I grew up in the evangelical church tradition of the eighties and nineties. We were in church three times a week. We knew our scriptures by heart. We believed in organ music and the necessity of an altar call at the end of every service. Those memories are sweet to me. My childhood church taught me how to connect with God’s Spirit. We sang about that mysterious Spirit-movement at the end of every Sunday night service, holding hands throughout the giant sanctuary and across every aisle. “There’s a sweet, sweet Spirit in this place,” we sang. “And I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord.”
I also knew only one type of prayer: a prayer that came from the individual, full of one’s own words, a prayer that came into existence as we spoke it aloud or let the words fall from our minds down into our chests, unsaid, but presented just as loudly to God.
I knew low-voiced deacons praying into a microphone before we passed the offering plate. I knew cool, fun youth pastors who prayed in the cadence of teenagers, and allowed me to believe that God could hear me exactly as I was. Prayer was defined as “talking with God,” and that was the definition I needed as a thirteen-year-old. I practiced prayer faithfully then. Talking with God in the morning before school, in the hallways between classes, and most definitely in the moments of my deepest embarrassment. Who heard from me first when I fell down the stairs at Austin Middle School? You better believe I prayed down deep in my heart: words of sorrow and shame, and a good dose of Jesus still loves me.
Extemporaneous talking to God was always enough until I went to college: The Southern Baptist college I landed at was full of kids like me, who had survived high school through prayer. We had been oddballs in our public schools, wearing Christian tee shirts and hosting early morning Bible clubs, but now we were all together, and Christian-fervor was cool.
So prayer became a marker of our awesomeness. Bigger evangelical trends of the moment carried over into the way we prayed. We had phrases we turned and turned in our mouths like candy: “Lord God we just…we just….we just.” We changed our pronunciation of “Father” into a more meaningful sound: “Fathah-God” we said as if that drop of the ‘r’ sound sealed the power of our prayers. We spoke of bringing glory to God as if it were a check mark on our to-do lists, right next to that evening’s required reading for US History. But what began to feel most wrong to me was our patterns of pausing and agreeing when praying aloud with others. I knew there was a way to pray that made me sound better at Christianity than the people around me. I knew I was good at it, and something—the Holy Spirit, I hope?—told me to be very wary.
But what does a girl who has built her life around being wonderful at talking to God do when the way she has always talked to God suddenly feels lifeless, or worse, dangerously fake?
I peaced-out for a while. I wrote poetry and avoided massive college-prayer meetings. I kept my faith but backed away from the faith of many of my peers. I taught Sunday school to high school kids. I sought out older people in my church. But I never found relief from my discouragement with what felt like a falseness in what I understood of prayer. I found myself so insincere, so “impressive” at prayer that I could hardly believe that the rest of the Christian world was true-hearted. I became a skeptic.
I graduated, worked for a year, and moved away from Texas to the northeast for graduate school. There in the absence of my evangelical cultural tradition, in the loneliness of being the only person of faith in my graduate program, in the frustration of desiring God’s work in me but no longer trusting myself to pray for it in a way that was humble or authentic, I found a new (old) way to prayer.
Liturgy, a practice as old as the Church itself, had been a room closed to me in my faith tradition. And when the door opened, I discovered within it the treasure of wisdom. Liturgy was prayer I couldn’t use to make myself look better. It humbled me, reminded me of how many of the faithful had come before me. I found in that room an antidote to my skepticism.
I read Episcopalians and Catholics, writers who spoke of prayer as something they were invited into, not something they were creating for themselves.. I had been living as if prayer was my daily task to produce, words I needed to speak or think to build a bridge of connection with a living God. What I began to see was that prayer was not dependent on me: it was a living organism—a stream—I could enter. It was, thank God, beyond me and outside of me and something I was invited into.
Nowhere was that clearer than when I begin to pray with liturgy, something I’d been warned in the past was “hallow” and “vain repetition.” What I found in those early days of breaking open The Book of Common Prayer and fumbling through the local Episcopal church service, was that these prayers written hundreds of years prior were new and fresh to me. They were a reminder of the depth and breadth of the Church—both past and present. When I prayed a prayer someone else had written down—words that had been uttered around the world, in generations past, words lifted in expectation toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, words that would be voiced again long after me—I entered the miracle of the Body of Christ. Something which was (shockingly!) bigger than my generation, my understanding of faith, my culture, and my personal experience of God. Suddenly, prayer was opening up my world.
What was at first a way for me to pray when I no longer trusted my own words became a connection to the people of faith who came before me. Through liturgy the communion of saints offered me prayer when my own words had run out, when I was full of doubt, when I didn’t know how to thank God, or ask for help. Far from being empty, the words of the morning prayer liturgy gave me life when I couldn’t find it anywhere else.
That was sixteen years ago. This morning I woke and prayed, as I’ve done since my nine-year-old son was a toddler, “O Lord, open our lips, and our mouth shall proclaim your praise.” Then I prayed through a morning prayer liturgy that I’ve been using off and on for the past three months, some prayers taken straight from the Book of Common Prayer, and some written, gathered and organized by Brian Zhand, one of my favorite preachers and writers.
Most mornings I ask Jesus to have mercy on me. I confess my sin with the same words believers around the world have used for hundreds of years. I remind myself of what I believe in the Apostles Creed, and pray with St. Francis that I might be an instrument of God’s peace.
And somewhere in the middle of that, I arrive in the place I long to be, in the presence of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And now? I mix my own words in there too, sometimes vainly impressed with myself. But also, hopefully, aware that I am not alone in my prayer. I’m falling into a wild, brilliant river of prayer that began long ago. A river I hope my children and their children will fall into as well. A space that words can take us to, and hopefully release us to the “sweet, sweet Spirit” who moves us along in a way of glory that no words can capture or contain.