On Prayer and the Spiritual Life

To say that I want to talk about prayer, does not mean that I am bragging, or saying that I am an expert at prayer. I want to share with you a gift that a mentor had passed on to me, that has been life affirming and faith shaping for over 22 years of my pastoral journey.

But first, a few things by way of introduction and one that may shock you. For clarity’s sale, I will say that I am talking about Christian prayer and sharing my personal experience (and opinion).

Here is the possible shock, I might as well “rip the bandage off” now and you can decide whether or not to stick around for the rest of the story.

I went to Catholic kindergarten and there were both Catholic kids and Protestant kids in that class. When we began to learn The Our Father (The Lord’s Prayer), I said the words that I heard, which were “psss psss, psss, psss, psss” Somewhere along the line I must have learned the actual prayer.

I went to public school after that and this was the 1950’s, 1956 to be exact. My teacher, Mrs. Ellis, read from the Bible and led us in the Lord’s Prayer, but it had that different ending (For thine is the kingdom, etc, and I found that very confusing).

To be honest the whole thing, the Bible reading and the prayer felt awkward, and I felt out of place in ways that my first grade mind could not express.

For that reason, and a few others that I will share, I am not a fan of “bringing back prayer in public schools.”

Now, all the people who know me and know that I am a pastor, may have already left the room. I am hoping that wasn’t a door I just heard slam. Bear with me, please. Because there are important questions and considerations that follow.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

First of all, whose prayer? Christian prayer? Jewish Prayer? Muslim? Buddhist? Other types of prayer? And who is left out and made to feel strange and awkward when their tradition is ignore, or belittled?

I am not opposed to prayer in public schools because I am afraid of offending anyone, but because I think it can cause more confusion than it helps.

We put more than enough on teachers and this heavy lifting, I believe, belongs to family homes and houses of faith. This is no time to be passing the buck, er, responsibility.

Second, I certainly believe that God hears our prayers and hears the prayers of children, but I also believe that prayer is meant to be a two way conversation, that is built on a relationship with God. For that reason, I think it needs to begin and be formed at home and church, synagogue or mosque, or run the risk of being watered down and uninformed.

Photo by Michael Scott from Pexels

A lot may depend on one’s definition of prayer. I had an Anthropology professor in college, who stated that prayer for Christians “is asking for stuff, or asking for something.” Her implication was that non-Christians tend to be more spiritually minded and thus she saw Christian prayer as limited.

I wanted to argue with her, but I did not for a couple of reasons. For one thing, she was speaking to her own experience of Christians and Christian prayer. Even though I disagreed with her definition, I could not devalue her experience. Because she was referring to her experience, and because she was the professor and I was a new forty-something year old college student, I was not sure I would be heard, and arguing about religion serves no one. (In my opinion).

Despite the tradition of separation of church and state, you may be surprised to find a good bit of prayer language in our court system, but it is not what you may think. To petition the Court, or to make a prayer in a document, is simply formal language that does “ask for something.” Perhaps the professor had a point.

The flip side of this, and it is kind of funny; I was in college to complete work on my Bachelor’s Degree, so I could go on to seminary, I was serving three churches as a pastor. In church, everything begins with prayer, council meetings, Sunday School, church suppers, and of course Sunday worship. It felt really odd to be in classes at the university and not begin with prayer!

There is a lot of prayer that occurs on the campuses of our colleges and universities, during the high holy days of exam weeks, but of course, that is different. When I got to seminary, there were lots of opportunities to begin classes with prayer.

The Gift of Prayer

It was during those days in college, as I tried to find a sense of balance, that a mentor introduced me to the concept of journaling prayer. She shared with me a book that had been published posthumously by the writer’s son. It was a book of prayers, letters that his mother had written to God.

I have never successfully journaled or kept up with a diary, but this appealed to me. All I remember of the original book was that the prayers were in the form of letters to God, so that is what I do. I have developed my own pattern, that I will share with you, but there are no real rules that I know about.

