Max Lucado recently wrote a book entitled Before Amen. I have not read the book, but I just finished reading an interview with Lucado about the book (and the broader topic of prayer) in the fall issue of Leadership Journal. The interview reinforced my desire to read the book, but it also provided several thought-provoking admissions and statements about prayer.
For example, when asked, “What does a good prayer do?” Lucado answered, “A prayer is simply an honest conversation with God.” If you’re like me, you have had the experience of hearing someone else pray and thinking, “Wow, it sounds like he/she is talking to another person…just having a conversation!” It always strikes me when I hear that because, more often that not, that is not how I feel when I am praying. I know God hears me and that I am talking directly to Him, but I do not talk to Him the same way I talk to my brother, my wife, my children or my friends. I say that as an admission of my own weakness, because there really is no reason why I should not talk to Him in a similar way. Yes, I need to approach God with reverence and respect; I am absolutely not advocating an overly casual approach to God. I am not even suggesting that we should allow ourselves to get too comfortable in how we approach God. He is, after all, God, and there has to be an acknowledgement and understanding of who He is and who we are.
I am reminded of a scene in the movie The American President when the President of the United States, played by Michael Douglas, is having a conversation with his long-time friend and current adviser (chief of staff, perhaps, I cannot remember) played by Martin Sheen. Sheen keeps referring to Douglas as “Mr. President,” and Douglas wants him to just call him by his name. Sheen refuses to do so, because the office Douglas holds requires that level of respect in Sheen’s opinion. In my mind, the same is true of God. Even though He desires a close, personal, even intimate relationship with me and with each of His children, even though He invites us to call him “Abba,” the equivalent of “papa,” He is still God, and I must never allow myself to forget that.
Having said that, I must also remember that there is no magic formula for speaking to God. I do not need to assume a specific posture or include specific words. I do not have to use a “prayer voice.” While I need to speak to Him respectfully and with full appreciation for who He is, I can speak to Him in the same manner in which I would speak to someone sitting at a table with me. “A good prayer,” Lucado said, “reestablishes a sense of communion with God.”
I tend to be reticent by nature, and I am not one to chit-chat just for the sake of making small talk. I do, however, enjoy conversation, and I find both pleasure and connection in conversation with friends and loved ones. I can have a lengthy conversation with someone I am not close to, of course. I have done that, and I am sure that you have, as well. I can leave that conversation feeling no closer to that person–feeling no deeper sense of personal connection–than I had before we talked. So it is not the conversation itself that establishes connection. True, regular conversation will build familiarity and increase the likelihood of closeness, but I have also had regular conversations with people to whom I am not close. In fact, I have had regular conversations with people to whom I do not even desire to be close. Our conversations are transactional in nature–giving or receiving necessary information.
That is exactly what my prayers should not be. God does not want me to approach Him as one more thing on my to-do list. God does not want me to tell Him about my day or about my needs because I am supposed to; He wants me to talk to Him because I want to. He does not want me to talk to Him with the cold formalism I reserve for people I communicate with simply because I need something. Neither does He want me to communicate with Him with the disinterested familiarity I have for people I talk to regularly but do not really know or even want to know. Instead, He wants me to talk to Him with the same kind of attitude and spirit I have when I am talking to someone I love, someone I know and want to know more, someone whose presence and company encourages me and makes me happy.
Do you know people in your life like that? If so, think about how you talk to that person and how it is different from the way you talk to your neighbor, your cubicle-mate, your boss or the teller at your bank. You may be quite friendly with those folks, but I suspect you are not often encouraged or strengthened by the time spent with them. (There may be exceptions, of course; you might have a great and deep relationship with your neighbor, cubicle-mate or even your boss. I guess it’s even possible for you to have such a relationship with your bank teller, though I suspect there would be another element to that relationship if that were the case). The people with whom we have deep, meaningful, connecting conversations are the people we are willing to be vulnerable with, people we empathize with, people we miss when we do not get to talk with them for a while and people whose presence lifts our spirits when we are together. Some of us will surely have more of these people in our lives than others, but I think it is fair to say that few of us will have a long list of people who fit that description. In fact, I think we would be fortunate to count a dozen such people in our lives.
That kind of conversation is the kind that God wants us to have with Him. That is the kind of “honest conversation” that Lucado has in mind, I think. That is the kind of conversation that I, sadly, often do not have with God. I get wrapped up in trying to remember to say the right things, I neglect to mention things that I do not think are that important and, in the interest of full disclosure, I often find my mind wandering to other things when I try to spend a lengthy time in prayer. These are my weaknesses, things I need to work on. I know this because these are not problems when I am in conversation with those dozen or so people I described above. When I am conversing with those individuals I am not particularly worried about saying the right thing; I can just be myself. I am not worried about only mentioning things that reach the appropriate level of importance; instead, I will share little–even trivial things–and delight in doing so. In fact, I will encounter things, read things, do things, that cause me to think, “I want to tell this to so-and-so.” I certainly do not find my mind wandering when I am with those folks. On the contrary, I am focused on what they are saying, focused on what I want to share with them, and am more likely to lose track of the time we are spending together than to find my mind wandering to other things.
That is the kind of prayer life I want…an honest conversation with God.