A Prayer From A Harlot’s Heart And Sailor’s Tongue

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God,

Are you bothered by my profanity? If you hear all, then you must hear the curses I say under my breath (let alone those I shout). You are a God of beauty and I am a harlot’s heart with a sailor’s mouth. But sailors watch the sunset imploding into the western horizon. They know the feeling of the earth’s inhale and exhale as they rise and fall with each and every wave. And surely the harlot knows some love, even if it be diluted, stolen or suffocated within their wounded heart. So you’ll still hear me, God. Won’t you?

I confess that I would not listen to me, if I were you. The prayers I pray to you would annoy the hell out of me, if not produce a very righteous anger. I guess it’s a really good thing that you are God, and I am not.

At the same time, you are justified, oh God, should you look on me with contempt.

And yet you have called me your own. My mouth you have cleansed, delighted in fact, with your body and blood; my heart you are transforming in spite of every beat and lunge toward the siren’s call. Who are you God, if not Transcendent Grace?

There is no grace apart from you, but from within you comes nothing else. Righteousness and love mix; despite all I might think, they have never and will never exist apart from one another. They are inseparable, just like the cross and empty tomb and, consequently, death and resurrection.

And thus you assure me- potty-mouth and idolater that I am- that I shall never be taken from you.

So…yeah. Thanks for that.

Amen.

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On Learning (Trying, Really) To Pray

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I close my eyes. I fold my hands. I bend my knees. I breathe, in, out, in, out. I clear my mind: did I schedule the dentist appointment yet? I wonder if I should have salad  or chicken parmesan for dinner. God, it’s so effing humid out. I can’t wait till football season; was it really a good idea taking Peyton again in my fantasy draft? I’m not sure I like these sandals. I breath again. And then I … then I … I …

I pray.

But okay, hold up. Let’s be honest. I don’t really know what prayer is.

Christ taught his inner circle to pray with a formula: “Lord,” said the disciples, “teach us how to pray.” And so he did. He gave a word-by-word guide: you don’t know how to appeal to God? Here take my hand and I’ll show you. Don’t know how to give due reverence to the Father? Let’s start with “hallowed be thy name.”

Jesus laid the foundations, the stepping stones with which we, mere humans, could converse with the Almighty. And then-most importantly- he paved this pathway with his death on the cross. “To pray in Jesus’ name,” Timothy Keller writes, ” [is] to reground our relationship with God in the saving work of Jesus over and over again.”

Which is fantastic, remarkable, unfathomable. But this still doesn’t answer the question at hand: what is prayer? Is a brute recitation of the Lord’s Prayer the only means by which we can talk to God?

The answer- thankfully, gratefully, wonderfully- is no. Prayer, though it should never be less, invites us to expand on the conversation with God which Christ began on our account. And across Church history we see the personality of the saints painting the portrait of prayer in a myriad of colors:

John Donne prayed through writing poems, tediously selecting words, phrases, rhymes and meter to compose something beautiful unto God. Martin Luther was in the habit of finding a quiet corner and reading to himself, word-for-word, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed and finally some selections from to gospels or the psalter. Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner turned missionary, infamously spoke of how he felt God’s pleasure while running- the the other side of this conversation we call “prayer.”

The problem with such examples of prayer (if “problem” is really the right word) is that they focus on the personal aspect of a relationship with Christ. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has been steadily but surely pushing back on the once-held notion that the clergy (pastors, priests, etc) exist as mediators for the laity, the common people, you and me. The reformers (with due credit allotted to the timely invention of the printing press) insisted that all believers can -and should- encounter God through the Scriptures, receive him in the sacraments and approach him in prayer. Faith- and with it prayer- became personal.

Which is good, wonderful, necessary, and Biblical.

But, as with all things, needs a dose of moderation.

Because when prayer becomes just a personal endeavor, when prayer is removed from the context of communal faith, we also lose our framework for how to actually pray.

For prayer brings the believer into the community of the saints. The words “Dear Lord,” “Our Father”, “Precious Jesus kind and good (…)”; these words unite us to the confessing Church, like a college’s fight song unites its alumni. Prayer is not a matter of enhancing a personal relationship with Christ, boxing out everyone and anything and focusing entirely on his relationship with you. Rather, prayer is the act of taking the hands of believers before and around you, of approaching God’s throne as a member of his bride, the Church. The words I mutter at church, the thoughts I think (intentionally, aimed towards God who- best as I can imagine- is somewhere in the sky) at night, the Psalms I read, the times I yell in anger, shout with joy, laugh, dance, run- the flutters of goodness, hope, gratitude and praise that lift from my inner being…these do not isolate me as a believer in a personal relationship but identify me as a member of the universal Church.

In other words: prayer is personal, but it is also something so much more than just the expression of a single bond between myself and Christ. Every member of the choir matters; but it’s the joining of their voices in harmony and unison that the bridegroom has come to hear.

And this is of great comfort to me as I’m learning (trying, really) to pray.

Because suddenly my conversation with Christ does not rely on me. When prayer is seen as something much greater than my own direct line to Christ, when prayer is understood as a joining of voices, my shouts of “hurrah!” rising with the thousands, then prayer does not end when I open my eyes, think about dinner, speed-read the Psalms or forget to mutter my grocery lists of requests and praises prior to going to bed. When prayer moves outside of something that I control and into something in which I participate, then the act of trying to pray is itself caught up grace.