Photo by Ylanite Koppens from Pexels

I use ordinary, inexpensive (read cheap) composition notebooks. I write my name on the outside cover with the words “Confidential Prayer Journal” and the start date. When I finish that book, I add the end date and grab a new journal. Because I have been doing this a long time I do try to buy Composition books with different colored covers, just for variety.

Now and then some helpful person gifts me with a more formal journal and I say thank you and use it, but the Composition books stack more easily. I generally keep the most recent journals, in my office, the rest are stacked on a shelf in my clothes closet.

I have always felt that I can say anything in these journals and that is very freeing. Since it is prayer, and not a diary, I try to do the following:

Every new prayer begins with the date written out, no numbers and slashes. The next line always says, “Dear God” because that is how I generally address God.

I believe that it is prayer, and that God reads as I write, or hears. I do not know how God does what God does during prayer. I am just responsible for my part. Even though I feel that I can say anything, including question, complain, express doubt, anger and frustration, because it is God I am speaking to, I keep all that respectful.

I do not abbreviate or use acronyms. Does God know what all that means? Of course, but I am writing a letter, a prayer, not a memorandum or a shopping list. I try to begin with thanksgiving and I try to be specific. Every day when I pray, among other things, I thank God for the family and friends who nurture and enrich my life.

If I have to interrupt my prayer, I say, or, write, “excuse me.” and return as soon as I can. When I first started writing my prayers, because they were in the form of letters, I always signed them, Love, Michele. Eventually I stopped doing that, because, well, God knows it is me. But there is something comforting about the form and format of a letter and it seemed…thoughtful and personable.

While this is not the only way I pray, it does make up the majority of my prayer time. I am not very good about praying in the same time and place every day, so there are times that I add the time to the date. For instance, if I have let my day get away from me and don’t sit down to pray until 11:35 p.m. I write that in.

While this form of prayer will not work for everyone, if you are feeling stuck in a rut in your prayer life, it might be helpful. There are other things I do to keep my prayer life fresh, but this has become a meaningful practice for me.

If prayer is a regular and important part of your life, how has the form of that prayer changed over time? Do you have favorite ways to pray?

Remember, nothing is written in stone, except The Ten Commandments!

Not holding back the tide,

Michele

I love this sign. Prayer is action, but we have to do our part!

Copyright 2020 Michele Somerville, The Beach Girl Chronicles and https://msomervillesite.WordPress.com

Published by msomerville2014

About: Michele Somerville is a wife, mother, stepmother, grandmother, sister, aunt, cousin and friend. She lives with her husband and their dog Sheba. Sheba is their fourth rescue dog in 30 years. She is a retired ordained United Methodist Elder and serves two churches part-time in North Central Pennsylvania. She obtained her Bachelors’ Degree in 1999 from Mansfield University and her Master of Divinity in 2004 and Doctor of Ministry in 2016, both from Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in Rochester, New York. My Doctor of Ministry Thesis was:” Prophetic Words of Grace: Biblical Storytelling in the Local Church.” Michele began writing and performing character monologues for worship in 2008. She began by asking the question about nameless characters in the Bible, “What would they say if they could speak for themselves?” and then using her theological education and experience of the human condition to attempt an answer that is both academic and creative. Much of what you will read here are memories from growing up in a tourist town, in a bar, in the 1960’s, shaggy dog stories about our rescue dogs, life in a small town, and stories of faith and hope. Throughout her life she has lived in many states, including small towns, large towns and cities. She lived in Rota, Spain, for nine challenging months. Despite all the places she have lived since moving away from home in 1970,Michele is at the heart of all things Jack and Maggie’s daughter, and a beach girl from Onset, Massachusetts.

