Recently I realized that I spend a lot of time thinking about God and calling it prayer. My preferred mode of prayer is to walk and talk to myself. It’s been that way ever since I was senior in high school.
That year, I had Leadership at 7:00 a.m. and then a free first period. Not ideal, but that’s the way my schedule worked out. After the early period ended, I would leave the classroom on the second floor of the main building at Santa Cruz High and walk to Emily’s Bakery on the corner of Mission and Walnut. There I would buy a poppyseed muffin and a large coffee. I would sit on the deck next to the creek under the redwoods and eat my muffin. (Note: it was not lemon poppyseed, just poppyseed, not too sweet, and the top of the muffin was slightly crispy. Delicioso.) After I finished the muffin, I would start walking back to school, finishing my coffee, and talking to God.
I would imagine it as a kind of talk show where God and I were both the guests and hosts. We were kind of interviewing each other about what was going on that day. It was a true back and forth. I won’t say that I heard God’s physical voice, but I intuited an inner voice that was also the voice of another. I say “inner voice” because it was me talking to myself, but I say “the voice on another” because of a strong felt sense that I was being communicated to from without, that this presence couldn’t be reduced to my own subjective expererience. That voice, that presence, that “person” and I would have these conversations every morning that year between 8:00 and 9:00 a.m.
While the habit of prayer I practiced at age 17 is something that has stayed with me, it has also changed over time. The container of “free period for one hour every morning” has not been something I’ve maintained. Sometimes I’ve walked and talked and prayed in cities and other times on hikes in the mountains. Sometimes I’ve been able to maintain a regular practice, and other times I’ve gone long stretches with no intentional communication. Sometimes I feel like I’m hanging with God as if with an old friend whom I have known my whole life, and other times I feel like we’re meeting each other for the first time, awkwardly trying to find something to talk about. And then there are times when I feel like I’ve been stood up. We’ve made a date. I’ve got my coffee and pastry and I’m ready to talk until my voice is hoarse, but the other chair in the talk show remains empty.
Some people might assume that pastors have a robust prayer life. Or that we should at least be trying to have one. Or that if we don’t have one, we should pretend like everything is going great. The truth is that pastors, just like everyone else, aren’t always on speaking terms with God. In fact, sometimes the dry spells are really dry and they go on and on.
I haven’t exactly been experiencing a dry spell as of late, but I did realize that I was doing a lot more thinking about God and calling it prayer and a lot less speaking to or with God. And so, in the past couple of weeks, I’ve made the “You” turn. I still walk and I still talk, but my talk is addressed to “You,” to God. It makes a difference. In a sense, it is a totally different activity than talking to yourself. This shift from third person to second person is a shift from impersonal to personal, and it’s huge.
For example, if I am walking and talking, I might say to myself, “This war in Ukraine is so horrible. I wonder what God would have me do about all the intense feelings of sadness, grief and helplessness I have?” Or I might say, “God, this war is so horrible. I feel deeply sad, grieved, and helpless. What should I do with all these feelings?” In the first approach, the third person approach, even though I am talking about feelings, I stay in my head. And it’s not entirely clear I even need to invoke God’s name. I could just move to the first person and say, “What should I do about these intense feelings?” But when I use the second person approach, I am sharing my feelings with someone else, placing them in someone else’s hands, and not just anyone, but the one I trust to be the author of all that is, as well as the one who is revealed in Jesus as the incarnation of suffering love on behalf of others. When I address my question to “You, God,” I stay with the feelings and I don’t rush toward an answer because I don’t have an answer, which is why I’m sharing my deepest prayer with “You.” I’m speaking, but then I’m pausing to listen.
I believe there are many ways to pray. In fact, I think we are often praying when we don’t even know it. Different forms of prayer work for different people at different times in our lives. There is no one size fits all for all time. But if you’ve been in a time of dryness, try making the “You” turn. Trust, imagine, act as if the God who made you and loves you, along with all people and all creation, delights in spending time with you and can be addressed familiarly as someone who never leaves your side whether you realize it or not.