Prayer is not a pre-paid phone line between myself and Christ; the conversation goes on even when I hang up, or perhaps cannot bring myself to call.

Which is why prayer is not a test. The Tabernacle, Levitical law, Old Testament sacrificial system… if anything was, these were the test between God and his people, a test no one can pass. Except Christ. And when he aced the test, when he died on the cross, he opened up a channel of accessibility between God and his people. Prayer- this conversation with God- is a reflection of our relationship to God; and so it hinges on his work, not ours.

Prayer, ultimately, is not something we do, but something we accept, and partake.

We accept God’s desire for a relationship with his bride, the Church. We accept our role in said Church, the community of saints, the gathering of sinners now redeemed. We accept the conversation occurring between the Creator and created of which we are a part. We accept and the acceptance, the acknowledgement, the bowed head, still moments, whispered Psalms, and shouts of “hallelujah!”, these actions are not our own but are Christ’s. They are Christ’s who works in grace and through the believer in very act of prayer itself.

And so I do want to pray. And I’m always learning different ways: reading the Psalms aloud, five every day, the entire Psalter each month; repeating liturgical phrases (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”; “the Lord bless you and keep you”; “the word of the Lord, thanks be to God!”) every spare moment of every day; sitting in silence and awe of his creation: a park bench, a food court in the mall, a scenic overlook, a sandy beach; closing my eyes and thinking thoughts directed to a God who wants to be known but- at the same time- one could never comprehend.

I pray. I try.

And with every breath I’m all the more thankful that the prayer does not depend on my technique, effort, desire, or even purity of heart.

Instead it depends on Christ. And therefore it is heard.

Thanks be to God.

 

A Tent in the Mountains (Until You Hear)

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I couldn’t sleep the other night so I crept out to our couch. I kept the lights off and read with a book lamp so as not to wake my wife. I’m working my way through the Russian authors. Which is about as helpful an antidote to insomnia as teaching drum lessons might be for a hangover.

I’m having trouble praying again. Sorry to be a broken record. But faith is a journey, right? The further a car travels, the more it needs gas. And I earnestly want to believe that God hears. But the fuel light is on.

After an hour of reading, I was still awake. I got up to get a drink of water, placing the book open and face down on the floor by the couch. The reading lamp bent under the spine, still pouring light onto the pages. I groped in the darkness until I reached the kitchen. I filled a glass with water, and turned to make my way back. But the scene gave me pause.

The apartment was shrouded in darkness: everything except the lamplight under my book. The light beneath the pages made a glowing pyramid, piercing the darkness with its light. It reminded me of one of my favorite paintings- my sister’s work actually. She’s remarkably talented; it’s a painting of tent in a winter mountain landscape. The scene is dark save the light from the tent. Well, that and the aurora borealis dancing above it. A tent in the mountains and the borealis dancing above- she captured it exquisitely. Someday I’ll put my grandkids through college by pawning it off to a dealer (I’m kidding of course; I’ll probably use the money for a sports car).

I came across a poem by Donne this week; one of the lines stuck out to me. An idiomatic version of the olde English reads: “Hear us! For until you hear us, Lord, we know not what to say.”

It’s been a hard year. A damn good one too. Headaches, laughter, breakdowns, tears, kisses out the door and nights with take-out and sitcoms: this is the stuff of life. And it’s tiring to feel empty yet overflowing with it all. Because- let me tell you- the borealis of life’s winter nights are magnificent. Before she fell asleep tonight my wife whispered: “you know I love you, right?” Like she was worried I might forget and drift off without knowing.

I couldn’t and I didn’t. But I stand in the kitchen, looking at the only light in the room, curled under itself on the floor.

And I believe he hears.

So I start by saying: it’s crazy that you do hear; sometimes it seems like you don’t. Still you hear me. Me like a lonely tent in the mountains. Me like a tired wife, lying in bed next to the imprint in the sheets left from her husband’s stirring. Me like the prayers I can’t pray because I’ve forgotten how to forget that I’ve no clue how pray. Me when all I can do is breathe and cry and smile and read Russian authors until the late AM.

Who but you could hear this? All the good, bad and beautiful, this life.

I don’t know. But I know you do. Because I know what to say.

I say that the world is harsh and welcoming like frostbite and bright tents. I say you’re mysterious and gentle, like a wife as she sleeps. And you’re sharp and bright, like the lamp light on the floor.

I say you’re magnificent but distant, like the borealis in winter’s sky. And I say that when I reach heaven’s gates I’ll ask if there’s room in your holy city for just one more. And if you say “no” then I want to be able to say that I still believe in you. I want to. But I’m not quiet ready yet (if I’m honest).

And if the golden streets are too crowded – if you’ve not yet a room prepared- then I’ll take my tent. I’ll take my tent and I’ll walk back out the pearly gates to the mountain range in the distance. There I’ll sit. In my tent in the mountains. And my light will shine in the darkness as it’s own little tribute to your presence that I see dancing in, among, above and with your beautiful city.

I looked at the light. I took a sip of water. And I silently thanked God for paintings and sisters, cool glasses of water, lamplight and insomnia. I thanked God for the words he hears- the ones I’m learning how to say.

I turned off the light and went back to bed. My wife sighed when I laid down, still asleep, but like she knew. Like she knew that he’d heard.

I was asleep in minutes.

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