I started this series recalling T. Olbricht’s reflections on Hearing God’s Voice, and I noted not only the different ways he heard from God, but also the different dimensions involved in relating the wisdom he passed on. I want to continue these thoughts with those ideas as a backdrop. My hope is to share what I have learned in a quasi narrative fashion, invite seekers to find wisdom therein, and – even more – I hope that my thoughts and reflections on my own experiences invite you to share yours as well.
Going Through The Motions
In my previous two posts (from this series), I recounted how empty prayer seemed to me as a youngster. Prayer, to me, was just going through the motions. Then I described how visceral prayer became when I found myself in the hands of a living God! I am part of what they used to call “Generation X”. We were known for being somewhat lethargic as a generation. Always holding out for some authenticity. Our motto was “Get real, man”, and so there was something natural about the way I developed in prayer that suited my time.
Though I did not reject the discipline of prayer outright, I held it in suspicion, to say the least. I still did not know how to practice prayer without at least some of the accompanying jargon, traditions, even accoutrements, of the praxis. So I did not jettison all things prayer in order to practice prayer more authentically, but I held ever more tightly to God’s hand as I jumped off the temple heights (we might say). And of course that is exactly one of the temptations Jesus faced. (I am glad God is gracious!)
As a young adult, I drove around in circles talking to God about my marriage, my finances, my church, and all the things that were important to me. And I am sure God listened patiently to every word of it. And I think he responded in ways I was able to hear – such as the cowboy at church I mentioned before. It was the audible voice of God! Everyone there heard it; it’s just that most folk thought it was the cowboy. I, took it on faith, that I was hearing from God! And I was right to sense that. I followed his lead, and he has led me ever since.
Years later I was divorced. And then my prayers became cries of sorrow, shame, disappointment, bewilderment, and pain. I will talk about that another time. But somewhere in those years, the dust began to settle. I had picked a place (in New Mexico) where I could drive out and watch the sunset each evening – usually alone – and talk with God there in a much more calm and recovered state. And as that became somewhat of a routine, I sensed a measure of discipline taking shape. I began going through the motions again seeking calm and the authenticity of life as a planted tree (Ps 1:1-3).
I did not know what to say. I had a strong feeling that sharing my brokenness, my shame, my angst, and even sometimes my own stillness was appropriate, but what words were there for that?
I decided to pray the words Jesus instructed: The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13/Luke 11:2-4). I felt a bit disconnected. It was not the words of my heart shared with God; and so I added my own bit as a supplement, but I wanted to follow Jesus’s instruction nonetheless. I hoped there was meaning and power in the words he taught, and to discount that seemed to discredit the whole faith. So, I faithfully committed to going through the motions despite my feelings of disdain.
I kept doing this. The rhyme-n-rhythm of the prayer felt good, like eating a small piece of candy. It was not my whole diet; it would not sustain, but it seemed nice – AND – it was obedience that I hoped could lead me to new places in life.
I continued like this for some time. I had a prayer ritual. It was a discipline. I did not practice it every day, but it became more and more routine. And I began to sense that I was tapping into some ancient words that had meaning and power long forgot. Perhaps I was like an archaeologist discovering important artifacts among ancient ruins. I might be discovering things that my father did not know, nor my father’s father, nor his father. Ancient mysteries seemed to be seething beneath the surface. But all I could do was conjecture.
And then I discovered the prayer of Moses (Song of Moses) that he taught the people to pray/sing (Exodus 15:1-18) and I tried to pray the Magnificat given to us by Mary, the Lord’s blessed mother (Luke 1:46-55). But though Moses’s prayer thrilled me, Mary’s prayer filled me with fear. I had discovered that there were no atheists in foxholes, that jumping into college would enrich my prayer life, but Mary’s prayer invited movement from God that gives all of us cause for pause.
And somewhere in that time frame, I found a book by N.T. Wright called The Lord and His Prayer. In it, Wright connected every portion of “The Lord’s Prayer” to the story of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, starting with “Our Father…” which immediately takes the faithful to Exodus 4:22, the moment when God’s son (Israel) is held captive by the dark lord Pharaoh. And YHWH, God, comes blowing in off the desert to confront Pharaoh saying, “THATS MY KID YOU ARE PICKING ON!” And before he leaves town with his son, he has unleashed 10 devastating plagues on the land! A mama bear protecting her cub has got nothing on this God! Egypt lay in smoldering ruins, because OUR FATHER came and saved us!
And Wright made that story my story, and told me how St Paul made it the story of Gentiles who come to faith in Jesus, and how it is appropriate for me to embrace those words as my prayer too, even today! And suddenly going through the motions unleashed power and meaning for me and for my world in ways I have yet to exhaust the exploration into!
And this is where I resonate with Olbricht so much. He was Hearing God’s Voice in the Scriptures. And I was praying the Scriptures and hearing from God now too. AND I was doing it in and through discipline, by virtue of going through the motions which early in life had seemed soooooo empty (and I think could have remained that way). I think many people of prayer today experience dry empty ritual and strain to break through it to more meaning and power. If that is you, I encourage you to not give up, and I offer this post as a road sign pointing the way to greater depth, which I am sure you can have. I offer it also as an invitation to share your experience with me – perhaps enlighten me if not grow with me.
And like Olbricht, I see that what once seemed a blind alley has proven to be a major thoroughfare. I think it was possible for me not to find, but not likely. And I think there is far greater mystery and depth in diving with God’s words than in wading through the feelings in my heart. When I go with Scripture, I get both and more.