Most anybody who launches into a regular prayer practice is quick to acknowledge how often distractions come into play. They’ve set the timer, they’re sitting on the couch, the cup of tea is on the coffee table cooling. They close their eyes and open their hearts…and what? A million thoughts race through their heads. The ten o’clock meeting, the Power Point presentation, the thank-you note that needs to be written, the funny noise the car has been making.

How to talk to God when all the noise in your head gets in the way?

“I have to remind myself that it’s all in the return,” declared a woman who, like most of us, struggles with focus in her prayer time.

The return? What’s that?

“Returning to God after the distraction. Hearing it, acknowledging it and then going right back to God. If I ignore the distraction it’ll only get worse, bigger. It’ll pull me away. But if I listen, then return to God with a sacred word, I’m fine. And besides, all those returns mean more chances to talk to God. I keep at it. Practicing.”

“Practicing prayer” is a great phrase because prayer is all practice. It’s not a performance art. It’s not reserved for professionals only; it’s a place where we can be amateurs. After all, an amateur is one who does something for the love of it, not for any gain. Prayer is a place for passion, caring and love.

Those of us who are praying people can tell each other stories of how prayer made a difference: the car keys that were found, the math test that was passed, the unexpected windfall when the bank account was empty, the healing that didn’t seem possible. We know someone who seemed close to death in the hospital and amazingly, miraculously, after much prayer was released, symptom-free.

“That was an answer to prayer,” we claim with much rejoicing.

But is it really such a result-driven enterprise? Is that all that’s driving us? There have been countless times when prayers weren’t answered, not in ways that we could understand. The quip that God has three answers to prayer: “Yes,” “No” and “Maybe” seems too facile. Even the version that says God’s answers fall into three categories: “Yes,” “No” and “Wait a while” seems too glib. In fact, it’s the very mystery of prayer that pulls us in, that keeps us at it.

“Prayer changes things,” might be a better way to put it, “because prayer changes me.”

There have been various studies over the years about the effectiveness of prayer, some of them more convincing than others. But I can’t imagine any such study compelling someone to pray anymore than a survey about marriage is going to decide what you’re going to look for an a future spouse.

To pray is to enroll in a seminar on love. To love God, to love others, to love your family, to love nature, to love someone on the other side of the world whom you’ve never met, to love the people you find most difficult and the things that frighten you, to forgive others, to forgive yourself, to grow, to blossom, to bear fruit. To pray is to become all you can be and all you ever hope to be.

“I can’t pray,” someone will say.

That’s a little like saying “I can’t breathe.” Everybody can pray. It’s born into us. It’s very simple. To try to do it is to do it. It’s the only human enterprise where trying is enough. You think your thoughts are too angry, your heart too small, your needs not worth bringing up or too horrifying to even mention. Look at the psalms sometime. See what variety is put there. It’s not all happy-clappy praise and thanksgiving. It’s not just too-sweet-for-words holiness. There is pain, anger, greed, regret, sorrow expressed.

If the Psalmist could sing in exasperation “I am so troubled that I cannot speak” (Psalm 77:4) so can you. You can even do it without words.

Don’t limit prayer. You can pray with your body dancing or your hands raised or your feet running or your voice raised. You can pray on a walk in the forest or standing silently in the sun on a busy sidewalk…or gosh, lost in the maze of a shopping mall. You can pray on your knees in a church or on a subway train hurtling underground. One of the most popular places for prayer, it turns out, is in the car, music on or off.

You can pray by complaining. You can list all your grievances, spill them all out. Nigel Mumford, Episcopal priest and healing minister has a lovely way of putting it. “If you’re going to throw a pity party,” he says, “you might as well invite Jesus to it.” Put the Lord in a front row seat and unload.

Why would you do that? Isn’t that disrespectful? Shouldn’t we edit ourselves before we talk to God?

Well, don’t you think he’s already heard what you decided in your head you shouldn’t really say?

When you’re angry at God is probably when you need to pray most. If your friend were angry at you, wouldn’t you want to know? Wouldn’t you want to hear from him? So would God. Don’t let your anger consume you. Dump it on someone bigger than you.

A prayer life can be rich and varied. You shouldn’t limit prayer anymore than you would try to limit God. Pray for others. Pray when anybody asks you for prayer. What an opportunity you are being given to connect to them and to God. A day will come when you will find prayer very difficult, when you will feel lost, when you won’t know where to turn, when you’re in despair.

You will be helped by those praying for you. They will cover for you when you need it most and you will cover for them.

No surprise that the prayer Jesus gave his disciples and us is in the first-person plural. “Give us this day our daily bread…forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors…Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil…” We are all in this together. The daily bread I need for myself is what I want for you. The forgiveness I yearn for is the forgiveness I need to give to you. Our God is Our Father which makes us all brothers and sisters.

There must be as many prayers are there are souls in the universe. We all have our own hurts, needs, wants, joys. Let ‘em out. Share them. You can’t go wrong. You can’t fail.

It’s all in the return, as that woman said. Every prayer is a return to God and to you. No need to rehearse it. It’s not like that pitch you have to make to your boss to justify the raise you should have gotten three years ago. The right words, the right phrase, the right sigh, the right song, the right smile is on your lips now.

Go for it.

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