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The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

The Day We Prayed for Santa Claus

Christmas Eve in 2006 fell on a Sunday.  The air crackled with the excitement of the children as the congregation gathered for church that morning.  As was our custom, I started the service by asking if there was anything people would like to pray for.  One girl, a quiet, reflective preschooler, raised her hand.

“I’d like to pray for Santa Claus.”  She paused, looking up quickly at my face. “Because it’s very cold out and his job is dangerous.”  Her little voice was quiet but resolute as she made her request.

Now, I was fresh out of seminary and pretty determined to do everything right.  Like many before me, I was going to save humanity with my passion for properness.  I would gather God’s people as I preached the right sermons, led the right Bible studies and wrote the right liturgies. Praying for a fictional character clearly missed the mark.  

My mind whirled. What would people think of me as I prayed for Santa Claus and his non-existent journey around the world?  What would God think of me? Could I cover it with a more general prayer for all of those who faced danger that night?  One glance at the girl’s concerned face told me that I could not.  Her trust was in a God who would protect Santa Claus and a church who would deliver that prayer.

So, in between offering thanks for a family visit and  asking for healing for a sick parent, I prayed for the safe journey of a jolly red man delivering presents by flying sleigh.  

Buried beneath that sentence was a silent, fervent prayer that God would forgive me for wasting God’s time.  And buried deep beneath that was a lurking fear that I had committed sacrilege, taken Christ out of Christmas and given into satanic forces by idolizing Santa. (After all, if you rearrange the letters, they spell Satan.)  The fires of hell were probably being stoked in that very instant.  

I should have, I supposed, figured out a way to be a better gatekeeper, to manage the child’s concerns without interrupting the important work of Ruling the Universe.

But you don’t need me to tell you that there’s a Bible story exactly like that.  It’s about the gatekeepers, worried that children’s petty concerns would get in the way of Jesus’ important work.  To which he says, “they are my important work.”

There are sometimes small moments in which you realize that your theology needs shaking up and for me this was one of them.  Somehow, in my core, my belief in God had gotten tangled up with some pretty shady theology. While I would have said I believed in a loving, inclusive, expansive God, inwardly I was still afraid of a judging, exclusive, proper God. You know, the kind of god cares more about what we say when we pray than where our hearts are. The kind who’s more concerned that our prayers are Good and Right and preferably in King James English than that they’re heartfelt moments of connection and opportunities for a developing relationship.

I suppose it’s not enough to offer a full theology of prayer based on the simple fact that I wasn’t struck by lightning in the process of praying a completely useless prayer. Still, I can say that God was in that moment. And if God was in that silly, awkward church-blooper moment, than I suppose we might find God in all sorts of prayers–the poorly thought out, the desperate tumble of words, the dumbstruck silence and even the proper, stilted, struggling version of those of us who still aim to Do It Right.

When I remember that day, I am reminded that people of faith have a sacred trust. Whether it’s with our family, our friends or our church, when we claim to be praying people we have an obligation to follow through. But that’s the only obligation we have.

We don’t have to figure out how prayer works. We don’t have to be worthy. We don’t have to determine who else is worthy. We simply have to uphold our end of the deal: to take it to God.

All these years later, I still take that as a both an awesome challenge and a great comfort.

 

 

When Words Fail

When Words Fail

It’s been one of those weeks when words just can’t keep up with my prayers. I, like you, find myself tripping over my concerns, my heart barely getting traction to lift up one thing when the next thing comes barreling down. Now, we know God hears all prayers–from the carefully worded prayers we pray in public to the unintelligible gasps of joy or sorrow in life’s deepest moments. So I’m not particularly worried about making sure God’s listening. But prayer also serves the purpose of letting God work in our spirits and in times like this, I need God’s deep peace–a peace I can’t rationalize or worry my way to. It’s not just that I need to voice my concerns to God, like a restaurant patron giving on order, I need to practice settling into God’s spirit.

