Written by Mary Rearick Paul
From her column Dwelling with God
My husband was preparing for a sermon and found himself awakened in the middle of the night by what he felt was a divine gift of insight regarding the passage of scripture he was studying in preparation for Sunday’s sermon. Knowing that such thoughts can be fleeting, he forced himself out of bed and jotted the insight down so it would await him the following morning. When he woke and found his handwritten note it read simply, “God is Love.” While this statement is true enough, it was not the unique spark he was hoping to find.
And yet, there are lessons we all seem to need to learn repeatedly regardless of how obvious they may be. Simple lessons we need to not only recall but make central to our spiritual lives. Certainly, “God is love” is one of those. Hardly new in its insight, and yet a truth that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we continue to receive our whole life long in the very depths of our beings.
I am reminded of the book so popular in the 80s, “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” I have my own version of a list of things I learned in Sunday school that would serve me well to remember and live deeply. One of those early lessons was that the Christian faith journey is deeply connected to a life of prayer. I remember the lyrics from a children’s song, “read your Bible, pray every day… and you’ll grow, grow, grow,” as well as the early lessons of bowing our heads, folding our hands, and closing our eyes for a time of prayer.
There is something in the song’s repetitive call to grow that speaks to the ways our hearts, minds, and souls continue to need to daily connect to God through prayer and scripture. The guiding actions directed by early Sunday school teachers for our time of prayer can still teach us that physical actions in times of prayer cues our mind and prepares our heart to engage more deeply with God. The simple bowing of our heads reminds us that we are coming before our God—God who is both intimate and transcendent. The folding of the hands calls us away from the distractions we might be holding (these days an iPhone is the most distracting thing held in my hand). The act of folding hands thus helps us quiet our bodies, just as the closing of eyes slows our mind from a storm of distractions to better focus on God.
Another common teaching about prayer from my early childhood was that “Prayer Changes Things,” and the promise that, regardless of whatever we are going through, we can “Take it to the Lord in Prayer.” Like many of you, I have encountered both the gifts of answered prayer and of healings, but also the hurt and confusion of prayers that seem unanswered. I have found that prayer is more dynamic than a simple cause and effect formula, as if God were simply a grand granter of wishes. And yet, I still believe prayer changes things, even if not always in ways I would direct.
The church practice of praying for those in need (near and far) was also an early lesson on how we are to pray. The church taught me we were to be people who interceded for those near (family, local church people, etc.) as well as people around the world. I have been pondering anew the passage in Luke 11 where Jesus is responding to the disciples’ questions about the practice of prayer. After teaching them what is known as the Lord’s Prayer there is a short parable where the friend goes to a friend’s house in the middle of the night because another friend had shown up at their house and needed some bread. I love all the interaction of friends coming to each other in need. There is something beautiful in the trust the friend has, knowing the request might bug or inconvenience the other, but nevertheless has confidence that the friend will come through. This passage has often been explicated with an emphasis on persistence, but the word is actually “impudence” or “shamelessness” The NIV version says, “shameless audacity,” the King James Version says, “importunity,” the Common English Bible says “brashness.” And thus, this parable calls me to come boldly to God on behalf of others. A prayer that recognizes that there is someone—perhaps a group of people—who is without bread (sustenance of life) and needs my fervent interaction with God on their behalf and may include a call for me to dig a bit deeper in my own cupboards. The early call to be intercessors in prayer is still being learned anew in my life.
Simple lessons I was taught at an early age in the church. Simple lessons I am still learning to live fully.
Rev. Mary Rearick Paul, D.Min., is vice president of spiritual development at Point Loma Nazarene University.