Although I’ve struggled with prayer for my entire adult life, I think I’ve finally found a prayer practice that I can stick with. As I have mentioned before, I’m using Phyllis Tickle’s book series The Divine Hours to “pray the hours.” Praying the hours is an ancient practice, used in many monastic communities, in which we set aside other tasks at certain times during the day to pray. Although a monastic community might have six or seven set prayer times per day, Phyllis’s book settles on four: morning, midday, vespers (evening), and Compline (just before bed).
My Lenten practice (one that I anticipate continuing beyond Lent) is to pray the morning office daily except for Sundays, when I attend corporate worship. Some days, I do one of the additional prayers, often the one for midday. While I love the idea of doing vespers or Compline (the set prayers for evening are some of my all-time favorites), I haven’t yet figured out how to make this work in a household where the hours of 5 to 9 p.m.are a mad scramble to get everyone fed, finished with their homework, prepared for tomorrow, bathed, and in bed.
Although it’s tempting to dismiss reading set prayers as meaningless repetition, in fact, I’m finding that being freed of the pressure to say something eloquent makes me more, not less, engaged in praying. And I do continue to pray spontaneously just before reading the Lord’s Prayer, when I offer intercessions, thanksgivings, and confessions.
When choosing intercessions, I pray for whatever or whomever comes to mind. Or rather, I pray for the needs that come to heart. I pray about the things that I keep dwelling on—the people in the images from the weekend paper that I can’t get out of my head, the friends and family whose struggles hover on the edges of my thoughts, the wounds I keep fingering, the joys that give me little “zings” of energy throughout the day, and the sorrows that make me feel like I’m carrying a 10-pound weight around in my chest.
Over the past few days, my prayers have focused on two particular heartaches: the mayhem in Syria, as people fight for their freedom and non-combatants become the victims of murderous violence; and our rescue dog Eddie’s dire need for a “forever home.” (For more on how much I adore Eddie, read this. For more on why we are giving him away anyway, read this.)
And I feel silly praying about those two things, in all their contrast: A life-and-death struggle for freedom in which mothers cannot be assured of their children’s safety, and the needs of an anxious suburban pet. I feel silly praying about the dog. I feel silly caring as much as I do about the dog, and hurting as much as I do over losing him. I see my prayers for Eddie as symbolic of my privileged, pampered life. If this is the worst thing going on in my life right now, then I really shouldn’t complain.
But you know what? While I think it’s reasonable for me to be grateful that the worst thing in my life right now involves re-homing a pet and not, say, mourning a child or dodging mortar rounds on my way to the market, I also think I should stop feeling silly about praying for Eddie along with Syria. Because God is not like us. God is not limited. God does not have to prioritize where to give his attention. God is big enough to care about it all—war zones and epidemics and natural disasters, and also anxiety over the month’s bills and a kid whose cough keeps her up at night and a timid dog who needs a home.
Praying for a parking spot at the mall has become a symbol for the self-absorbed, small-minded nature of some prayers. “Don’t you think God has better things to do with his time than find you a parking spot?” we ask the person who admits to praying for this very thing. But the thing about God is that he doesn’t have to manage time the way we do. He doesn’t have to make a to-do list every day and then decide which tasks are urgent, which are important, and which can be postponed or trashed. God is timeless. God is way, way bigger than any time-management system. We assume that, somehow, our praying for something inconsequential, like a parking spot, takes God’s attention and care away from some situation where people really need him.
Now I’m not saying we should all start praying for parking spots. My beef with this sort of prayer is not that it wastes God’s time, but that it belies the praying person’s focus on the self. If I am praying for a good parking space, perhaps I’m overly focused on my own needs and convenience, and not focused enough on other, more fundamental needs in this broken world.
But I’ve decided that praying for Eddie to find a new home isn’t pure self-absorption; it’s not just about making my life easier (although I will be grateful to be relieved of this particular burden). I plan to continue praying for both the big stuff, like violence in Syria, and the more mundane stuff, like a home for Eddie. Because a God who cares for the birds of the air, a God who has counted the hairs on my head, a God of love, healing, and forgiveness—surely that God, who most certainly cares about the suffering people of Syria, also cares for a traumatized, anxious, shy dog who desperately needs a place where he can be accepted as he is, and loved in that place for the rest of his life.