When I was 19 I had just started learning guitar and was trying my hand at writing some songs. I wasn’t that good at either the guitar or songwriting, (which is probably still the case…) since most of my instrumentation was limited to a few chords and my writing to vague and purposeless lines that had no cohesion whatsoever.
I had been trying to make a habit of praying more, but most of the time I allotted for that occurred right before I went to bed, which meant that more often than not I prayed myself to sleep.
Granted, there are probably far worse ways to fall asleep.
When you are a teenager being taught about prayer, you are often encouraged to approach prayer as if you are talking to a friend. Well, as I thought about my prayer-induced slumber within that framework, I realized that my prayers must be so dull that I was boring myself to sleep. And even though I know that God is not like us (thankfully) and doesn’t get bored, I was still somewhat disgusted with myself.
After all, I was thinking of this as a conversation with God. But if someone fell asleep while we were having a conversation- especially every time we talked- I would probably assume that they either didn’t care that much about me or were so wearied being around me that my very presence was like Benadryl.
Such ponderings made their way into a song. Almost assuredly not a very good one, written so long ago that I have lost the lyrics and, more mercifully, the music. But the idea has never really gotten away.
Why does prayer often seem so hard? Intellectually I acknowledge that it is important- crucial, really- yet time and time again throughout my life I have found myself seriously struggling to find the words, to find the time, to find the motivation to it.
So many times I have gone through the story of Jesus praying in the garden with his disciples, and find they do the exact same thing- fall asleep on him. It’s infuriating as you read it- Come on guys, don’t you realize what is happening here? Can’t you see that Jesus is in pain to the point of sweating blood? Don’t you understand what is going to occur in a few hours? How can you sleep at a time like this?
In all my self-righteousness I thumb my nose at these pathetic and foolish men. But then I lay in a bed and offer up my half-hearted lines to God, drowsy and dreary the lot of them. When I arise in the morning I forget where I left off- or did I even start at all? Did I even bother to thank God for anything, or was it, as usual, mostly about me?
Further into my 20’s I got better (maybe?) at playing guitar and writing songs, and decided that I had had enough of confession. Brilliant idea- instead of putting myself in positions where I would fall asleep while praying, maybe I should just make these songs into my prayers.
In a way, it actually turned out to be a much better idea. I found myself having to think about what I was writing and praying a lot more. To find different ways of expressing my thoughts I had to study theology more to learn about God, which gave us a lot more to talk about. I also found myself reading the Psalms quite a bit more in the long shot that a compilation of prayers might give me some material and structure for the prayers I was writing…
It was definitely one of the more profitable prayer times of my life. The structure of the prayers I was researching and writing helped my mind to focus. And once I was able to focus and engage my mind, I actually found that my heart followed behind more easily. As I came to know more about God, I was able to know God more.
Prayer is one of those things that will grow as you do. The quality of your prayers even fluctuates in conjunction with the different things you experience.
When I was 29 I got diagnosed with cancer, and in those types of moments you really find out how much prayer means to you, or if it even means anything at all. I have no doubt that previously my prayers were sincere, but facing down your mortality has a way of bringing everything into sharp relief. As you realize just how fragile and uncertain this life is, playing around with prayer becomes non-optional. Either you really pray or you don’t at all.
God is patient with us, and hopefully overlooks our weaknesses. In those moments it is so easy to become bogged down in making your prayers about yourself. And for good reason- after all, even in the Psalms sometimes the writer almost tries to reason with God:
Turn, LORD, and deliver me;
save me because of your unfailing love.
Among the dead no one proclaims your name.
Who praises you from the grave?
It’s not necessarily selfishness, it’s just the way we humans are when confronted with things that are way too big for us to handle. Even Jesus prayed that the cup of suffering would be taken from him. But he also prayed, “Not my will, but Your will be done.”
I have always found that to be a challenging thing to pray even under the best of circumstances. But when you suddenly come face to face with something that might mean the end of it all, that sort of prayer can be fairly frightening. Thanks God, but I think I’ll take it from here.
