I’ve been reading through the Gospel of Matthew for the past few weeks. I was in Numbers for a good long while before that, a wilderness unto itself as far as biblical books go, until I realized I had forgotten all about Jesus. Yes, I had forgotten Jesus. In place of the Gospel, I had invented a sort of spirituality of comfort in which God wanted nothing more for me than my own emotional well-being. I also sensed God wanted me to buy a new light fixture for the dining room.
It sounds ridiculous to me too now, but these things happen when we busy ourselves with the stuff of spirituality and not its source. We forget the kinds of things that come straight from the source’s mouth. This week’s gem? Jesus’s words on prayer: “Whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” (NRSV, Matthew 6:6)
How easily we stray from these simple instructions. Hanging out with college students at church last week, I learned that Intagram-ing one’s “quiet time” is an actual thing: open bible, coffee mug, and a verse from Scripture are its hallmarks. (I could be accused of taking a similar photo earlier this month but, in my defense, there was a fairly large cheeseboard involved; see above.) It’s easy for me, too, to live a public faith life in which blogging and babbling serve as substitutes for exploring the secret life of my soul and the God who sustains it. To pray alone is, as Jesus taught, its own satisfaction. Alone, there’s no comparison, no preening, no need to exegete some truth nugget for others to mine. Alone, we may not need words at all. Words may make us too tired for the listening.
That’s another thing about public prayer that’s been troubling me: it can snuff out the listening. I wrote recently about how I made the first move on Rush and then waited and prayed and waited for him to make the second. My risk-loving nature often means I act impulsively, without confirmation from friends or God. This is fine for what I call the chocolate or vanilla questions of life, like should I walk to the Redbox machine or watch another episode of How I Met Your Mother? But for the big questions, like should I take on more work or move across the country?, seeking accord with those closest to me becomes a practice of trust and patience. Because I’m the more verbal one in my closest relationships, I can steamroll people with my prayers for them, for me, for us, before ever giving them space to hear from God themselves.
It’s not that there’s no place for public prayer. It’s the vocation of all God’s people to assemble for public worship, celebration, and lament. But when we keep nothing private, nothing sacred, we cheat God of our attention and cheat ourselves of intimacy. It’s like that friend who never wants to do anything one on one; group hang outs can be shiny and fun and even open pathways for new connections. But there’s less time for the depth that happens when there’s only two. We can busy ourselves with the stuff of friendship rather than listening to the friend herself. What is she longing for these days? What is breaking her heart? What is she noticing in us?
A final reflection: A few years after my parents’ divorce, my mom began praying about whether we should move across states to be closer to my dad. She didn’t want to steamroll my brother and me – adolescents at the time – into the decision and so she waited and prayed and waited until Charlie approached her. He wasn’t happy at his new school; could we think about moving? Only if Erin wants to, she said, and counseled him to wait and pray and wait until one day I approached them. I wasn’t happy with my old friends; could we think about moving? As a parent, she had every right to tell us what she wanted for our family. Instead, with time, she waited and prayed and waited until we came to want the same thing.
In doing so, she taught us to want God, prayer’s sweetest reward of all.