Preparing for Worship – John Kelly.
For the past few weeks, a group has been meeting in the chapel during Sunday School to take a closer look at the practice of prayer. Not unlike worship, at times, prayer appears hopelessly abstract. Even more so, in the face of real struggles, unfair dynamics and painful experiences, prayer seems impractical and nebulous — even as unhelpful self-medication.
I mean, we know that prayer’s a thing. It exists and is probably something Christians should do. But backed into a corner and asked to explain or unpack it, most of us would probably struggle to offer anything more than stuttered uhhhs and uhmms. And considering all the odd ways prayer’s been characterized — as presenting a divine honey-do list or bidding on the contract for God’s latest, greatest intervening work — uhhh would be a more than fair response. But as our group has discovered, prayer might more appropriately be understood simply as the living of one’s life intentionally in God’s direction.
Or if we wanted to sound fancy and add a few syllables: prayer is the practice by which we cultivate an awareness of God’s loving presence at work in, around and through our lives. This awareness gently snowballs and comes to transform the way we think, feel and relate to others. If you find it helpful to process things verbally in cultivation of such an awareness, that’s totally fine! The way we pray is unique to each of us.
But we’d do well to remember that prayer involves much more than crafted dialogue. Ultimately, prayer flourishes in calm awareness. Silent, honest contemplation of God’s character and action allows the full breadth of our lives — all we say, do or think — to become a sort of prayer. As Thomas Merton suggested, “Nothing that anyone says [in prayer] will be that important. The great thing is prayer itself. If you want a life of prayer, the way to get to it is by praying. Talking is not the principal thing. In prayer we discover what we already have. You start where you are and you deepen what you already have, and you realize that you are already there.” While we often think of prayer as our best shot at changing God’s mind, I wonder if we might start to see it instead as the means by which God beckons us to unentitled gratitude and wholeness.
From this perspective, prayer and worship don’t seem too dissimilar. As much as prayer allows us to engage and be transformed by God’s presence, so too does worship allow us to appreciate such divine presence as good and faithful and on humanity’s side — as storied by Scripture, proclaimed through song and increasingly embodied in our day-to-day lives.