With this in mind, I created a visualization prayer practice based on the idea of confidence. While Christian tradition does have some imaginative prayer traditions (by imaginative, I mean prayer practices that rely on picturing our prayers in some way or another), other traditions are richer in this way. Generally speaking, Christian tradition has been very heavy on words. So I based this practice on the format of loving-kindness meditation, which has it’s roots in Buddhism but actually came my way through the secular world as a practice to develop compassion and forgiveness. (Learn more at UC Berkley’s Greater Good Science Center.) If you’re familiar with that practice, you’ll recognize the general flow of this prayer as you practice trusting God with gradually harder things.

Begin in a comfortable position. Many people find it helpful to sit with your feet on the ground, hands loosely in your lap, back straight. I’m not legalistic about this, if you do your best work sitting cross legged on the couch or laying on a yoga mat, do whatever signals to your mind that you’re settling in for a bit.

Picture first a person or situation that is bringing you joy. This might be a child, a spouse, a parent, a friend from church. It might also be an event: the family reunion, the church meeting you attended, the person who helped you when your car broke down. Picture the person or event in your mind. Know that God worked in that situation and as you feel this sense of trust in God’s work, imagine a circle of light surrounding the image in your mind. Say, “I trust God is working here.”

Holding onto that image, picture another person or situation that is bringing you joy. Add it to the circle of trust you’ve created in your mind. Holding onto your feelings of confidence in God’s work, say again, “I trust God is working here.”

Now bring to mind something that is neither challenging nor particularly awe inspiring–something that simply is in your life. Perhaps it’s work, or the laundry or a neighbor you don’t know well. Hold this thing or person in your mind’s eye and pull them into your circle of light and trust. Let that feeling of confidence spill over onto this thing as well until you can say, “I trust God is working here.”

Holding onto those images and that feeling of trust, turn your attention to a situation that is challenging you or causing you to feel a lack of peace. Picture that person or event in your mind. Without losing your sense of trust, add this new thing/person to this imaginative circle of light. Let your sense of confidence grow so that you can say, “I trust God is working here.”

You can repeat each of these steps as often as it’s helpful. Play around with different phrases that are helpful to you. You might try, “I send God’s peace to you.” Or, “I see God’s light in you.” The overall goal is to lift up these things to God but also to practice letting go and experiencing peace.

Let me know how it goes for you–or if you have other imaging prayer practices that you use!

Making Peace with Prayer

Making Peace with Prayer

Martha McMarthason (not her real name) was the queen of prayer in my small hometown. “I’ll pray for you,” was her answer for everything. I don’t know whether she did–although I always suspected she didn’t. Instead, she wielded these words like a weapon, shutting down everyone who said or did something she didn’t approve of.

“I haven’t seen you in church in a while. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw you eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”
“I saw your child eat an extra cupcake at the school party. I’ll pray for you.”

I tried it out myself for a while (mostly on my siblings) and am both exhilarated and ashamed to report that “I’ll pray for you” is the most effective way to end an argument.

“You borrowed my red sweater without asking!”
“You should learn to be more generous. I’ll pray for you.”

There is a tremendous amount of power that goes along with this phrase. However, even my adolescent self recognized that it was a low-down move, the ultimate in unfair fighting, a way of co-opting God to prove your holier-than-thou status.

Uneasy with this power–and the implied judgement–I stopped sharing my prayers with people. The phrase, “I’ll pray for you,” simply had too much baggage. Even as a chaplain and then in my first church, I choked over the words. “I’m thinking of you,” was so much easier to say.

I could, after all, pray for someone without necessarily telling them about it–thereby sparing myself and them the embarrassment of wrestling with this loaded phrase. Better still, I could quote the Bible while I did it.

And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by men. Truly I tell you, they already have their reward. But when you pray, go into your room, shut your door and pray to the Father who is unseen.

It was only later that I realized that boldly proclaiming our prayers can be an act of comfort and love, not just an act of superiority. Naturally, I learned this the same way I learned the first lesson–through personal experience.

