What Are We Really Up To When We Pray? 

by Pastor Heath Howe

What are we really up to when we pray? I have been thinking about this a good deal this week in part because I was planning a lesson for our third through sixth grade Sunday school class on the various types of prayer (intercessory, petition, thanksgiving, etc.) Another reason prayer has been on my mind is I have heard a variety of thoughts and reactions about our praying as a community for our new president and other government leaders. I also spent several Sundays with our junior and senior teens who have that wonderful adolescent way of letting you know they will not tolerate anything but the real deal. When I speak with them about prayer I need to make sure I am as clear, authentic and honest as I possibly can be. Otherwise, they are not interested. 

So, again, I ask: What are we really up to when we pray? 
 
Presiding Bishop Michael Curry helped me answer this question a bit in his recent statement released on January 12. He writes, "Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name." I love his description of the two-sided nature of prayer. There is a receiving and a giving in prayer. There is the love and grace of Christ flowing in when we pray and his love and grace flowing out when we put our prayer into action. It is no wonder that for Christians the heart is the place within our bodies where we turn when we pray. As we are quiet our minds and go deep into our hearts to pray, our heart muscle itself is pumping in blood and pumping it out. The receiving and the giving of blood to the body as well as the receiving and giving of the holy presence of God to the soul.
 
I find that starting with the contemplative side of prayer works best in general. When we sit with intention and offer ourselves to God, we are able to hear or have a sense of what we are called to do in prayer. Sometimes our contemplation leads to intercessory prayer for others. Sometimes we are led to a confession of some kind, and we ask for forgiveness and healing. Sometimes God seems to have a quiet conversation with us individually. At other times, we are simply held in the quiet peace of God's embrace. The best part of this discipline is that we are reminded that God is leading and guiding every aspect of our life, even our prayer. We may have concerns we need to offer to God. However, these requests are not a "to do list" for God that are offered quickly with an expectation that God will quickly do as we see fit. When contemplation comes first, God leads the offering of the concerns of our heart. We are able to slowly name the person, situation or event of our concern one at a time.  We can imagine placing them before God and knowing God has heard. Then throughout rest of the day if that person or concern comes to mind we simply say, "Thank you God for all you are doing about (name the person or concern)." We can use this same practice with the things we are thankful for: contemplation first and then action.  This grounds us, realigns us, with Christ's love and keeps us centered in the present moment.   
 
Simply said, the contemplative side of prayer, listening to and conversing with God, is merely a delightful means of hanging out with God. Prayer is not trying to get something but to be with Someone and hence become someone. 
 
The active part of prayer is equally important. Think of Jacob wrestling all night long with God (the contemplative part) and then getting up in the morning and going to meet his estranged brother, Esau, and reconciling with him. Hard work and important action. If we do not participate in the active side of prayer our view and our living become self-focused and limited. We are called to take the love we have been given by God out into the world. That is exactly what we promise to do each time we reclaim and reaffirm our baptismal vows. We promise "to seek and serve Christ in all persons" and "respect the dignity of every human being," to name two.  At the end of our liturgy each Sunday, Deacon Sandy sends us forth into the world "to love and serve the Lord." The various tasks we are called to each day throughout the week, be they large events that tend to many in need or small tasks that impact a few, are our prayers in action which began in church but do not end there. Simply put, prayer in action is love in action. 
 
There are times when we do not believe we can pray. We do not think we have the words and we know we do not have the energy to act. No matter. We still need to show up and be with God. Maybe God needs our presence even when we feel we do not need God's. We may feel awkward or even be mad at God.

We still show up, and as we do we encourage the Holy Spirit to guide our contemplative time. Perhaps this is what Paul was explaining to the Romans when he writes, "In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God's people in accordance with the will of God." (Romans 8:26-27) 

Lastly, the movement of the Spirit reminds us of another important part of prayer: Community. God does not call us to live in isolation. We are created to be social creatures, and the Spirit of God continues to bring us together, especially in prayer. Even when we are praying alone at home we are connected to the Holy Spirit that is in all things. When we come together for worship on Sundays or during the week we present our hearts full of contemplative and active prayer with all the others gathered. We hear others pray prayers that we are too afraid or angry or forgetful to pray. We pray for others who are absent or cannot pray for themselves. We gather to pray because our hearts grow stronger and our souls are enriched by the prayers of the whole body of Christ, the community. When this happens, truly, the love of God grows. 
 
What are we really doing when we pray? Simply said, prayer is showing up to receive love so that we learn how to love in the everyday moments of our lives. It is the most important work we can do, after all: "They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love. Yes, they will know we are Christians by our love."   

Prayer as love: What a nice thing to practice in the month of February.