The Way: A Dialogue With God
Heather Mandala, our Pastor of Small Groups, spoke this week at both the Voorhees and Mount Laurel campuses, continuing the conversation about prayer. She commented that we all have different comfort zones when it comes to communication—and it is hard to stay current even with our closest friends. Phone apps and texting can help, but it takes time and energy, and in the midst of our busy lives, it is hard to make it a priority to stay current in every way.
We have the same issue with God. If prayer is defined as our communication pathway to God (and by extension, His to us) we need to make time for it. Although we don’t have to worry about ‘catching him up’ with the details of our lives (recall He is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent), we do need to pay attention to the conversation or we miss the opportunity. He not only wants to be involved in our lives for the big things, He wants to engage with us over all the little things as well.
God is all at once a loving Father, devoted brother (Jesus), and faithful friend (Holy Spirit). That being said, most of my life I experienced a distant Father, an itinerant teacher who sometimes gave me a glance of acknowledgment (Jesus), and a mysterious, somewhat wispy spiritual presence that I found more confounding than comforting. Having been a Christian most of my adult life, of course I prayed, but it was a one way experience (from me toward God) and not a conversation.
My prayers would be answered to be sure, but always in the form of circumstances. If things went my way, I interpreted the answer was ‘yes.’ If not, then clearly that was a ‘no.’ If nothing changed, I interpreted that as ‘wait.’ I read a lot of books about the faith, some on prayer, and my experience did not seem that out of the ordinary. Of course, almost all the books were by academics and/or theologians who had thought carefully about the topic, and both their methodologies and life experience was pretty much aligned with mine. So I assessed my prayer life as normal.
In 2003, I got involved with a small organization based in Chicago known as the Transforming Center. These were people who took their faith seriously, like I did, but they were talking transformation of the whole person, not just the mind—which is how I interpreted the word or process that we know as transformation. They had a 2 year curriculum (03-05) that was designed to show you how to care for your soul (which to me was the ‘renewing of your mind’ piece that Paul speaks of in Romans). I thought I was a good fit, and at the end of two years I more confused than anything. Lots of questions—very few answers. And this from a guy who always aspired to give the right answer no matter what the question.
So I stepped back, realized that my understanding of the Christian life was just that—a long series of intellectual assents and affirmations through many years. It was all about the head, and not engagement of the heart, and it was suddenly very clear that God wanted my heart engaged, not just a head full of data. It took years, but I eventually learned how to quiet the noise in my head and hear God’s voice in response to my voice.
The first time I heard Him speak I was actually outside in a little meadow shouting at Him about my displeasure with one of His circumstantial ‘No!’ responses. I was bummed with His response, and I was letting Him know how strongly I disagreed. He answered my in quite a calm voice, very clearly, and I swear, audibly! Had you been there, you may or may not have heard it, but I certainly did. It stopped me cold in my tracks, and so I asked another question (in a much more polite tone). He responded again, and then went silent. I asked several others, but those two responses were what I got. All I could think of as I left that little meadow was “I want more of that!”
Gradually, with a lot of help and practice, I have learned to dialogue with God, often many times in a given day. I think it is fair to say that the “desires of my heart” have shifted somewhat dramatically, and the “peace of God which surpasses understanding” is indeed available to me on a regular basis. I still get a lot of ‘no’ answers to my prayers, even more ‘wait and see.’ My comfort zone is now simply being in his presence, completely content to rest there and rely on his Goodness to care for me.
Heather was absolutely right. My prayer has not changed who God is at all, but my continuing encounters with him in prayer have changed me completely. True transformation is a function of being present to God repeatedly over an extended period of time. I don’t have to “do” anything, just be there. The Spirit does all the work.