If you’ve ever had someone pray for you–really, truly pray for you–you know what I mean. There are some people who say “I’ll pray for you” and this simple utterance feels like being wrapped in a soft blanket. The words themselves become a prayer, a promise that they value you enough to use precious time with God talking about you.

Rather than the sense of certainty that Martha McMarthason imposed with her judgemental prayers, real prayer is laden with risk. When I dare to say to someone now, “I’ll pray for you,” the power comes not from my superiority as a praying person but from my vulnerability as a person of faith. Every time I dare to offer prayer, I am reminded that ultimately I don’t know if the prayers will be answered, if the person I’m speaking to will want my prayers or even if God exists. These are all questions that touch on the great mysteries of life and faith–which is why offering to pray for another is such a powerful act of love. When we do it sincerely, we put our whole selves on the line.

And when someone takes you seriously enough to risk an act of faith on your behalf, that’s great love indeed.

I spend a lot of time talking with folks who have been wounded by church and the topic of prayer is a hot one. It seems I’m not the only person who had a Martha McMarthason in their life–someone who wielded prayer like a sword instead of a balm. Those wounds cut deep. And often, it seems, our response is to distance ourselves from the entire act. We stop sharing our prayers with each other because we associate it with judgement, not love.

But I believe this is precisely why we need to reclaim all this prayer business. We need to reclaim it as an act of faith: risky, vulnerable and built on love. I know, the idea makes some of you shudder. Acts of faith are that way. And I don’t really have anything riding on whether you pray or not, I’m just offering this invitation: once I experienced real prayer, in real praying communities, I discovered a new depth of faith and relationship.

I still feel that old hesitancy every time I offer prayers for someone but now I take it as a good sign. After all, prayer shouldn’t be flippant, or easy or–least of all–judgmental. Those of us who know this may be the best people to take on the task after all.

Prayer Stations for a Families

Prayer Stations for a Families

Last Sunday we used prayer stations in worship, something we do every couple months. If you’re not familiar with prayer stations, they’re simply tables set up with different prayer ideas. People wander to each station as they like, spending time wherever they feel most drawn.

I like them because they lend themselves to intergenerational worship, giving both kids and adults the space to connect to God at their own pace. Like the labyrinth, walking prayer or prayer beads, they also introduce a physical element to contemplative practice, which is helpful for kinesthetic pray-ers of all ages. While they’re certainly not the only way to build participatory worship experience, they are one way of doing so.

For all of these reasons, I’m discovering that prayer stations are also a great way to “do spirituality” at home. Most of the time when I share ideas for family worship, it’s a project or litany that everyone does together. (Like the gratitude jar, New Year’s Eve ritual or the home Tenebrae service.)  But since families include many of the same elements churches do: different ages, different ways of experiencing spirituality or different energy needs, offering a couple ways of praying can be an opportunity for the family to create sacred space while still respecting each person’s individual spiritual needs.

So, here are the prayer stations we used on Sunday, adapted for family use. Just copy and paste the directions for each station, print them for easy reference for everyone and set them near the appropriate prayer station. Try setting them up on each side of a kitchen table, with candles in the middle and dimmed lighting for a vespers-style family night. Or, take them outside for a completely different experience. Pre-readers will need help but can engage pretty well with a bit of direction. And the beauty of prayer stations is that even toddlers can join in. They’ll get the experience of family connection and begin to appreciate time set aside for prayer and inner reflection.

You’ll need:

Legos (or Duplos if you have a baby or toddler)

Puzzle pieces (You know that old Elmo puzzle that’s missing three pieces already? This is your chance to put it to good use.)

Paper hearts—at least one per person. (Use that scrapbook paper you bought back when you were going to learn to scrapbook to cut out hearts of different colors and textures.)

1 or 2 small mirrors

Directions for each station, below

 

Directions for each station:

Legos

For preschoolers and younger elementary kids: Build a tower of legos. Count how many you have. Can you think of that many things you like about yourself? Thank God for giving you those gifts.

