21 February 2014

Pray Constantly

I remember wondering things like "Do I pray enough?" when I was younger. I never knew what "enough" was, but I always knew I wasn't there yet. And scripture telling me to pray constantly didn't help assuage my guilt. I had these very specific ideas about how and when to pray. In the morning you do a devotional, before you leave you ask for travelling mercies, in prayer time at school you pray for sick relatives, before dinner you bless the meal and before bed you ask for forgiveness. But even if I prayed all of those prayers, I still felt like I wasn't praying enough. Not knowing what more to do, I just decided that prayer wasn't for me. I became anxious praying out loud, never feeling like my prayers were good enough. I got weirdly good and just saying no when asked to pray publicly.

I don't know when it changed. I imagine it started when I interned at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church (OCMC) back in 2006 and saw a church that was wholly invested in prayer. We prayed before and after meetings. We did prayer walks in the neighborhood. When one family was moving, we walked through the empty rooms of their new house and prayed. We prayed for impossible things and mundane things. We prayed for everything. They quickly discovered my aversion to praying out loud and were completely respectful of it, allowing me to pray with them silently. This created a space for me where prayer was easy. It happened all the time and increasingly came naturally to me.

I still struggled with worries about enough, but I slowly came back to prayer. It started with simple conversations with God as I walked places. This is still my favorite and most precious way to pray. To just open your mind to the divine and pour out everything weighing you down is beautiful and sacred. I began to love to pray privately and silently, but still felt so very anxious about praying out loud.

When I first moved to Philly 4 years ago, I attended a women's bible study through OCMC. At the end of the study, we would go around the circle and share all of our prayer requests with the whole group and then we would break into pairs and pray for each other. The leader of the study knew my discomfort with praying out loud, so would encourage me to pray silently for my partner. This, again, created a wonderfully safe space for me. And it was here, as I was so blessed by the words these women prayed over me, that I desired to pray aloud for the first time in years. I still stammered and felt awkward a lot, but I pushed through it. I soon found that just as I was blessed by words prayed over me, so too did my words bless the women I prayed for. I learned that prayer isn't just about me and God, it's about the people I'm praying for and over, too. I learned that hearing someone else articulate your cries to God is powerful.

These days, I pray a lot. Living in a city and relying only on public transportation and my own two feet means I see a lot of people everyday and I pray for many of them. When the roads are bad, I pray safety over cars that go past me. When I see someone rushing somewhere, I pray they make it on time. When I hear about a crime, I pray peace for the victim, victim's family, perpetrator, perpetrator's family and witnesses. When I hear a siren, I pray.

I still struggle with praying out loud, though. In small groups of people who care deeply about me, it is still something I have to muster. One of the things that has made me the most anxious is being asked to pray over a meal. One of my friends who went to Catholic school suggested I try liturgical prayer in a situation like that. Specifically, she suggested:

Bless us, Oh Lord,
and these thy gifts,
which we are about to receive,
from thy bounty,
through Christ,
Our Lord.

This sparked me looking for more liturgical prayer, as that felt so much more comfortable. Below are the three I use the most often.

The Lord bless you and keep you
The Lord make His face to shine upon you
And give you Peace

When I see someone who looks worried or upset or anxious or just bummed, I say this prayer for them.

Oh Lord, Oh Lord, Oh Lord

This one I reserve for when there are no words. Like when I see a pregnant teenager or an ignored toddler or when I read about the terrible violence in Syria, Ukraine and all over the world.

Lord Jesus Christ
Have mercy on me

This one is for me. Whenever I just can't handle whatever's going on in my life, I ask for mercy.

The most important thing this prayer journey has taught me is that God meets us where we are. God saw my anxiety and brought me to places of public prayer that were safe. God met me in my silence and nurtured my voice. God never condemned me for not praying enough. God rejoiced in what I was comfortable with. Prayer is important, but it's also for us. It's not for piety. It's not for enough. It's for our own growth and connection with God and other believers.

Now when I think about praying constantly, I think about constantly remaining connected to the divine and to the people around me. It is no longer a source of guilt, but a source of hope about the possibility of a continuous spiritual bond.

This beautiful prayer flag was made for me by my friend and fellow blogger, Rachel Halder. You can find her writing at www.ourstoriesuntold.com

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