7 thoughts on “On Prayer and the Spiritual Life

  1. I am a Christian and a former teacher and I am with you 100%, Michele. Prayer does not belong in school. Mandatory prayer, anyway. Of course, you are familiar with this verse from Matthew: ” But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

    I have a confession too. When I taught high school, we were supposed to say the Pledge of Allegiance every day with our homeroom. We had the same students for homeroom for 4 years – from freshman year to senior year. Not one kid ever thought about what they were saying for the pledge, I am sure. For freshman year, I made everyone say the pledge every day. I was very strict. Same for the sophomore year. Then, when the kids were juniors, I told them we were going to say the pledge the first day of the year and REALLY think about what we were saying., Then we were done saying it for the year. After all, when you have pledged, you have PLEDGED. I don’t say my marriage vows every day, but I am bound by them. It worked for me and the kids loved it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks Laurie, I love ‘pledged’. And of course agree about the marriage vows. We joke, but maybe not so much a joke about sickness and health. In my preamrital counseling I require couples to come up with 2 to 3 practical ways they will keep each aspect of the vows they take. This post has been the most overtly religious/spiritual of my blog posts. I will probably share it next week on Seni-Sal, as there are other similar things. At any rate, thank you for taking the time to read and comment and also for following my blog:) Blessings, Michele

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Michele, I love when you share a part of your authentic self. I definitely do not leave the room. This is often when you enrich my life, my perspective. You brought me back to my elementary school years and to my Sunday school years.

    A very good point (all of your points are good points) “A lot may depend on one’s definition of prayer.”

    You share a great deal of wisdom in your posts. “…journaling prayer…”. Goosebumps. You made me smile “…because it is God I am speaking to, I keep all that respectful.”

    Another smile, with your ending quote. A beautiful, thought-provoking post. Thank you! ❤️

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Very interesting, thought provoking post. I definitely do agree with you on not including prayers in school. I went to a private Jewish day school and the day always began with an hour of prayers. I can definitely say that this hour was what turned me off as a kid and I soon discovered a way out. Students that participated in a sport, could skip prayer and so began my secular journey as a swimmer. As far away from the forced prayers in the prayer hall as possible. I chose to swim sixty lengths followed by races at six a.m. rather than be forced to pray. I became quite a decent swimmer I might add.

    The second aspect of your post that strikes me is that your observations about whose God to pray to, Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim,”families” out there, it does also bias in favor of organized religions. My decades long exposure to Asia and Buddhism as a spiritual-ish introspective system of internal jouneys, does not line up with this organized religion template, nor does it fit aetheists, whom I believe have an equal right to pursue a secular education without having to “digest” a spiritual template preferred by the school authorities. So it seems to me it is not just about “not offending people of a different religion”, but is also about acknowledging the equal rights of non believing students to content that they feel does not belong in the secular classroom.

    I really like your idea of the journaling your prayers and chuckled at your comments about informing God “I’ll be right back” when interrupted during your prayers and journaling. In Bali, Indonesia, and VIet Nam, almost everyone has a running dialogue not with God but with their long departed ancestors, namely the spirits. They also “pray” but in a different sense… not to a theological entity but to the ever watchful spirits.And then in India and Sri Lanka we were exposed to the massively complex Hindu religion which has literally thousands of gods. While people may orient towards different family branches of gods… Brahma, Vishnu, Shiva… one can imagine that a secular system that includes “prayer” would get rather complicated and at the very least, exclusive to devotees of their respective branches.

    Peta

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree with what you say, it would get complicated, and I think ultimately do harm. I like your word “spiritual=ish”, i would think ther is a spirituality to many of those traditions. You are correct to in stating that what I describe does bias organized religions. That is where I come from, “Write what you know” they say. I was raised Roman Catholic, was divorced and remarried in the Episcopal Church and visited and found a sense of spiritual home in The United Methodist Church. I have long joked that I am a “denominational kind of chic.” I am also not much of an evangelist, and while I write freely and share my thoughts, I am not in favor of forcing beliefs on anyone. One of the classes I took for my Doctor of Ministry was a class on the Gospel in (religiously) pluralistic setting. This was in Rochester, NY. We visited a large Synagogue, a Hindu Temple (a first for me) and a Meditation Center,, and of course a Mosque. Each visit included an opportunity to talk with members of the groups. I have had a book on my Kindle that I need to get around to reading, by Paul Knitter, “Without Buddha I could not be a Christian” but much of my reading at the moment, except for real vacations is limited to sermon prep and reading the work of other bloggers. Thank you for your detailed and thoughtful response to this post. Best, Michele

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