We prayed for three hours.
Three hours. That is worth repeating once more: three hours.
There is little that I do for three hours. In fact, there is currently a list— a very short list— of things I am capable of doing for three-hours blocks of time. Those things include:
Reading a good book.
Eating copious amounts of nachos.
Watching anything Bradley Cooper related.
That’s about it. It’s a pretty short list. Prayer has never made the cut.
Still, in spite of me, we prayed for three hours. This is all because I found myself stumbling into a small chapel on Saturday. It was instantly myself and four students of a ministry in Atlanta. I didn’t know a single one. Sprawled out across chairs in a small chapel, tucked in the back of a white brick building, I eyed the plain walls covered in Sharpie marker prayers.
"We're just going to stay here until it's done," they told me. "Until we feel like it's time to end. You pray for whatever is on your heart." There are no limits in this place.
I’ve been praying a lot about prayer lately.
Ironic, I know. The concept of prayer keeps rapping on the door of my heart— persistent as a Tinder date who turns out to have a strand of “stalker” stuck in their DNA. It’s coming up over & over & over again.
I’ve boxed prayer up. I’ve reserved it for early morning drives in the car as I simultaneously plow through Spotify and late night talking-at-God as I drift off to sleep because it makes me feel like a better person. Prayer is one those elements of the faith life that I’ve checked off when I am looking to take inventory of how “good” of a Christian I am. Honestly— I don’t think God has any care for me being good or perfect. He just wants me. All of me. And how do I wrestle a thing like that— a thing like communicating with him just because my heart is needy and empty— to the ground?
I’m needy and empty.
You should know that. I’ve questioned God a lot. I’ve been delighted to find out that he isn’t phased by my persistent begging to know him better. I think he’d rather have me ask all the questions my heart can’t help but whisper than to stay silent and afraid of the person I’ve built him to be in my head.
I’m a really good story-teller. I’ve told a lot of stories about God that have turned out to be lies. It’s all lies and half-truths until you sit down long enough to get to know someone for yourself.
When I was in my Second Semester of Depression (that’s what we’re calling it now), nearly six months ago, I imagined myself praying all the time. I made promises to myself nearly every night that I would clear the space to talk to God. I pictured myself wrestling with God— just like Jacob— until he would bless me. Until he would zap the depression from my eyes and help me gain the ten pounds back. Until he would give me a new name.
The story of Jacob is my favorite in the bible. I love the thought of God giving me a new name.
That never happened though. I never wrestled. I’d just sit on my bed, press my palms up towards the ceiling, and yawn. I’d will myself to stay awake. I’d curl into a ball on top of the covers.
Here’s the reality: prayer is essential.
Prayer is like a lung— we need it, we need it, we need it. No compromise. No cutting corners. And yet Prayer 101 doesn’t exist. And even the monks and greatest theologians struggled with their prayers. You can trace through their prayer journals and watch their insecurities dance wildly: I’m too verbose. I’m too selfish. I’m too distracted. I’m too much for you, God.
I’ve been told to pray. In struggle. In strife. In times of confusion— pray, pray, pray. I want to double back and claim I don’t know how to pray. I’m good at saying, “Well, I’ll pray for you” because it’s a blaring and sweet EXIT sign for a conversation I want to escape. I’m good at closing my eyes and pretending. I’m good at making lists of things that keep me from being content. I listen to other people pray and I make to-do lists in my head. I’m really good at humming loudly and thanking Jesus randomly. I’ve fooled the world unintentionally. It’s just that no one taught me how to pray:
How to be still.
How to listen.
How to quiet my racing thoughts. How to not get distracted.
How to want God badly enough.
How to beg him to come closer.
Let’s be real: You never beg at the things you’re afraid of to just come closer. And this world? And this culture? Well it’s really capable of making me afraid of God.
If my prayers could be acted out in coffee shops, God sitting across from me with some trendy iced latte stuff in his hand, then he’d probably cut down my walls and lay me bare.
“You’re awkward,” he might tell me. “You’re a bad listener. You’re self-involved. You’re self-indulged.”
But no, He’s God. He wouldn’t say hurtful things. But out of love he would say, “Just relax. Loosen up. Why are you so afraid to ask anything of me? Why don’t you think I’m good?”
“I don’t know, God,” I could answer. “I’m good at impressing people though. This much I know.”
