengthy recitations above.

Do you think God really cares? It’s not so much which songs we sing and what words we bring forward to the proverbial Throne of Grace, so long as we sing and pray.

Some days, neither of those schemes works.

Within  these years of a centering prayer and contemplative practice, some days my human feelings get in the way. I don’t’ feel like spouting on forever until the gravy gets cold, or simply saying rote that which has been said a billion times before. I want to get out what I need to get out, and I want to be true to both my feelings and that spiritual relationship.

For those times, I have my shortest prayer. Very simple, a single line, with no attributions or “in Jesus’ name we pray,” etc. It speaks in just a few words my feeling that yes, God, I want to (OMG! need to!) talk to you about something, AND the words just aren’t there right now, AND I need you to know that I am here, the other part of this relationship, and any guidance is appreciated. Even though I have said these words just as many “millions” of times, always exactly the same, this action is so brief and so close to the bone that it becomes a prayer from all that I know and all that I want to know.

The words become more than just words.

When emotions get high all around me and within me, I go to this simple prayer to summarize all that I feel, all that I want to get off my chest, and how I do not want to sit in my own sorrows and fears. Instead I want to do whatever it is that I am to do next, even if all I can do next is to sit in that moment of quiet and let go of those wiggling distractions. I want release from this moment so that I can proceed on to the next moment and see what there is to see of this thing we call relationship, our communion. I want to drop my own nagging, and become open to receiving whatever it is that I am to see, to feel, to experience in this moment that seems so very dark.

The realization comes that no matter how distracted and upset I am, many others out there need help too. My own troubles fade in the lending out my alone time with God – by being with God in the sharing of God, in a sure belief that all this distraction will calm. We learn that we come the closest to that which we think of as God, by sharing. Divinity is not a thing to be hoarded.

By  sharing this need for our Maker during  the bad times, and realizing that we are not alone, that message also lives in the air around us as a prayer.

Lord,
For those who need you more than I.

Amen.

Even So, Lord – patience in the time of great anticipation

Maybe it is my own infirmity and my impatience with it – for some reason the daily news causes dis-ease in my soul this quiet Advent season.

Presidential campaigns are  always a stressful time for me, more since our people have once again become the whipping boys of the ones in campaign who strive to win by showing all and sundry who it is that they should be afraid of. By tThose who seek votes in their favor by telling folks who to hate, rather than showing us what measure of leader they are. This year it’s more difficult to speak out in defense against their ignorance and hate. It’s more painful to “open the mouth” as my mother says to remind folks that the great Commission of those on the spiritual path is to show love, acceptance, and radical hospitality:

To seek always to live a life of complete Shalom.

Violence around us is speaking louder to me as I wonder, “is it always so, or is this year worse than usual?” Poverty – as Dickens wrote – is more keenly felt as the good charities come up short on donations to make kids-in-need happier, to protect families cast to the street, and to feed those who do not have enough to eat. In the dark winter days of a dark economy, each of us knows that first priority is to keep our own families warm and fed, and when budgets scrape, the luxuries of giving part of what we have to others may have to take a Rain Check.

And still they are around us – cold… hungry… homeless… unloved.

These feelings bring more uncomfortable silence to my quiet meditations: too much time spent circling in a whirlpool of “OMG What Can I do?” and focusing on what I do not have, rather than what I have plenty of to share and give away. I may slip for a second of relinquishing to the bad things that people say about our people – the things they say for profit rather than to tell the truth.

But just a second or two, knowing that my bowing down to hateful speech means that I have let that chunk of hate live in the air around me, rather than speaking out with words of unending Shalom.

I am impatient that the frailty of my body keeps me down on the days I want to be up and moving. I find my thoughts slipping off-prayer in my meditations to my impatience with the badness of the world around me. Instead of being present and receptive, I catch myself fist-shaking at God and wondering When will this be done? When will these troubles change? When will…???  Then the Maker congratulates me on being so human as the answer comes back:

Shalom.

Solution is simple. Return, ever-so-gently to the reason of our prayers and meditations: to be closer to the Maker, to be in loving communion that allows us to be more loving people. My fears fade, my monkey brain rests. Again, I can sit and be still in the presence of my God.

In 1953, American choral composer Paul Manz was in a tough place: his 3-year-old son John was in the hospital, gravely ill with very little hope of survival. During the long vigil his wife Ruth cobbled together words from The Revelation 22, and gave them to Manz for a project, which he published after their son was better  and dedicated it to those who had prayed for John’s recovery.

The work he created has become one of the standards of American choral liturgical music and centers on an Advent theme – the coming birth of Christ and how that will change the world through brightness and love. The melody speaks to my contemplative heart because the tune itself is a winding meditation of prayer. I have heard this work both as instrumental (for both organ and oboe) and choral, and they both work for me! It’s a simple, contemplative piece and if you are not into the Jesus stuff, the lyrics will not get in the way.

I listen to the work and let it flow around me in the air during prayers, My heart moves away from the troubles of the world, and rests in the lullaby of “…and night shall be no more.” In your darker days of the spirit, I hope that this will become part of your arsenal and do the same for you.

Keep the faith!
Amen

E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come

 

 

E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come

lyrics and music by Paul Manz (1953)

Peace be to you and grace from Him
Who freed us from our sin Who loved us all, and shed his blood
That we might saved be.
Sing holy, holy to our Lord
The Lord almighty God Who was and is, and is to come
Sing holy, holy Lord.
Rejoice in heaven,
all ye that dwell therein
Rejoice on earth, ye saints below
For Christ is coming,
Is coming soon
For Christ is coming soon.
E’en so Lord Jesus quickly come
And night shall be no more
They need no light, no lamp, nor sun
For Christ will be their All!