Imagine walking into a doctor's exam room, telling the doctor your symptoms, showing the doctor what you're concerned about and then... turning around and leaving without letting the doctor respond!
It may sound far-fetched to you but we do it all the time in prayer.
Soren Kierkegaard the 19th century Danish philosopher, theologian and poet once said,
"If I were a physician, and if I were allowed to prescribe just one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would prescribe silence. For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in the modern world, how could one hear it with so much noise? Therefore, create silence."
How often do we turn to the Great Physician with our concerns, yet offer no opportunity for a response? With no response, how are we to know what we really are to say or do, especially in the face of tragedy and difficult circumstances?
Oh, we may think we know what to say or do.
Our ego self or what the Apostle Paul called "the flesh" always has an answer! This part of us likes to self-diagnose (and diagnose others!). It's usually quite sure of itself, quick to demonize those who do not agree, and usually lacks creativity, like choosing apathy. Apathy is quite different than active waiting, for the latter keeps vigilance while the former has "fallen asleep," sure to miss God's invitation to action when it does come!
If we read I Corinthians 3:4-5 and simply turn each phrase of what love is to what it isn't, we get a quick and easy way to recognize when the ego is trying to take charge!
The ego often...
is not patient.
is not kind.
is easily angry.
keeps a record of wrongs.
It's hard to stop talking, look inside, and give up all of these ego-driven things in order to create space to listen to the One who truly knows the next word or action needed.
Don't think it's difficult?
Words often arise from those very places when it comes to the difficult person or situation. BUT, if you can allow that part of the ego (the part that is impatient, for instance) to step aside or tone down, this creates space for silence where there's room for the Physician to speak.
In the doctor's office, the doctor gives you instructions on what to do (or not to do) and the kind of medicine to take. Do you let the words go in one ear and out the other or go home and leave the prescription on your kitchen counter? No! Not if you trust the doctor. There is action involved beyond rehearsing your symptoms and having a prescription in hand.
In prayer, not only is the word spoken to you by the Physician powerful, but the word given to you to speak (or do) carries that same healing power forward.
Says, Henri Nouwen in The Way of the Heart,
"A word with power is a word that comes out of silence. A word that bears fruit is a word that emerges from the silence and returns to it...A word that is not rooted in silence is a weak, powerless word that sounds like a "clashing cymbal or a booming gong." (I Corinthians 13:1)
Our world is in desperate need of wisdom and healing. So many of us say, "I'm praying." What if we said, "I'm listening in prayer." Then, let's actually stop talking, go to a quiet place (like Jesus did), and find out what the Physician has to say.
Trading Prayer Lists for Presence
My mom has always kept a prayer list on her fridge. I know a lot of "prayer warriors" who daily present people's requests to God. But I don't.
I'm grateful for the "prayer list praying people." I know I can contact them to add my request knowing they will routinely lift each name and situation to God. I'm just not one of those people. That kind of praying is too heavy for my shoulders.
I read nothing of Jesus or the apostle Paul keeping running prayer lists. Although I think we'd agree that Jesus was truly present with whoever was in his presence and Paul offered prayers whenever someone came to his mind. I just don't think the latter's "pray without ceasing" was about cycling endlessly through a list.
After wading through the guilt of not wanting to and not being able to pray like others, I finally discovered a way of intercession (praying for or on behalf of someone) that better fits me. And my shoulders recognize it as the light kind of burden Jesus spoke of. Intercessory prayer takes different forms. Rather than prayer lists, for me it's "presence" and here's what it looks like:
Presence when with a person. When I sit with you as a spiritual director, I ask the Spirit of God to reveal, direct, and guide you. As you talk, I listen to the holy invitations in your life. I enter into silence on your behalf willing to listen and receive whatever is offered. In short, I give you my full attention. My hope is the same when listening to a friend in casual conversation. And if you're family, well, I continue to work on it...sometimes I'm more present than others!
Presence when a person is brought to mind. Over the years I've found that when someone is brought to my mind, I later discover it's at the precise moment when prayer was needed. A conversation has come up at a later time or I've felt nudged to go beyond prayer and contact the person. Even when we haven't been in touch for years and I have no idea of their need, contacting them has always revealed something was indeed going on that needed prayer! So know, if your name or face crosses my mind or you show up in a nighttime dream, I take it as an invitation to intercessory prayer.
Presence with requests for prayer. If you ask or email me to pray for you (and please do!), I'll pray right then or soon after...maybe with you, usually silently or actually emailing you my prayer. Then I'll let it go, placing you and your request in God's hands and trusting that if I'm to pray for you again, the Spirit will bring you to my mind. If I only pray for you that one time, I cannot think of better hands (or shoulders) to entrust your burden to (much stronger and gentler than my own)!
As 14th century saint Hildegard of Bingen once said, "God hugs you. You are encircled by the arms of the mystery of God." And on your behalf and for you, I believe this to be true, whether I pray for you once or one hundred times.
Kasey is a scarf, ball and club juggling spiritual director just outside of Nashville, TN. Play helps her Type-A, Enneagram 1 personality relax, creating space for poetry and other words to emerge. She also likes playing with theological ideas like perichoresis, and all the ways we're invited into this Triune dance.