I sent the same prayer questions I shot at Jonathan Bow to my friend Jan Kempe. What follows is some really helpful stuff that you should file under "must read" and then read. And then, maybe even do.
What is your daily experience of prayer like?
At this point in my life, I feel a bit like Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. God has been gracious enough to inhabit my space and conversation with him is natural and no longer something that begins like a letter and ends with amen. He's my atmosphere, and my conscious actions seem to be modified (not perfected by any means) by knowing that I am not living this life on my own. Repentance (and thankfully forgiveness) happens frequently as I watch myself be a fool, speak out of anger, drive too fast ... yeah, all that. That is the atmosphere of Presence that God has taught me to expect and to need. In such times of awareness I also find much for which to praise God: little things in my garden, strange animals, music, delicious food, a companion who loves God more than he loves me. These prompt personal praise that often leads to dinner getting cold because we just can't stop noticing evidence of Him. If we are created in God's image, it seems logical that just noticing and wanting to converse is praise. I know how I feel when my children just come and occupy space near me, even if for no particular reason.
Now, where intercession is concerned (the WORK of prayer) I am a person who needs accountability. I will go out of my way to keep my word to someone else, but I just don't always honor my word to myself. It's not that I'm not faithful ... I'm just forgetful. About 16 years ago I was working with a bunch of young basketball players, and I heard myself ask them for permission to pray for them every Monday. They agreed. Knowing I had just set myself up to fail, I gave them my word and promised an email every Monday that they never had to answer, but always could. All they had to do was think about God on Mondays. It began with 5 girls on Monday. Throughout the years, on the course of my journey, more precious people have claimed their spots on particular days, and as I wake in the morning, they are on my mind. The guy from the Apple store, Young Life leaders, soldiers, pastors, a skeptic, an attorney, a doctor, a widow, my own kids ... and with their names God brings their faces and incredible love. I can't explain it. I have no doubt it is his love for them and I get to soak in that. This particular discipline is most useful and precious to me. If God stirs me with a curiosity or an unrest as I read over the names, I contact the person. SO often I hear back, "how did you know?" Then I get to say, "I didn't. Apparently God put you on my mind. How do we deal with that?"
We all have prayer, or a lack of it, modeled for us. Where did you learn to pray the way you do?
I am the one in a million who had parents who both remind me of Jesus. Humble, under-spoken and constant they heard needs, articulated those needs to God and others and then watched expectantly. I grew up hearing stories of God showing up. They would tell me, "It doesn't hurt to ask" and I saw them ask. They paid attention. They let themselves be used to deliver answers. They surrounded themselves with the physically disabled, the economically disadvantaged, the seekers and the outcasts and they tried to incorporate them seamlessly into the Body of Christ. They prayed as they breathed, deep and regularly.
When my dad died, this quiet man had 4 pastors each wanting to preach his service. Others wanted to do special music. Many had something to say. Lots of stories. The church packed out with the most varied group you could imagine! I'll never forget the Ethiopian refugee throwing himself on the casket crying, "Father, oh father." The church people were stunned. They didn't know.
The last time I saw my mom, she did not recognize me or my daughter. She was introducing me to people who weren't there. She was pretty much gone. Or so we thought. Every day she had prayed for our entire family, each by name, and she knew what each was going through. One evening after she had been unresponsive for days, my brother asked her if she'd like to pray. She squeezed his hand and spoke. There were 29 of us at that time and she didn't miss one. She knew from someplace other than her mind how to pray. The day she went to heaven the nurse gave my brother a note they found next to her bed. It was the business card of a pastor. Written on the back was, "Hazel, how I love to pray with you! How blessed I am by the way you pray for me." I believe that the soul has its own language, its own memory, and its own safe connection with the One to whom it is rightly-related. These remarkable people have taught me to constantly want more, and God is never too busy to oblige.
How do you ask God for things, and how do interpret whether it's God responding or your own brain, coincidence, botulism-induced delirium via bad fish, etc?
First, I just don't eat bad fish ... :)
Very few times in my life God has spoken to me in precious, frightening, mysterious ways, but never because I have asked for things. I find that as I am understanding what ultimate and intimate intelligence is like, I am less prone to bring suggestions and lists to him in prayer. It is more effective for my own humility (always a challenge) and my understanding of God to ask for his Presence to be obvious to me or a person in decision-making mode, in personal victory, in distress or in sorrow. Then I try to stay attuned both to the people involved and to that Presence so I can help bring attention to Him and hopefully enable a connection. (I read that over and it sounds sort of weird, but I'll stand by it.) God knows our situations and his Presence will bring what is needed, not necessarily what is easy or even desired. True prayer is to trust that even the junk in our lives is redeemable simply because of who he is and what he thinks of his kids. I believe the Teacher shows us not how to avoid the difficult, but how to walk through it well to the glory of Him.
