"God, I want a Barbie doll for Christmas. Can you add that to your list?"
It is hard to be honest as a minister about the fact that I am not very good at praying.
Sure, I do it. Most mornings these days I sidle up next to Jesus with a cup of coffee and a passage from Scripture. Some days there is a long laundry list of intercessions: “Please bless Kay and Dan and their upcoming marriage;” “please help the family with the child who has leukemia;” “please help Cam listen to his teacher today;” “please help me figure out what I’m going to do when I grow up.”
Other days, the inclination to sit in the silence of a centering prayer soon devolves into a long, painfully protracted reminder of my mind’s ability to focus on anything but Jesus. There is the laundry waiting to be folded, the next chapter of the book to be written, and the parent-teacher meeting to attend, after all. Jesus is somewhere in the midst of it all, albeit hard to find.
So I’m not a very good prayer. Contrary to frequent misconceptions of pastors by parishioners, I am not a “professional” prayer, either. But these days I have been thinking about the nature of prayer as spiritual formation.
My daughter, Sam, was diagnosed last year with something called “low muscle tone,” which our family soon discovered is a “catch-all” term for a condition that doctors don’t really understand. Sam underwent a number of tests with the referral of a pediatric neurologist. The neurologist told me that if the tests came back “negative,” meaning no other underlying condition was present, she would diagnose Sam with “cerebral palsy.”
The tests came back negative.
If you’re still processing the “cerebral palsy” part, then you can imagine a bit of this mother’s reaction when she first heard the words, “cerebral palsy.” The jaw dropped. The eyes widened then blinked. Time seemed to stand still for a few minutes before I responded.
The doctor then assured me that “cerebral palsy” can be as minor as a scar on the brain that heals over time with lots of therapeutic intervention at an early age. That helped a bit.
On my darker days, when Sam’s condition causes me to wonder where she’ll be not one year but five or ten years from now, I am reminded of the story of the blind man in John’s Gospel (John 9). “Who sinned, this man or his parents?,” the disciples ask Jesus. Jesus answers that the man was born blind, “so that God might be glorified.” (If truth be told, I sometimes secretly wish that God wouldn’t have to “glorify” God’s Self so much.)
But “low muscle tone,” in addition to giving God the glory, has meant frequent and regular trips to the physical therapist and now the speech therapist.
Which brings me back to the whole idea of prayer as spiritual formation. Because these days helping Sam to speak involves refusing to speak for her and letting her do the hard work of pronouncing the words. This is challenging to do as a mother. Often Sam becomes impatient. She wants me to understand her without having to do the tough work of asking. If she is having trouble forming the syllables, or pronouncing them in a way that is remotely comprehensible, Sam is quick to cry.
In some cases, I really do know exactly what Sam wants, but I have to keep encouraging her to say it for herself. Because ultimately Sam needs to learn how to voice what she wants if she is going to grow into the person she was meant to become. Depending on me to do it for her before she asks it of me will only keep her stuck in the same rut.
The dialogue might look like the following:
“You want what?”
“I want that!”
“You want that?” What’s that?” (“That” is the chocolate milk on the counter.)
“I want that!” (Sam is now getting impatient with herself and me and begins to cry.)
“Do you want the milk?” Can you say, ‘milk’ please?”
“I want the milk, please.”
I wonder if prayer is similar. Sure, our requests might be a bit more complex than simply, “I want chocolate milk.” But they are there all the same, and they are often uniquely ours and nobody else’s. “I want your peace, God.” “I need your courage, Jesus.”
And prayer can often seem like a struggle to articulate these needs and desires that our uniquely our own. Sometimes it’s hard to find the right words for what we most fear or long for. Our words can seem empty or fall flat or we may find ourselves speechless. Yet the Spirit helps us in our weakness, Romans 8:26 instructs: “we do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express.”
C.S. Lewis said this of prayer: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me.”
Prayer changes us. Something happens when we choose to voice our deepest needs and desires to God for ourselves and let God shape and transform our words and thoughts. God does some of God’s best work on us, making us into people formed and made for Love.
What does this process of spiritual formation require of us? Patience, courage and a little self-discipline, I suspect. Maybe, too, the recognition that we are all like little children with speech impediments.