I played the trumpet until 9th grade, the year I moved to a large suburban school. When I first entered the band room and heard the trumpet section I knew I had to quit. They were fabulous, and I felt I couldn’t measure up. I enjoyed playing trumpet and actually, I wasn’t bad. But I wasn’t great or at all close to the best. I just wanted to be best. When I was younger I wanted to be best at everything. If I wasn’t excellent I didn’t want to be involved. I was “perfectionistic,” so I quit playing trumpet. What a pathetic mistake!
Throughout my life I have given up on good things because I didn’t feel competent or informed or practiced. Not knowing “how” is a great shame to me. This is a character flaw, rooted in unhealthy pride and my competitive nature. At times this tendency has corrupted even my relationship with God. If I can’t pray perfectly I may fail to pray at all. If I can’t have an uninterrupted 30 minutes, or if I feel distracted or worried or haunted by some regret I may stay away from God. In other words, I often avoid prayer the very moments I need God most. Waiting to be perfect at the perfect moment in the perfect context for prayer… well, I end up away from God all the more.
Many of us have been conditioned to associate prayer with “perfect.” But what if instead we learned to prayer at times and in ways that are exactly opposite of “perfect?” What if we prayed more often and less completely, more honestly and less formally, more simply and less accurately?
In our book, “Six Prayers God Always Answers,” Jennifer Schuchmann and I suggest that maybe “honest” is really the only way to pray. And there as many ways to be honest as there are states of trouble in which to find ourselves. Here’s how we put it:
We talk to God, but we don’t all speak the same language. One person’s prayer comes wrapped in a work of art, like Fabriano’s The Nativity, Handel’s The Messiah, or little Jimmy’s finger painting, Jesus Raises Stinking Lazarus.
Another prayer might appear as a dramatic enactment, like the Jewish Passover or a Native American rain dance. Prayer might waft above a city sung from atop a mosque tower. It might tumble from the lips of a sniffling child, meander along the lyrics of a Kentucky bluegrass song, or be concealed in the eloquent silence of a Benedictine friar.
Communicating with God takes many forms in its effort to express our common predicament. Our reach is never long enough, our fingers never nimble enough. We run out of time, stamina, and will. Our ambitions outpace our capacity and the gap cannot be spanned by noble savagery or advanced technology.
And then? We kneel down. We look up.
Maybe true prayer MUST be imperfect, because it grows out of our honest need of God. Maybe too we pray best when we let our words rise from present, natural moments. I’ve learned, now that I have experienced many failures in my life that prayer can be richest when it’s simple and spontaneous. In fact, I can pray anywhere, at any time. It doesn’t require lofty language in a sacred space. All I need to do is see our ordinary moments as the perfect occasions for communicating with God, then speak from my heart.
I’ve written a series of meditations about this called “21 Ways to Pray.” Over the next three weeks I’ll be posting about these simple, down to earth, in-the-middle-of-life spiritual practices. Check it out the presentation.
And of course, dive in and offer your own experiences and insights along the way!