Those "unusual" times when he speaks specifics that are unquestionably not coming from my own brain, are always marked by an interpreter for me. I've never experienced tongues, but I've had thoughts that are totally thought out like a script. I've been on both sides of healing. I've discerned a direction to follow, had dreams and even visions twice. I don't seek this kind of thing, but I no longer doubt it. I don't ask for this ... but the times it has happened have been formative and validated by others much wiser than me. The fact that the phone rang after such an encounter and one of the smartest people I know was on the other end: "Can you tell me why I'm calling you?" God knows I needed that.
When the disciples asked Jesus for some help with praying, He responded with what we call the Lord's prayer. But the first word in it is "our". How does this inform your experience.
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, God informs us through the Body of Christ. Other believers who have some experience in knowing God's character are HIS idea for our encouragement, our rebuke, our assurance and interpretation of what we hear when we listen in prayer. "Our" is the word that calls us to include others in the conversation because they are welcome, may listen better than we, may help us worship. Genesis 1:26 (humankind created in the image of God) tells me that it takes all of humanity to begin to bear that image well. Those who have chosen to be rightly-related to God each uniquely represent some part of the Divine personality. How amazing for Jesus to invite us all and each to claim God as Abba. OUR Father. Breathtaking coming from Jesus.
What do people get hung up where praying is concerned, in your experience?
In my office I have a photo of my granddaughter looking with total delight into the eyes of her Father, who is looking back with equal delight. The caption I have above the photo is Matthew 6:9, "This, then, is how you should pray: Abba ..." The "Our" of the preceding paragraph is essential to understanding God's corporate delight for his creation and our connectedness, but people also need to understand Abba (Daddy). Approaching God in prayer with an attitude of "Really? You're my Father?" and the reciprocal understanding of "Yes ... and you're my beloved" accomplishes the entire Lord's Prayer. Prayer is in its most complex and in its simplest form inviting God into the conversation. Abba. Many have been taught to seek a God who is distant, angry and really doesn't like us much. The normal way to approach such a being is with prayer that is distant and filled with performance. God is worthy of my praise and awe and worship and fear (as in WOW), but the character of God as I have come to know him does not want distance or performance. Micah 6 is a pretty good picture of people wondering how to worship from a distance and perform well enough to placate, and God's response is "stop it! What do I want from you? Act justly, love mercy and WALK humbly with me." Don't do enough first. You can't! Just walk with me! When Scripture talks about Moses talking to God as a man speaks to his friend, I see that as something that makes Moses able, makes God willing, and creates the kind of relationship God desires. I meet each Thursday morning @ 7:30 with a wonderful woman who is a mentor to me. We have found that prayer begins often right out of conversation, eyes open, and ends without any formal signing out. I find that when others join us they are sometimes a little confused, sometimes uncomfortable, but they soon feel invited into a conversation that doesn't demand naming God with every new sentence. My heart wishes more people would set their traditions and habits aside long enough to just let God be in the room.
One difficulty I see a lot is people having with prayer is that they are afraid to ask God for intervention in their affairs because if he doesn't act as they'd like, maybe it's because they aren't good enough. Others are afraid to ask God to intervene in front of others because if he doesn't, their God might look bad. How have we taught this? How do we unteach it? I thank my Abba for my Dad who kept telling me, "it doesn't hurt to ask." Any good parent will listen and love, and then do what is best, not always what is requested.
So, what does this mean practically?
I've learned that I don't call the shots in my life, but I get to watch and interact with the One who does.
The habit of prayer is becoming a bit like the habit of breathing. I am NOT saying that I have this down, but I will say that at this point God invites and initiates prayer and I am stunned to realize that we are talking. This is a mystery, and the more I try to understand, the deeper the mystery. I'd have it no other way. I need to worship One who is WAY beyond what I can understand. Practically, that sense of Presence often leads to a book, a song, a portion of Scripture or just a thought that will connect with someone or some need. I follow those promptings with an email, a call ... sometimes am stunned to have the person walk into the office unannounced. Practically, I make a safe place and make the coffee. I hug and I connect the dots between those with resources and others with needs. I can do that. I am accepted by the One who matters. (great boss!)