Last Sunday I led a class on how to use the Book of Common Prayer. We went through the mechanics of how morning and evening prayer are structured in our new prayer book, and how to find the readings and prayers for each day.
I could have used a class like that when I was first learning to pray! Instead, I was under the impression that prayer would just automatically, spontaneously happen if I was sincere enough and tried hard enough.
I would dutifully show up each morning for my “quiet time,” but because I only had a loose structure for my time in prayer, I quickly became listless and discouraged. I wasn’t sure what to do, or why I’d do it. I didn’t seem to be able to sustain a life of prayer when everything was “up to me.” I could have used some handlebars and instructions on what to actually do and say in prayer.
This is why I find resources like the Book of Common Prayer helpful. There’s some structure, informed by the ancient and historical church, that offers some tracks for us to run on. Some well-worn grooves to settle into. And then it’s into these grooves that our prayers can be cultivated into a flourishing life with God, where we hear him speak and are able to respond and open our lives up a little more to his grace.
This happened to me recently. Right now the Daily Office Lectionary has us reading through the Gospel of John during morning prayer. So a few days ago I read John 5, where Jesus notices a man who had been an invalid for thirty-eight years, lying near the Bethesda pool, which apparently was rumored to have healing powers for the first person who could enter the water when it was stirred by an angel.
Jesus approaches this man and asks him, “Do you want to get well?” (What a question!)
The man answers, “I don’t have anyone to put me in the waters when they are stirred up… someone always gets there ahead of me.”
In other words, “Yes! I’d love to get well. But I am blocked from pursuing the only way I know to get well. I am excluded from ‘getting well’ according to how I ‘know’ it works.”
As I read this passage, it occurred to me that Jesus doesn’t say, “I’ll help you get into the water.” Instead, he simply says, “Get up! Take up your mat and walk!” As the man responds to this command, he is healed, takes up his mat, and walks.
Jesus doesn’t help him get into the water, or recruit some friends to help him get into the water. Instead, he bypasses the whole system of healing as it has been established and invites the man to look to him for healing.
As I thought about this, I started wondering about my own prayer life. I wondered how much of my prayer life consists of trying to get Jesus to help me into the water. I have a way I “know” my healing will come. I “know” what flourishing looks like and try to recruit God to help me get there. “Sure, I’d love to get well, God, but look at all these obstacles in my way! Look at these challenges I can’t do anything about!” And so I pray and wait for God to remove the obstacles to my healing.
But what would happen if I simply looked to Jesus and opened my imagination to a completely different way of seeing the whole situation? What if the things I think are obstacles to my flourishing aren’t anything of the sort? What if I’m so locked into the “way I know things are” that I’m unable to hear Jesus telling me to get up, pick up my mat, and walk?
What if I’ve pinned all my hopes on Jesus helping me get into the water, and I’m missing what he is in fact inviting me into? What if prayer could be more like attending to his voice, gazing upon his face, and listening for his surprising invitation?
I spent the rest of my time simply sitting quietly in God’s presence, letting go of my troubled thoughts and feelings, my demands for help getting into the water. I was able to rest in God’s love and care for me right there in that moment, and I found myself blessed, despite all the obstacles I thought were hindering my blessedness. I found I could pick up my mat and walk.
This kind of thing doesn’t happen every day for me, of course. In fact, most days I’m not aware of anything of much significance happening. But over time I have noticed that I’m more able to stay aware of God throughout the day. And I attribute this directly to the practice of showing up for prayer each morning (along with the practices we learn in DNA Groups).
May you find yourself empowered and free to cultivate a deeper life of prayer this year!