I’ve come a long way toward “acceptable evangelical prayer posturing” since uttering that child’s prayer for salvation twenty-five years ago. I've come a long way in the same way Virginia Slims smokers were told, "You've come a long way, baby” – just a few puffs away from the Iron Lung.
Should I have set off the “sarcasm alert” siren? Oops; I forgot. My bad.
Since joining up with the traditionally acceptable “church” of American evangelicalism in my late teens, I’ve towed the line to become a champion pray-er of sub-culturally acceptable prayers. I’ve prayed from formulas and acronyms and wish lists; I’ve prayed to a tyrant, a bureaucrat, and a Santa Claus who’d traded in his flashy red suit for Gandalf’s more acceptable white robe. While holding hands in a circle, I’ve attempted to set a world record for most creative uses of the word “just”; and after phone calls I've pledged to pray for people I promptly forgot about five minutes later.
So sorry if that was you.
As a responsible Christian parent I’ve taught my children to recite meaningless rubbish at the table so our food doesn’t poison us; but quickly, so it doesn’t get cold! Like any “good Christian mom”, I’ve prayed “over them” at bedtime for their good night’s sleep. At one recent bedtime I asked my 7-year-old daughter if she would like to pray instead of me. To my shame she said, “I only know how to pray for food.”
My heart landed somewhere near my feet. Suddenly I was the world’s biggest loser mom; a huge failure as a parent. How could I have screwed up something so basic; so vital to her Christian growth? She had no idea how to proceed. And it was my fault. My fault because I’d let bedtime prayers become nothing more than a slightly-extended exaggeration of the rhyming ditty I had recited at bedtime when I was little. And I’d been so proud that I prayed with my kids every night. Shudder. It turns my stomach.
So, in a moment of utter panic for the deficit I’d implanted in my children’s spiritual walk, I fell back on my trusty acronym, the ACTS prayer I learned at a ladies’ Bible study years ago. I thought it was as good a place to start as any; and maybe it is. We all need to learn how to ADORE our Father/Savior/Friend; how to CONFESS our sin; the importance of giving THANKS.
Supplication, of course, comes easily once the word is defined in kidspeak; I mean, it’s the fun, American one, right? As my daughter interpreted my definition of that last word, she reiterated with a smile, “So... you mean it’s when you get to ask for STUFF.” Gulp.
Although I’m sure the developer of the ACTS prayer never intended for his big, scary word to be replaced with something so… um… uncomfortably accurate (most of the time), when I pray the ACTS prayer—and this is a reflection upon my heart, not the developer of the ACTS prayer or the hundreds of thousands of ACTS devotees—it always seems to be heavily weighted toward the “S” end of the scale; it’s like I’m going through the motions to get on God’s good side so I can ask Him to provide all the stuff I feel like he should be shelling out to me anyway. Just like our family’s slightly varied mealtime recitations are no more an exercise of relating to God than setting the table is, I’ve found the ACTS prayer to rarely serve as more than a vain attempt at checking prayer off on my daily to-do list and reminding God of his promises for my abundant life.
I’m not bashing the ACTS prayer… not maliciously, anyway. I think it’s a great tool for learning prayer—which is why, even after my moment of guilt-induced panic subsided, I decided to teach it to my daughters—I just think it’s a mistake to dwell on it too long. Formulaic prayer can easily become just one more legalistic ritual that we’ve painted a modern, evangelically acceptable face on. Much like our “orders of worship”, our “unwritten dress codes” our “tea taking/pie baking/nursery-working roles for women within the church”, and our “politically conservative (read that Republican) worldview”, we evangelicals have practically made an art form out of putting new spins on old-world legalisms.
Women who have longed for intimacy with God—a good thing—have grasped onto the ACTS prayer as a way of finding it. Maybe men have too; I don’t know. I really don’t know many men who are willing to have deep discussions about their prayer lives/spiritual hunger with women. I think it makes them feel icky and might mess with that whole “roles in the church” thing—but that’s another blog post for another day. So, due to my lack of expertise on glimpsing the intricacies of the male soul/psyche, I’ll just talk about us girls.
I’ve known some Godly women who’ve had great success with using the formula of the ACTS prayer. From time to time, I’ve even identified with that success; sometimes the formula is all I’ve got going for me because I’m just not in a God-sorta-mood—but after ADORING HIM, I find that my attention may shift in his direction. Sometimes. Sometimes my heart is so gross that I can’t even imagine adoring Him until I’ve puked out all the poison within me through confession. But most of the time, it’s a shortcut; it’s spiritual time-efficiency, baby. It’s like emailing a friend one line of greeting, a terse apology for not having time to get together, and a joke to keep it light and butter them up before asking them to babysit your kid: four quick steps to getting what you want cuz you don’t have time to meet your friend for lunch.
That’s the problem between me and formulaic prayer: lack of intimacy.
