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Why pray?

3.16. 2020 Written By: Shannon W. Dycus

Photo by Adrien Olichon on Unsplash

This article comes from the March issue of The Mennonite, which focuses on “The mystery and power of prayer.” Read more reflections here or subscribe here to receive more original features in your inbox each month.

I can’t add more wisdom to our knowledge about prayer. Scholars and mystics have given us great definitions, metaphors and ways to practice prayer. In his book The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “It matters little what form of prayer we adopt or how many words we use. What matters is the faith that lays hold on God, knowing that he knows our needs before we even ask him.” In her prayerful song called “Give Thanks” on her album Songversation, India Arie sings “Selah, for all that is.”

We come quickly to the what and the how. What would happen if we deepened our quest for the richness of prayer and enhanced our sense of the why? Why even pray?

If we are honest, most of our prayers are shared in communal spaces: at dinner tables and worship services, in response to health or political news. We use prayer to hear our own voices. We pray to soothe ourselves. We pray to assert control over situations and relationships. How often do our prayers become a function of our pride, anxiety or power? How often do we use our prayers to ensure we maintain our social locations and comforts in the world?

I remember a long season of my life when I didn’t pray. It lasted about two years. I was intentional and persistent. The goal was to avoid God, dodging the quiet, dark and sacred places of life. In order to accomplish this, I used people, television and music to fill all empty spaces in the day. I shifted to reading more biographies so I could gain distance from my internal thoughts by focusing on those of others. I mostly avoided church. When required to attend, I did so in the most disconnected and performative ways. Casual friends commented on my unskillful disappearing acts. Some relationships I knew would jeopardize my hazy exterior, and I avoided those. I tried my hardest to keep my feelings inside, away from God.

My dance of avoidance was like a child seeking to be lost in a large department store. For this season, I found the rack of bulky winter coats and withdrew beneath it. This was my way of responding to grief. I carried pain, harbored anger and desired retreat. I blamed God for the loss I was experiencing and decided I would make our relationship suffer. I sought to remove the channel of prayer from my life. This was my grand attempt to pull a power move on God.

Though narrow, my rebellion reminds me that prayer is the behavior that keeps us in relationship with God. Prayer is the activity that keeps us aligned with God’s presence in the world. The function of prayer is relationship with God. Prayer is not for us to use to control an outcome but to declare our ongoing openness to the experiences of God around us. It’s the conversation that asks, “God, where are you?” and repeats our desire for greater proximity. We speak this desire with words, sacred spaces, rage and acts of leaning into awareness. Similarly, in Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, Anne Lamott says, “Prayer means that, in some unique way, we believe we’re invited into a relationship with someone who hears us when we speak in silence.”

We pray to nurture relationship with God. That’s the why. Solutions to our challenges don’t come from these conversations. But responses emerge when we are reminded of the deep grace and rich hope we can access because of our shared connection. The prayer we offer that seeks to keep our neighborhood safe and our children healthy does not usually result in tangible safety or health. But that prayer invites new strength for another hard community meeting and draws us toward wisdom we convey in bedtime encounters. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel summarizes this as, “Prayer begins where our power ends.”

In my work as a spiritual director, some of the most important prayers I hear are not the acceptable or comfortable lines we offer as models. “God, trial after trial is leaving me feeling abandoned by you.” It is in the bosom of relationship that we feel vulnerable enough to name where we have lost our power and be willing to listen again for a divine response.

We find ourselves in Lent, this season that invites a reflection of our spiritual practices. Every season in our life emerges from the previous one. Lent follows the season of Epiphany, the gift of light after an Advent of darkness. It connects the anticipation of Jesus and the powerlessness we share with Christ. Like Epiphany, prayer is the bridge holding these gifts. Translated from Greek and meaning “to reveal,” Epiphany and prayerfulness echo the invitation to encounter new things with God. As we transition through the many seasons of our lives, may we find connection with God that reveals the divine Light that fills, surrounds and calls us forward.

Shannon W. Dycus lives in Harrisonburg, Virginia, where she looks for the breath of God in work, family and all the sacred between.

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