Maybe that’s the issue I find within the church so much: it’s easer to impress than to be real. It’s easier to impress and secretly be dead inside than to be real and finally alive with the thought of no more chains.
In prayer circles with musicians who cuff their pant legs and keep their top collar button fastened, I learned how to pray wordy prayers. It wasn’t those people who taught me. They aren’t to blame for the way I would spit fire with my words in the hopes that someone would be impressed by me. I wanted to be seen by people more than I wanted to be heard by God.
All this to say: I’m weary now of what I do to impress boys with tattoos. The ones who smell like cigar shops and talk loudly about whiskey. Half of the time, what I’m saying and doing is not real. It’s not me, at least. And it might get my number programmed into a phone but I’ve never seen Forever make a bed inside a house that isn’t real.
Tim Keller. He was the game-changer for me.
His book "Prayer." We might as well drop all the microphones and say, “Tim, you are the Michael Jackson of prayer. You are the Beyoncé of hands clasped and knees hitting the floor.”
Read the book. He gets it. He just gets it.
Someone will be quick to tell me, “No one can teach you how to pray.”
You’re right. No one can teach me how to listen to God. But someone needed to sit me down, take my hand, and tell me sweetly, “This is how you shut up. This is how you stop running scripts and lies in your head. This is how you exit yourself.”
Prayer is just another term to sit beside the definition of “exiting yourself.”
I dug in my bible just yesterday and came across the book of James. What stuck out in the introduction is that James got a nickname during his ministry. They called him Old Camel Knees because he spent so much time praying-- so much time that his knees hardened like those of a camel. It’s not the most flattering nickname but it’s certainly bold. I mean, could you imagine someone calling you out from a crowd and saying, “That one prays so much.” That one is a warrior. That one isn’t afraid to say she needs God more than anything. If I were as cool as James, I would flaunt my camel knees.
To my knees, to my knees, to my knees.
I am overwhelmed to find there is nowhere else to go but to my knees. People don’t save me. Busy schedules don’t save me. Social media doesn’t fill me. To my knees, and I stay there until I accept that surrender has nothing to do with talking at God while still so resistant to letting him rearrange me.
The crux of prayer is sitting and being still. I know this. It’s like waiting for a bride to appear at the door of the chapel. It’s hoping they will come. Hoping God will show his face.
And when I sit long enough, when I still this wild thought process long enough, he speaks: “I don’t need you to be the most impressive person in the room. Really, I don’t want that. I just want you. I want your heart. I want your aches. I want you to admit what we already know— you aren’t perfect. If you were perfect then you’d have no need for me. And I’m here because you need me. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted? To know someone was there in those dark nights?”
It’s taking all the words of song “Amazing Grace” and hoping desperately that they’ll be literal. I know I’ve been blind but I want to be seen. I know I need to be saved, so please save a wretch like me.
I sit in the small chapel. I squirm. I wait. I listen. I scribble notes. I speak.
I tell a boy across the room who is mouthing out his problems that he’s afraid. I could be wrong but he’s afraid. He’s scared to let go of who he was yesterday. Aren’t we all? I see tears in his eyes. “Boy,” I want to say. “I don’t know your history. I can’t draw your pain. But maybe prayer is just two solid words for you: Let go. Let go. Let go.”
My hands are on fire. I can’t believe I called out a stranger. I finish speaking. And then I apologize. A girl from across the room wrapped in a blanket calls me out for saying sorry.
“When you say it, don’t apologize,” she says. “God knows your heart.” I wince when she tells me this. He knows my heart- he knows all the cards I’m trying to hide from him.
My mind traces back to scriptures I’ve always been jealous of: Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
I want to see God so bad. No one in the world can fathom how badly I want to see God.
I sit. I stew. I pull out a book that’s been sitting in my backpack for days, going unread. I scribble a prayer that is honest and true more than anything:
God, I’ll wait.
I’ll wait. I’ll wrestle. I’ll stay. I want a new name.
There’s nothing eloquent about the stream of words. And I find surrender starts when my prayers cease to be wordy and just trudge on to be honest: God, I don’t want to need you. You already know this. I’m human. I’m stubborn. I want to be fiercely independent. You know this too.
God, take my fears and my doubts and my worries about you and help me to believe that you are good— that you have good for me.