For older elementary and middle school kids: What kind of person do you want to be? As you build with the legos, imagine building your spirit. What would you add? What would you take away? Ask God to guide you as you grow.

For  high school and adults: Think about your actions this week. What did you build in your life? Where did you put your energy? How are you building things that really matter, like meaningful relationships and time with God?

Puzzle pieces

For preschool and early elementary: Choose a puzzle piece. What do you like about that particular piece? How is it different from the others? Thank God for making so many different things in the world, including you!

For older elementary through adults: Choose a puzzle piece. What do you notice about that particular piece? How would the puzzle be different if this piece went missing? What’s missing in your spirit? How can you find the missing piece?

Hearts

Take a heart. On one side, write the name of someone who has hurt you. Ask God to help you forgive them. On the other side, write the name of someone you’ve hurt. Ask God to help them forgive you.

Mirrors

Look into a mirror. Study yourself. What’s it like to really see yourself? If you could see into your heart, what would you see? Spend some time praying over that idea. What do you think God sees in you? Ask God to help you grow into the person God created you to be.

(Kids in older elementary to high school may find the experience of studying themselves in the mirror to be uncomfortable. They may use the time to adjust their hair, comment on the size of their nose or simply avoid this station. This is true of both boys and girls. You can gently encourage them to refocus on the prayer if they get too sidetracked but don’t make it big battle. They’re thinking about the questions more than they let on!)

I’d love to hear from you if you try these at home! And if you’re looking for more ideas for building family rituals, take a look at Traci Smith’s blog and her new book Faithful Families, which is full of ideas. You’ll get to hear more from Traci when she stops by the blog in a couple weeks–I can’t wait to have her here.

Should We Pray to Mother God?

Should We Pray to Mother God?

Many years ago, I walked into an argument in my Sunday School classroom. It went like this:

“The Bible says “Our Father who art in heaven!”

“Yes, but we know that God isn’t a boy or girl. So I can say ‘Our Mother’ if I want!”

Without knowing it, these two kids were hashing out a battle that was much, much older than they are. The central question: Does it matter what we call God?

Related: Why is God Not Female?

Most Christians affirm that God is neither male nor female: God is God. The challenge is in our language. I speak from the experience of someone who tries hard to refer to God only as “God” and avoid the gender issue altogether.  It gets tedious. “God told God’s people to move into the land God had prepared for them.” It’s fine for a sentence or two, an entire sermon or article that way is a struggle to read and listen to. Quite simply, we need a pronoun.

That’s where things get tricky. In a patriarchal society, like ancient Rome, Medieval England, Renaissance Spain or most other place Christianity has spread, the default pronoun is male. And so while we affirm that God is neither male nor female, we say he/him/his. “It,” as a pronoun for God has never been seriously considered, for good reason

So we press on, calling God “Father,” trusting that we are intellectual people who can appreciate that the maleness of God is simply a matter of language. It is a matter for the head, not the spirit.

The mistake we’ve made in this debate is assuming that our intellectual understanding is really separate from our spiritual understanding. The truth is, what we call God shapes how we think of God, and how we think of God shapes how we connect with God. We can’t divorce our heads from our hearts quite so easily.

We would be better served, I think, if we dropped the emphasis on God’s lack of gender and began emphasizing instead God’s encapsulation of both genders. It is biblical, right from the story of Genesis: male and female, both created in God’s image. 

Where we have tried to teach God’s “nothingness” in gender, many of our spiritual role-models have taken the opposite approach. Julian of Norwich, for example, regularly referred to God as both Mother and Father, using the terms interchangeably as she wrote about her deep experiences of God’s presence. While she frequently used the traditional language for God: Maker, Lord, Father, she also wrote of being nurtured at God’s breast, of Mother God pulling her close and even used feminine imagery in speaking of Christ. “Our Savior is our true Mother in whom we are endlessly born and out of whom we shall never come.”

