A friend gave me a book recently: Mary Oliver’s volume of poetry A Thousand Mornings. I love Mary Oliver’s poetry. I find her honesty and vulnerability so beautiful. She writes in a poem called “I Happened to Be Standing” some honest words about prayer. “I don’t know where prayers go, or what they do.” She must have been reading my mind. Does that sound true to you? When we pray, we are not pulling a lever which activates a God machine. What prayers do is something other than human manipulation of the divine. So where do prayers go, and what do they do?
I think Oliver is evoking the mystery of prayer. We cannot sketch out a cause and effect line between where our prayers begin and where God answers them. When we are in pain and suffering, we pray for God to make the pain stop. When we receive a dreadful diagnosis, the family gathers around praying for a miracle. When natural disaster strikes, we pray for God’s presence, we pray for relief, and we pray that the winds will cease, the earthquake stops its tremors, and the fires cease their raging. Where do all those prayers go, and what do they do?
The Jewish theologian Joshua Abraham Heschel writes of prayer in his book I Asked for Wonder that “to pray is to dream in league with God, to envision His holy visions.” Heschel conjures up the notion of dreams because he saw that prayer was more than the assertion of human desire and need. It is that, to be sure. But more fundamentally, prayer is an opening up of our very selves to God’s presence. We begin with our human frailties, our narrow concerns, but we end up somewhere else. Broader, imaginative, limitless. To dream is to open our souls to the possibility that the tired narrative of "it will always be this way" must be set aside. The opposite of dreaming is our attempt to control and domesticate God.
After a grueling day, we might begin a prayer by saying “God, I’m tired and I’m angry. I just want peace.” We just told God what was on our mind and heart. That’s prayer. But then, we might begin to stretch our imagination and enter the realm of dreams in our prayer. God, I can’t see a way out of this pain I’m in, and I don’t have any hope. But you are a God who breathes life into dry bones. You are forever doing something new. You are restless in your capacity to love and to renew and to care for this broken world. Show me the way towards renewal for me. Show me the way out of my pain. Help me to see your vision for my life. And the God who inspired the poetry of Isaiah might just say, "I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert."
Where do prayers go, and what do they do? Well, I don’t know exactly. But, I do know this. I can’t imagine what life would be like if I couldn’t pray. And so I abandon the desire to have a perfect theory of prayer. I get rid of the conceit that I can explain exactly how it works to you, and to you, and to you. And I find that in the middle of talking to a friend, I am in the middle of a prayer. I find that at the close of a conversation, I have been praying the whole time. I discover that when I say what is on my heart, and I get out all the truth I have to offer, then I am ready for newness. And that too, is prayer.