Humans just don’t like structure, whatever all the other writers say we secretly yearn for. Humans appreciate structure, we even envy it sometimes when we see it in the lives of others; but deep down inside I think we humans are much more comfortable with messy. Well, American Humans, anyway. That’s why we celebrate Sydney Pollack and Liszt, Jazz Fusion, and those weird metal sculpture thingies on university campuses. It’s why we loved painting with chocolate pudding when we were preschoolers and t-p-ing the town at Homecoming. Messy, messy, messy!!!! Why would we think it should be any different with God?
I know, I know: “Because our God is a God of Order, not chaos.” (My inner voice put on a black suit and spoke with a deep timbre while thumping a big, black KJV just then.) But, I would argue (in my normal voice) that our God also ordered the giggle, the babbling brook, the tornado, and the swarm of gnats. He pruned the roses and then blew the dandelion fluff all around them. He’s totally cool that way without slipping into chaos; but even cooler—sometimes it looks chaotic to my human eyes and that is awesome, cuz I just loved painting with chocolate pudding and I can sling a roll of toilet paper like a quarterback--when nobody’s looking.
Sigh. Unfortunately, we evangelicals always seem to be concerned about “who is looking” – we say it’s because we don’t want to cause the sinner to sin more, but it might just be because we’re afraid of our church friends seeing our mess. Our evangelical desire to be godly without being legalistic has led us toward creating fresher, hipper new ways in which to be legalistic.
Hey, don’t be offended: if I’m pointing a finger, you can bet I’m standing in front of a mirror.
Most the time, formulaic prayer seems to slide around the messy relational aspect of conversing with God and more toward the tidy spreadsheet aspect we strive to escape from in all our other agenda-producing activities.
Funny, isn’t it: my most memorable “prayers” were not born from the observation of a formula or from using the “right” words or tone of voice: they were born from agony and grief and anger; from the appreciation of beauty, and art, and love. My most intimate moments with God have come when I have allowed myself to just let go of all the pretty words and the perfectly reverent bodily positioning and just gush out my guts at Him from the core of where I am so absolutely, irrevocably overwhelmed with WHO HE IS that I just can’t hold it in. And that is where He meets me—not at the bottom of some checklist.
So it’s funny I would post this after writing a glowing recommendation on a book like The PAPA Prayer—another prayer guide based on an acronym. I’m not trying to be hypocritical (honestly—I don’t have to try; I come off that way with very little effort at all!) I'm just trying to be real.
I love the PAPA Prayer and I love praying bits and pieces of it throughout my day; it has made me aware of God—and the condition of my own heart—in a new and awesome way. But I don’t believe it is the have-all-end-all of my praying education any more than the ACTS prayer was. I’m gonna keep working at learning it and, when I feel like the girls understand the elements of the ACTS prayer-- and that they don’t always have to pray all of them—and they NEVER have to pray them in the “right” order—I’m going to teach Delaney and Ellerie the fundamentals of the PAPA prayer because I want them to get comfortable talking to God—and being real with God—in as many ways as I can nudge them toward. Go ahead, call me a hypocrite. You'll only be echoing my own inner monologue.
The PAPA prayer is a self-revealer in its first three steps—and as they hear Mom PRESENTING herself to God, ATTENDING to the way she’s thinking about who He is, and PURGING herself of anything which comes between her and Him, they are going to see the joy of APPROACHING the Throne of Grace with confidence. And then it will be their turn to try it out; experiment with it; blend what is new with what is old and find their own, ever-evolving, messy way of conversing with God.
But I don't know how to apply any of this to mealtime prayers.
About a week ago I expressed dissatisfaction with the meaningless drivel we and our children mindlessly and ritually recite at the supper table (okay, I suck at diplomacy; apparently moreso at the dinner table) and now the beginnings of our meals are laced with hostility, mocking, and uncomfortableness; with Mom to blame. I'm not sure how to get past that. I'm thinking of boycotting mealtime prayer entirely; I don't want to teach my kids that talking to God is a ritual to be observed at specific times and places--I want them to ache and hunger to talk to God because they are so completely stoked at having that privilege.
I'm still a baby learning how to speak and I’m too hungry to be satisfied with a formula or a ritual. I’m completely ill-equipped for teaching anyone anything about prayer—but for some reason, God gifted me with the honor of being a Mom and I won’t take that responsibility lightly even though I know I’ll mess it up over and over and over and over…
Lately I feel like God is using the PAPA prayer to prep me for heart surgery. (Or training in familial diplomacy?) Soon, he’s probably going to crack my cynical chest open to pour more of himself into my veins. I won’t kid myself. It’s probably going to hurt. A lot.
Tonight, I’m subdued, but expectant; hurting, but trusting; lonely, but bathed in His love.
Tonight, I just want to grab hold of God and melt into the searing heat of who He is and however He may choose to reveal himself to me moment by moment, day by day, and word by word until I am so absorbed in His presence that mine becomes the nonessential in the equation; the invisible, silent variable when the perfection of chaotic beauty explodes within a relational Deity who calls me “His.”