In high school, I had the chance to be in our church’s pride-and-joy musical group: the Carillon Ringers. (Yes, I was a youth group nerd as a teenager.) But this handbell choir could pull off pieces of music that ranged from welsh folk songs to Disney to Andrew Loyd Weber and even some Verdi and Sousa. And we toured all over the country every summer.
That being said, there was one piece that still rings out (sorry, punny) in my mind – not for it’s great beauty – but because we nick-named it the “demonic circus song.” It was an arrangement of an old African American spiritual, one which I love deeply. But it seriously sounded like we were headed into a scary fun house. This was not my first encounter with the piece, but rather obviously that arrangement left a lasting impression.
The only benefit to living through that set of music is that I learned the lyrics of the hymn by heart. The central message is a beautiful one: every time I feel the Spirit moving in my heart I will pray. Like so many other Christians and faithful seekers around the world, I do believe in the power of prayer. But maybe not in the way you think.
The true purpose of prayer is to connect ourselves to the divine, or rather to open ourselves up to the connection that is already there. As we become more in-tune with God’s own self, our conversations will come to reflect God’s purposes more closely. In essence, being able to pray for what you want and get it was never on the menu. But growing your connection with God to a place where God’s desires become an essential part of you – then your prayers will reflect who God is.
As we participate in this growth, many of us will find that every time we think of God, we do re-tap into that connection. More and more. In that sense, the song is correct.
Now, here’s the twist: Meister Eckhart once wrote, “What we plant in the soil of contemplation, we shall reap in the harvest of action.” Mystics have known this for centuries. Prayer is not about navel-gazing, self-betterment for the purpose of self-fulfillment. It is about honest conversation and learning to listen. All of this is for an essential purpose: that we might serve God more in our lives.
There are countless parables that talk about this, but the general idea is this – as I prayed to God to help this one or that, I realized that God was answering my prayers by sending me. Prayer that keeps a person sitting still for extended period when others are in need is against God’s purposes. Self-care is essential, but we care for ourselves in order that we can care for others.
One final thought: God could have remained in perfect community among God’s own self. We Christians believe that God is three-in-one and lives that life of perfect love. However, God knew that love only grows with more to love; so God created the universe, the earth, and all the people that live in it. Why? So that there could be more lives lived in love. We may fall short of that vision, but that is the goal. That is what we were created for – to live in love with God and one another.
So every time you feel the Spirit in your midst, do pray. Stop and ground yourself in the connection to God that is already within you. Tell God your real feelings and needs and dreams. Then listen… listen… listen. For God will always grow that relationship to include more and more of those whom God loves. And that same Spirit will push you into the world to join the work.