by Heidi Haverkamp—
I know a lot of church geeks who like this catchy Latin phrase: Lex orendi, lex credendi. In English, it’s less catchy: “What we pray is what we believe.” In other words, the way we pray (or worship) can speak more loudly about what we believe than a creed or mission statement. The way we pray also teaches us (and our children) what we believe; we learn a certain theology through our actions played out week after week, whether we realize it or not. So it might be worth our time to sit and think about how we pray and what that might say about what we believe—about prayer and about God.
When I was little, my parents taught me that the time to pray was right before I went to sleep. My mother and father would take turns on alternate nights, sitting on my bed and reciting a children’s prayer with me. Then we would name as many people as we could think of for God to bless: Mom, Dad, my brother, my grandparents and my aunts, uncles, cousins, classmates and teachers at school, friends, people at church… It might seem
as though I was trying to keep my parents from leaving my bedroom, but mostly I remember that I didn’t want to forget someone—would God then forget them, too?
Parents and Sunday school teachers often teach children to pray in the form of a list: We are invited to remember people, thanksgivings, things we are scared of, things we want. Sunday morning worship in most churches includes prayers that take the form of a list, too. Many adults grow up and continue to conceive of prayer as a list: of people, thanksgivings, things we are scared of, things we want. Praying in the form of a list is not wrong, but if it is the only way we pray—and the only way we pray with children—it’s a practice that can end up limiting our beliefs about prayer and about God. Or it can end up teaching something we don’t believe (for instance, that leaving someone off a prayer list can be harmful).
We are also taught that prayer means talking to God. Kids often listen to a Sunday school teacher or youth leader pray aloud, talking to God for the group. We listen to our pastors or other leaders praying out loud, speaking to God on behalf of the church or the people assembled. We encourage kids to pray to God when they are alone, to ask for what they need and to talk to God as they would any friend or parent. We teach older kids to pray by writing in a journal, or to pray out loud together in small groups during retreats, confirmation classes or youth group meetings. In college, I was part of a weekly prayer group where we took turns praying aloud, speaking to God as we would a close friend. Offering our voices and words to God in this way can be powerful.
But what belief are we expressing by talking to God as we pray? We may be teaching that only a leader or a “professional” is equipped to say a prayer. We are teaching that prayer means sharing our thoughts and feelings and asking God to listen. I know that God treasures the opportunity to listen to us, but if this is the only way we pray, are we missing out? We may be teaching that prayer does not mean listening to God in return. Perhaps we are even teaching that we do not expect God to respond at all.
What does it mean to “listen to God” when what we will hear in response will likely not be spoken words or even a “still, small voice” (1 Kings 19:12)? What are we listening for? The campus minister at my college began all her extemporaneous prayers with words I loved: “Let’s become aware of the presence of God.” Then she would pause a second or two before continuing.
Becoming aware of the presence of God is a kind of listening: stopping for a moment (or more) to notice the presence and closeness of God around us. We may not hear a voice, but we may sense an assurance, receive an insight, or just feel invited to “be still and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Some Christians practice listening to God in a more formal way, as with meditation or centering prayer. But listening for God or becoming aware of the presence of God can also be simple. Are there ways you notice God in the ordinary details of your daily life and surroundings? Perhaps you notice God in the greetings of your family members or pets, a glimpse of nature, the weather, a meal, a news story or something you are grateful for. Or it might simply happen in pausing for a moment, in the shower or while waiting for the microwave, in your car or while looking out of a window, or in taking a breath and knowing God is right there with you. We are also invited to pay attention to God’s wisdom and help, which sometimes seep into the corners of our lives in ways we might not expect. For instance, you might consider: Is there something God is inviting me to learn about in the events of my day today? Or are there ways God is already responding to my prayers for the people I love?
Heidi Haverkamp is an Episcopal priest, author and spiritual director. Her books include Advent in Narnia, Holy Solitude and Everyday Connections: Reflections and Practices for Year C, to be published in September 2021. Her website is heidihaverkamp.net.