It’s strange- when bad things happen we mentally tell ourselves that God is good and wants nothing but the best for us, has a plan for our lives, blah, blah, blah. Yet somewhere in the back of our minds we (or maybe just me) have this notion that God really isn’t that good, and maybe doesn’t have a great plan, and perhaps is out for blood. It makes us afraid to really say “Your will be done.”
I mean, look what happened to Jesus when he prayed that.
So usually we pray really hard to be healed or whatever and do all the things we can to bring about what we pray for. And you know what- there is nothing wrong with that. But I have usually half-heartedly tacked on the “Your will be done,” as if saying it might prove to God that I am really pious and make him decide to give me what I really want.
You know, as if I could fool God.
After being diagnosed I realized that for almost all of my life I had been praying this way. My lips would repeat the Lord’s Prayer, but the part about “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” was, if not under my breath, at least under my heart. Yes God, do your will, as long as it doesn’t mean that it costs me anything.
As I struggled with having cancer and all the pain and suffering it would involve along with all the uncertainty in the treatment and the very real possibility of not making it through, God gave me the grace to desire to change. I found myself really wanting God’s will, even if it meant what I didn’t want it to mean.
And when I say I wanted that, more than likely it was the smallest possible spark of desire possible. Because deep within me I knew what I wanted. After all, only a week or so before I had gotten engaged and wanted to live, wanted to get married, wanted to have a long life with Megan and have a chance to really learn how to love and experience that. But here all of that might be shot to hell.
God’s will- which surely was the opposite of what I wanted- was probably the last thing I desired to pray for.
Knowing that if left to my own devices I would fall into the same patterns as before, I decided to change my prayer. Instead of praying what I felt was impossible to pray- “Your will be done”– I prayed,
You know how weak I am, and you know I want, and I do pray that you will heal me and bring me through this. But nevertheless, Your will be done, and help me to mean it.
Instead of trying to fool God like I have done for most of my life, I went for the last resort- the truth. The truth is that I am selfish and weak and stubborn and sinful. But the truth is also that God knows this and still loves me and listens to me, God knows why. Even in our sinfulness and weakness and selfishness God can take our musings and sputterings and transform them into something that draws us deeper into union with him.
By opening up the darkness of our hearts and minds, by dispensing with the pretensions in our wills can space be made for God’s grace to fill and transfigure us. In this laying bare which forms a sort of confession is where God’s love is seen the clearest, for the scales of pride and sin melt away in the brightness of his purity. As we come nearer our lives and motivations become the more translucent, until our lives radiate in the shining of his grace.
After coming through that cancer I saw my prayers undergo a metamorphosis of sorts; instead of starting with me or me falling asleep while saying them, these prayers begin with God and his will. Prayer then becomes a way of me finding myself within his will. I find that everything I have- including my life- comes from God and belongs to God. Prayer in many ways is bringing myself to a place where I am alright with God having all of me, ok with God doing what he wants with me.
I still write songs about prayer, and sometimes they are prayers in and of themselves. A couple months prior to my stem-cell transplant I had written a song about giving myself to God, and how so many times I fail to do it. The chorus goes like this:
Sometimes I give you everything
Sometimes I hold back all of me
What could I give to You, my King?
How could I give you anything?
Although I fail very often, and even though my selfishness still bears its stamp upon my life, God is still teaching me how to pray, showing me little by little how to give myself fully to him. I was thinking abut how when Jesus took his disciples up onto the mountain to pray he ended up being transfigured before them, glowing in the brightness of his glory. This is a picture of what happens when the Son prays to the Father- the communion is so complete that it cannot be contained.
Since Jesus was God and man, the Transfiguration is a promise of sorts, an arrow pointing to the communion that God desires to have with us. My prayers may never eek out even a tiny shaft of light, but I long for the day when the meeting with God will be face to face, when the Beatific Vision consummates the union.
And there’s no way I could ever fall asleep on God again.