I’ve always admired the height charts many people have in their homes. Just a glimpse at the door frame and you can see how their children have grown over the months and years. Even though the charts are just made up of lines, numbers, and names or initials, they hint at something more.
“Wow! You had a huge growth spurt last summer!”
“Remember when I was taller than you were?”
Charts like these are so much fun, and they tell a story about time, about change, and about relationships. I never had one of those when I was growing up, but I always thought they were a neat idea. And though I haven’t kept one for my kids either, I have tried to keep a journal with that kind of information for my kids to look back on when they get older. And their Nana had a chart that she was always faithful about marking with each grand child’s height and the date when we would come to visit.
I love height charts but, as helpful as they are, they don’t tell us everything about children – or about the adults those children grow up to be. They chart the story of physical growth, but life has to do with so much more than how tall we get.
I wish there was a chart that showed spiritual growth and change. There isn’t, but wouldn’t that be fun? Or depressing? Or, at the very least, somewhat interesting?
I’ve been thinking about the spiritual growth and change I’ve experienced over the course of my life so far, and I’ve been amazed by how much things have changed. My understanding of God has shifted dramatically as I’ve gone from a small child, to an adolescent, to a young adult trying to find my own way, to the point where I find myself now.
As I’ve been reflecting on these changes, I’ve been most startled by the changes in how I have experienced prayer.
My earliest memories of prayer usually took place in the out of doors when I was very small. When the wind would blow, I would say out loud, “Thank you for the music, God!” And in many ways, I felt like Eve might have felt as she enjoyed God’s company in the garden. Life was prayer. The sounds of nature were gifts. God was everywhere to be experienced and enjoyed.
This stage of my journey into understanding prayer was very brief. My memories of this time are limited, but the ones I still have are precious to me.
Those moments of prayer were quickly replaced by new experiences with prayer. Growing up as an oldest child and a perfectionist, I was always afraid of letting down the adults in my life – be they my parents, teachers, or the parents of my friends. Without realizing what I was doing, I took this fear of failure and projected it into the way I prayed. I worried that I was always on the verge of letting God down. Those prayers were far less about, “Thank you for the music,” and far more filled with, “Please don’t be angry with me.”
At that point in my life, I did not belong to a church that emphasized the wrath of God, and church was not a place where I felt afraid. I can only speculate that the fear I felt was the result of projecting my people-pleasing tendencies onto my understanding of God. Because I knew that I could never do enough, I was afraid. It’s hard to be a perfectionist when you realize perfection is never possible. And my prayers began to reflect that realization.
An interesting shift in my understanding of prayer took place when I was in high school. Prayer suddenly turned into rebuking things with authority. “I rebuke that in Jesus’ name!” was a familiar prayer for me. The prayer, though it felt awkward, helped me to feel less insecure about all of the things I was insecure about. I didn’t know where I wanted to go after high school? I could rebuke that fear in Jesus’ name. I felt powerless, or alone, or afraid? I felt like I had a cure-all for those ills. The only trouble was, sometimes I still felt alone, or powerless, or afraid. And I quickly began to realize that, though praying with confidence was biblical, expecting God to answer my prayers like a vending machine was not.
In college, my prayers became more about wanting to understand things. It was almost as though I thought knowing more things about God and the Bible would help me make sense of my experiences. “Help me understand why I feel called to preach, but the Bible says I can’t.” Or, “Help me understand why my friends are suffering.” I don’t know that I ever understood those things more, but asking for help understanding was a beginning step towards realizing that I cannot understand everything in the world. I also began to realize that even when I did understand something, that knowledge and understanding didn’t make me feel any more in control of my life or the world around me.
As I journeyed through seminary, had my children, and began church ministry, prayer changed again for me. Prayer became a way of making an intentional effort to communicate with God. I also began to realize that God would be able to handle whatever kinds of prayer came from me, whether those prayers were naive, fearful, angry, or sorrowful. The effectiveness of prayer doesn’t depend on my ability to pray rightly or often enough. And the effectiveness of my prayers wasn’t contingent on the kinds of results and outcomes I received.
Prayer isn’t effective only when things turn out the way I hope they will.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus taught his disciples (and us) to pray the Lord’s prayer. In the Lord’s prayer, we begin with our relationship to God (“Our Father”) and with the belief that God is holy and good. We come to God as citizens of the kingdom of heaven, asking God to equip us to live as the body of Christ in the world. We open our hands and admit our needs, and ask God to sustain us. And we look forward to the day when all will be renewed and restored.
I can’t claim to have a handle on all of what makes for faithful prayers, but I have seen changes in my own spiritual life and journey. I can’t neatly mark my growth on one of those doorpost height charts, but I wonder what it might look like if I could. The one thing I know for certain is that just when I think I’m certain about something, God opens my eyes to see how little I truly know.
And that sends me back to God in prayer.
How do you view prayer? Have you experienced similar changes and growth in your spiritual journey?