When I was a young man, I read Thomas Olbricht’s book, Hearing God’s Voice: My Life With Scriptures in The Churches of Christ. In it, Olbricht tells of his ever-growing, ever-deepening understanding of Scriptures through the course of his life, especially as he shared them with various congregations throughout his life. He had a deep faith and insight even as a child going to tent meetings in rural areas with country people, but it stood to be greatly enhanced as he went to school and then led churches and even taught in colleges and universities around the nation. His memoir created a picture that honored each stage and level of his experience while revealing more depth as he went.
Olbricht could have written a book called “How To Hear God’s Voice” or something like that, and it probably would have been a good book. In fact the wisdom he shares functions largely at that level. But rather than tell others some formulaic way to approach God, he told us a personal story in which such wisdom is demonstrated. We go along for the ride and find points of interest or points of contact between his story and ours. And now that I am looking in the doorway to the backside of middle age, I find that his story illuminates a Life With Scriptures rather than the nuts and bolts of some owner’s manual or technical guide. I have enough perspective to see not only what he learned, or even how he learned it, but how some of those blind alleys actually proved helpful over time in a much deeper drama. There were times in life where he held on to a bit of truth as if he had it all ironed out but with maturity he found out he hadn’t really been holding on to truth at all. And then later still, he found how that at some of those very moments truth was holding on to him and preparing him, despite his current short-sightedness – or even in the midst of it – to grasp levels and insights previously closed off to him.
I almost chose to write a “How-To” post on prayer myself. I have come to discover things in prayer that should be shared with others – things people of faith might WANT to share and strive to grow in. And it would be easy to encapsulate such wisdom in a technical guide. And if I am right both about the things I have discovered and the desire to share in it, such a resource would be like a handbook – a quick reference guide – that surely would be useful. But, I think it would kill the Spirit of prayer I would want to share. And I am more and more reflective on Tom Olbricht’s experience and mode of sharing it at visceral levels which I think are more than useful, but something like poetic. I mean Francis Scott Key could have thrown rhyme, meter, metaphor, and art out the window and just simply say, “Look! The enemy could not defeat us though they fought us all night!” Or, his poem could say, “O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light, what so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming….” The one form is reductionist and lacks the harmony of sharing in the spirit; the other ushers us robustly into the experience to share it (even though no one alive today was there to see it!).
As I get older, I find deeper perspective and reflection for Tom Olbricht’s enterprise. I no longer have the monolithic viewpoints on great matters I once thought I should have. I expected my life of prayer to look and feel a certain kind of way …different than it actually does. But as I consider various stages of maturity over the course of my life, I find prayer to be like the Colorado River carving channels through my heart, my soul, my being and creating vistas and spaces far bigger and more beautiful, more breathtaking and scary, and more comforting and hopeful than I ever dreamed it would be when I started.
I recall prayer as a child, mostly in church, as something of a show. If I were called on to lead a prayer, I did it; but it was more of a public speaking engagement complete with stage-fright than either an intimate or corporate talk with God. I had all eyes (or more to the point – ears) on me suddenly, and I felt I should have something profound to say. But usually I felt at a loss for such words. And still, though the experience amounted to vanity mostly, it had buried deep within the seed of a notion that the exercise was important, life-shaping, and world-ordering. It took a long time for that seed to grow and bear fruit, but what a tree it has produced!
I grew up Protestant. My parents did not make this feature readily important to me, but in subtlety, through the years, I began to view Catholic worship and liturgy as a matter of going-through-the-motions, and held it in a bit of contempt. Prayer was supposed to be words from your heart shared with God, not some posture, not some chanted phrases nor even rehearsed lines of Scripture. There seemed to be a way in which that style of worship checked one’s heart and soul at the door and begged the question: Why bother? And yet, I recall my football coach having the whole team kneel on the grass and recite The Lord’s Prayer. I felt ashamed that I was a devout Christian who had not committed it to memory! (I guess my prayers from the heart and soul just were too much for Jesus’s instructions!) I mumbled along with the others, but I felt that I was not truly a part of team just then, and that I had let Jesus down when it counts most.
Oh, I failed in those days to notice that my prayer life was in fact anemic at best! It was practically non-existent, and in fact, those corporate prayers where someone else’s wise and profound sounding words formed the talk with God performed on my behalf and that of the group I was among made up about 90% of my prayer life. If I was honest about it, I was not even going through the motions, not really; all the while looking down my nose, subtly, at liturgies that seemed guilty of doing less with more while I was doing practically nothing!
At least, I held some value for heart and soul involvement/engagement. At least someone led those corporate prayers and modeled them. The fact that I was disengaged, basically just meant I was keepin’-it-real! Except, of course, in Bible class where I tried to appear to have it all together. Nevertheless, I had learned to value prayer in some form, and that sense of value haunted me for several years until I found myself richly engaged in prayer. I look back now and think, God was working behind the scenes even in those vane moments to build up a house of prayer in my life – to plant a prayer garden in my heart, but there was still a long time until construction would be complete, until the harvest.
A Few Words About My Words
I started this subject matter as a brief post, but it grew into a really long post – almost 3000 words before I realized, this would be a series. The series is not complete just yet, but numerous posts are started now, and plans for still more are waiting in the wings. And I realize I have a lot to say about prayer!
It occurs to me that I should be praying for this blog. I pray my experience illuminates prayer for you. I have only scratched the surface here, but I have said enough to demonstrate that prayer is full of paradox, irony, power, and wisdom. Despite how hard it seems to “develop a prayer life” for many believers, that struggle itself contributes to the richness – to the treasures – one finds in the storehouse of God. I have shared just a simple sampling of my own experience here, but I expect at least some of my readers will resonate and find fresh thoughts and inspiration for their prayer life. Borrowing Tom Olbricht’s memoir-style will surely be more inviting to some readers than finding some nameless, faceless voice on the web declaring how you should pray. And so, I pray that sharing this will bless your prayer life, and perhaps you might share with me too the blessings you find in your talks with God, and in the sharing here we might enrich one another.
The title I have chosen for this series is meant to reference God’s part in prayer by conflating Psalm 127’s insistence that God is working behind the scenes and Jesus’s declaration that the House God builds is a House of Prayer for All (Mark 11:17). By the end of the series, I expect to depict prayer as being God’s House in which I am a servant, being prepared for taking up residence with him there when he returns (Mark 13:34-37). If my experience in prayer has any chance of inspiring or instructing you, then consider this my invitation to join me in this series.
For those struggling to turn to God in prayer, or better yet, for those who find themselves falling asleep whenever they attempt to pray, I promise that my next post will show how I blasted from zero to 60 in mere seconds! …and the lessons I learned by doing it!
To be continued….