What Feels Like Praying?

What Feels Like Praying? May 9, 2019

In Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer-prize-winning novel Gilead, the old preacher narrator of the story reflects on a lifetime of writing sermons.  He has stacks of them in a box in the attic, a career’s worth of words, and enough output to “put me up there with Augustine and Calvin for quantity” (p.21-22).  Have all of these words made a difference?  For him at least, they have.  “For me my writing has always felt like praying,” he says (p.21).

I resonate with Robinson’s preacher: my writing feels like praying.  I find that I can’t write if I’m not continually going back to the well and seeking refreshment and inspiration from the living God.  Writing is a spiritual exercise for me.  It gives me deep satisfaction to see words trace ideas on a page.  There’s a mystery to it.  I don’t usually know where the words come from.  And it’s a process of discovery too.  I don’t know where the words are headed until I write them.

I wonder if there’s something like that for you.  There are things we do that flow from the center of who we are, the way God has dispositioned and called us.  They’re sacred things, the things we can’t not do.  Doing them feels like an act of offering to God.  They feel like praying.

Don’t get the wrong idea: these things aren’t always fun. Sometimes, there’s an element of striving, stretching, pain even.  That’s certainly true for writing, and especially for preaching which always flows from the vulnerable, beating red place of our heart.  This is why the apostle Paul spoke of himself as being “poured out” on behalf of the church (Philippians 2:17).  There’s a wounded edge to a statement like that.  I suspect you know what Paul’s getting at: the things that matter most and are most worth doing take a lifetime–more than a lifetime, actually–and arrive in our lives with hearty doses of second-guessing and setbacks.  The rightest commitments are often the costliest.  They may not feel right at all.

What feels like praying to you?  Is it quilting or serving in the soup kitchen or teaching children or doing your work well and thoroughly?  Is it playing music or creating art?  Where are you pouring out your life for God?  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once famously reflected on his experience at Selma marching lock-armed with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.”

Here’s something obvious: for your legs–or any other part of you–to feel like they’re praying, first your spirit has to feel like it’s praying.  Praying has to feel like praying before anything else can take up the mantle.  This means staking out time to pray.  The kind of prayer I’m talking about is keeping company with God.  It’s placing ourselves in God’s presence.  Because without time in God’s presence, we’ll get drawn aside by every sparkly light.  Every bubble-gum glow will deceive us.  We’ll think every fire is a burning bush.

But spend time in God’s presence and we’ll find ourselves aware of moments of Godwardness as work, commitment, protest, or writing feels–sometimes startlingly–like prayer.

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