On our first home assignment my best friend from high school came to visit me. We had attended an international school in East Africa together – she the middle daughter of a devout Muslim family from Indian, me the oldest daughter of Christian missionaries from America – and we remained close even after she immigrated to the States and went to an Ivy League graduate school and I moved off to nowhereville North Africa to do the Bible Translation gig. But we stayed in touch over the years and when she heard we were back in the States for a bit she bought a plane ticket and flew across the country to see us.
The first night that she was with us she stepped out of the guest room before bed and asked if she could borrow a scarf. She had forgotten her prayer mat and wanted to do her rakat. As I handed her a worn-out favorite – a black and purple cashmere scarf gifted from an aunt who plucked it from a garage sale – I felt a pang of envy as my friend smiled her thanks and said goodnight. This thing that had hung limply in my closet until thrown on over jeans on the way out the door had suddenly become something I had never imagined – the threshold for conversation with the divine.
I went to sleep that night thinking, Why is the only time I have ever been on my knees bowing forward in this house when I am at the end of a yoga workout? Why don’t I have a prayer mat? Why don’t I pray like that?
The answer is probably because it’s weird.
It’s not how good evangelical Americans pray. It doesn’t really work with the prayers we pray stuck in traffic on the way to work, or falling asleep half-dead with exhaustion at night, or heads politely bowed in church pews. It would make people around us uncomfortable. Not to mention, if it looks like something good Muslims do it sure as heck shouldn’t be something we make a habit of.
But as it turns out, it’s a habit a lot of people in the Bible had. I have never taken a Hebrew class but people who know better tell me that the phrase most often used in the Old Testament to talk about worship is a combination of the words for to “bow down” and to “prostrate oneself”. Time and time again in scripture we see people falling on their faces before God in prayer.
And I think that is because sometimes praying is not feeling or saying the right things. It’s doing them.
I don’t know about you, but when my mind and heart are in disarray, this is especially helpful to me. When I feel whipped around in spiritual chaos, it’s my body that I need to root me in a posture of prayer. I need to feel rough carpet or cold floor pressing into my forehead, my own deep breaths pushed out towards my pajama-pants knees, arms stretching forward – my muscles and skin and bones saying the things that my voice cannot. Sometimes I need to feel a little awkward in my body because the whole season itself is uncomfortable and I need an act of connection with God equally expressive and submissive.
I have recently started lighting a candle when I read my Bible. It’s a simple act done with a cheap lighter and a pillar of tangerine colored wax. But the small flame burning just at the edge of my peripheral vision and the faint scent of smoke in the room as a I read and reflect signals the presence of the Spirit of God. It heightens my awareness, even if only for a period of time. When I am struggling to feel near to God, physical reminders draw my attention to the truth of his presence that I might otherwise struggle to get my mind around altogether.
I have the great advantage of living among people whose daily lives are structured around prayer. And lately I have been taking advantage of that. Five times a day the call to pray echoes out over this city. And when I hear it, I do my best to turn towards God. Sometimes I get on my knees, bow down, prostrate myself in the presence of God and pray the Lord’s Prayer. Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be your name… Sometimes I simply pray the breath prayer several times, inhaling deeply and exhaling with simple words. Come Lord Jesus, Come. Or simply, Help me please. Wherever I am in those moments I come into the presence of God to the best of my ability with my thoughts, with my spirit and with my body.
I suspect most of you reading this do not live in a place where the call to prayer from a mosque minaret is a resource available to use in your own prayer life. But no doubt there is something that marks the rhythms of your day that could become your own call to prayer. In our fairly unrhythmed Western lives an alarm on your phones is probably the most obvious choice though church bells, school bells or meal-times may also work.
Close your office door and bow down for just a couple minutes on your lunch break. Buy a pretty scarf at a garage sale and kneel on it when you want to talk to God. Light a candle. Buy some prayer beads. Get uncomfortable.
In those silent seasons allow your body to lead the way in conversation with the Almighty. And when you do, trust that you are shoulder to shoulder with a great cloud of the faithful who have been on their faces before God from the very beginning.