Words from God, not from Ourselves…

Words from God, not from Ourselves… November 28, 2017

Desert Prayers

When we first moved to a series of refugee camps in North Africa we had two kids – a barely two year old and a three month old. We lived in a mud hut for about eight months while waiting for a more permanent house to be built, which was much harder than I would like to admit. During that time I prayed gut-wrenching, agonized prayers. And invariable they went something like this, “Please Lord, I am begging you, out of your unfailing love and mercy please, please make my baby sleep tonight. I believe you are good. Please look upon my distress with kindness. Please God, let my children sleep.

For eight months that was my most heartfelt prayer.

I was sitting in the middle of 150,000 war refugees, many of whom were my neighbors and friends. Most men had served as soldiers in unfathomable conditions. I didn’t want to know how many women had experienced sexual assault. Children every bit as precious in the eyes of their mothers as my own were perpetually dying of preventable diseases. And yet almost all I could beg of God was to make my perfectly healthy baby sleep so I could stop feeling guilty about wanting to pen her up at night in the chicken coop.

Somehow, my prayer life was crippled the crushing magnitude of human suffering pressing in at my elbows coupled with my own existential crisis brought on by sweet motherhood of two children under three. Praying for those around me felt too big to even know where to start. Praying for my own spiritual growth felt beyond the grasp of my exhaustion-dwarfed perspective. I felt very, very stuck.

I don’t think you have to live in a refugee camp or be the parent of small children to experience this. The muck of our own lives weighs us down and makes tackling the mountain of prayer needs in the world seem even more insurmountable. So we wallow in the shallows of myopic prayer, allowing disillusionment with God’s work in a hurting world and general self-centeredness to keep us spiritually lazy. Or at least I do.

But if you’re like me, even as you are begging for that literal or metaphorical few hours of sleep, you can’t brush away the thought that clings to your mind like a piece of sand. There is more to prayer than this, I know. But how do I find the energy to pursue it?

For me the answer came in praying scripture.

It started more as scripture memory really, a habit my grandfather managed to ingrain into our family culture pretty effectively. In a time of high anxiety and fatigue I needed something mindless to root me into God’s presence. So for months, every time I was hand-washing sticky dishes in a pink plastic basin, 2 Corinthians 4 was the ground beneath my feet …We now have this light shining in our hearts though we ourselves are like fragile clay jars containing this great treasure. This makes it clear that our great power is from God, not from ourselves…

And somewhere along the way, the words that had started out more as a stress management tool than anything else became prayer. The words began to shape my requests and expressions of gratitude and hopes for the future in ways that felt more powerful than any other prayers I had prayed in a long time.

In his book Prayer Timothy Keller writes about how God’s words are identical to his actions. When God created light he didn’t comment on his desire for light and then create it; he spoke light into existence. Let there be…and there it was. In Isaiah 55:11 God tells us that it is his word that he sends out and which will always bear fruit. John calls Jesus “The Word” who was with God and who was God.

God’s words are his living, powerful presence. He acts with words. He does with language.

What truer words are there then for us to speak to God?

Russell and I have been told by amused Arabic-speaking Christians that we speak Arabic like Muslims. Our language is peppered with tell-tale idioms and greetings that are very flavored by Muslim communities, (which has resulted in a couple of delightfully awkward moments as American Bible translators meeting North African church leaders a time or two). But the reason we do that is simply because we learned Arabic from Muslims. They were our first teachers, our earliest conversation partners, our close friends.

We all speak as we are spoken to, whether as babies practicing our first word or adults learning a second language. What we produce is highly predicated upon what we hear.

So it is with prayer.

The most powerful prayers we can pray are born out of the Words of God. They are prayers that engage the arching narratives of the Kingdom of God in the world while simultaneously stooping to speak love into our own deeply personal struggles. Allowing scripture to be the backbone of our conversations with God is terrifying and freeing and empowering in ways that few other prayers can be.

For me that has sometimes looked like viciously rewriting Psalms of disorientation into a journal to include imagery of the war machines of North Africa. He causes wars to end throughout the earth. He melts the Antanovs and crushes the Howitzers…Sometimes it has looked like verbally wrestling through implications of the teachings of Jesus. I know I have been given so much. Help me to know and to do what is expected of me… Here lately, it has often looked like quietly mumbling 2 Corinthians 4 again while folding laundry and crying over heartaches collected along the journey. For our present troubles are small and won’t last very long. Yet they produce for us a glory that vastly outweighs them and will last forever…

In Kellor’s book he shares an image first described by Timothy Ward of a couple at a restaurant sitting and staring at one another in silence. As outsiders looking in, how we view the silence they are sharing is very much shaped by whether that couple is on their first date or whether they have decades of marriage behind them. The context of the silence matters.

In this season of struggling to hold up my side of the conversation with God praying liturgies, spending time on my knees and face, and breathing out ancient words of scripture have each pried loose words I am hungry to say aloud to the Almighty. There are days that these practices break a dam and unleash communion with God in a beautiful way.

And then there are days that they don’t.

Some days I pick myself up off the carpet or get to the end of the Psalm and still feel very unheard. And on those days I do the only thing I can. I hold the gaze of the One sitting across the table from me. I remember the years of conversations behind us, and anticipate the years of conversations still ahead. And in silence I rest in His presence until I can speak again.

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