I’ll be the first to admit that gender-bending language like this makes me pause. And yet, it is also a fuller, deeper, richer image of God as One who encompasses all things instead of a remote, heady image of God who encapsulates nothing.

This is why the first question I ask people who are stuck in their spiritual lives is how they address God. I’m not primarily interested in whether they think of God as “man,” most don’t. I’m actually  interested in how they’re addressing God in the intimate moments of prayer: the quiet of their bedtime prayers, or the depth of their souls as they watch the sunrise in the mountains. For many people, the traditional male language for God has become removed and rote; it fails to capture God’s fullness and nearness the way Jesus’ daring language of “Father” or “Dad” once did.

I believe that God continues to reach out to us in ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Click To Tweet

I have come to believe that God continues to reach out to us in the ways that will both challenge and comfort us. Our spiritual journey to “find God,” isn’t about finding God in prayer once but finding God in prayer over and over and over again–and sometimes, this means changing the very way we pray.

 

 

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

The Simple Prayer That Changed My Life

Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu melech haolam

Even before we learned the alphabet in my seminary Hebrew class, we learned this. 

We wondered aloud what it meant the same way you might taste your way through a dish at a neighborhood potluck. We rolled the words around in our mouths and picked apart the ingredients. Adonai: Lord, a substitute for the unspoken name for God. Someone pulled this from an Amy Grant song. Melek: king. Someone else pulled this from an obscure hymn they knew.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, king of the universe.” Our professor aided our translation until we arrived at the right one.

And because we’d heard it first in a tantalizing foreign tongue, this sentence registered as equally poetic, its rhythm marching a gentle beat across the room as we repeated the words back to her.

This ritual formed the beginning and end of our class together. We learned to complete the prayer in traditional fashion, offering praise for the many delights of our day. I knew I had learned Hebrew when I began dreaming it and I knew it had changed me when this prayer surfaced equally mysteriously throughout the day.

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who makes the sun rise in the East.”

“Blessed are you, oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who sends rain on the just and unjust alike.”

picture of cairn

 

The following summer, I taught the prayer to a group of middle schoolers I took to camp. I printed the Hebrew and English words on large poster board, holding it up in the dewy morning light of our outdoor chapel. It framed our numbered days the same way it had for me a year earlier. I stopped using the prayer after that. This wasn’t a conscious decision, just something that gradually happens, the same way a favorite shirt eventually gets pushed to the back of the closet, loved but largely forgotten.

I was reminded of it recently at a writer’s conference where rabbi and blogger Rebecca Einstein Schorr* mentioned the Jewish practice of saying 100 blessings a day. It’s a practice meant to recognize God’s presence in even the most everyday details.

I haven’t yet worked up to 100 blessings a day. Honestly, I probably average about 3, which I usually squeeze in between waking up and having my first cup of tea, then forget about in the hustle of whatever comes next. I murmur thanks over lunch, if I stop long enough to actually sit. Sometimes I pause when I prepare a lesson for Sunday, or  later when I survey the refrigerator for dinner.

Wednesday, though, I sat at the pool chatting with a friend and watching our kids play and five tumbled out–heartfelt silent thank yous for the sun, for friendship, for healthy kids, for teenage lifeguards, for water that flows abundantly enough that we just play in it.

And just like that, the ordinary suburban life–lugging kids, coolers, swimming suits and sunscreen to the pool became a holy in-breaking of God’s grace.

This, I suppose, is the point. If we parcel out our thank yous, carefully noting them to be sure we’ve reached our quota, we’ll never reach 100. But when we let the the practice guide us, attuning our hearts to the goodness all around, we might just breathe 1000 prayers in one precious, sacred, ordinary moment.

Blessed are you, Oh LORD our God, whose requirements bring light and life.


*A caveat for inconsistent memories: My friend Susan attributes this lesson to Jamie Coats, who is also taught us amazing things and is equally capable of saying it. So many wise, wonderful teachers.