I listened to a podcast the other day about prayer. In this podcast, it discussed the integral role that prayer played in Jesus’s life and how that should serve as an example for his followers today. This made me reflect on the various shapes and forms prayer has taken in my life — especially in the last year or two — as well as the bumps and bruises this practice has accumulated.
Prayer feels different now than it used to. Gone are the days when neat and tidy grocery list prayers seemed acceptable and even viable: “Please help this, please fix this, please answer this.” While I have been told for a while now that that is not the “best way” to pray, if anything pulled the wool off my eyes, it was a global pandemic. Somewhere along the way, it began feeling silly to even ask for things when praying or to even hope that things could change. Who am I to request that things be different when the entire world is reaping the consequences of a deadly virus? And who am I to bring something menial to the throne of God when everything else seems to be spinning out of control?
Last April I read in a book by Shauna Niequest that “honest prayer transforms us.” When I looked back at my prayer life thus far, I realized that it had heavily consisted of more thoughtfully curated and filtered thoughts, wishes and requests, rather than unbridled, uninhibited desires and aches of my soul. However, if there were any time to come unhinged in my prayer life, it was then — amid the chaos and grief and discomfort. So, I did.
I began praying messy and embarrassing prayers with every emotion that arose within me. I used to think this would be self-righteous or self-indulgent to bring anything and everything to God, deeming it important. However, the more I practiced praying in this way, the more I realized that to pray any other way would, in fact, be self-righteous: To think I could mask my heart’s true longings or heartbreaks and sugarcoat them before presenting them to the Father — who has already breathed life into me when I was lowest — and the Spirit — whose presence exists in the air I breathe — would ultimately be prideful and dishonest.
This approach to prayer was relieving and transformative. Although, for whatever reason, I again got out of the habit of praying in this way. I reverted to grocery list prayers, which then led to my prayers feeling invalid and unworthy in light of the world’s ongoing circumstances — a vicious cycle that took hold of my spiritual life. This aforementioned podcast from the other day jolted me, again reminding me what it should mean to pray: To pray is to breathe. To pray is to feel and move and inch our way towards God. In a world that consistently proves itself to be grieving and hurting, oftentimes the best I have to offer is my empathy — to be willing to sit in the discomfort and heartache with those who feel it most piercingly and personally. “To rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourn” is an act of worship. When we cannot meet in large gatherings to raise our voices in unison, we can walk alongside those who are hurting and healing. We do not need to ignore it or wish it away, but we can bear it and communally feel it.
Honest prayer transforms us. Confronting our burdens in community restores us. So may we, with our wounds and heartaches and hopes and desires, be present and move toward empathy and oneness, unashamed to feel and speak the truth.