Praying the journeyMay 06, 2020
My Sabbatical leave is almost over, and what an unusual season it has been. I spent part of it at Carson Newman University in Tennessee, and after seven wonderful weeks close to the Smoky Mountains, Rosemary and I had to dash back to Australia to avoid being locked out, potentially for many months. It did make for an abrupt end, though the major task for my Sabbatical, remained. That was to make significant progress on a book on the formation of spiritual leaders, which is my current writing project. I am now at the two thirds through stage, so am pleased about that.
Naturally because I am writing about spiritual formation, I have done some thinking about journaling and prayer and the like, and trawled through some of my journals to assist my thinking. In a comment dating back almost 20 years I noted a suggestion to use a frame of “yesterday, today and tomorrow” for my prayer life. The entry gave no further information, so I am not entirely sure what sparked it, but I thought the idea worth re-visiting.
You might think, how can we pray yesterday. It is done and dusted, and while God is great, it is not as though I can expect yesterday’s script to suddenly be changed, and for me to find that I got the job I didn’t get, or didn’t say the things I wish I hadn’t.
Even thinking like this reflects an assumption about prayer. When it comes to prayer, most of us sit somewhere on a continuum which at one ends says, “Prayer is about getting things to happen. If you don’t pray, you don’t get – so start praying and pray earnestly.” At the other end of the continuum is the voice that says: “Prayer is not about changing God’s mind, or changing life’s circumstances. Prayer is about changing me – so that I face life’s challenges in a different way.” Of course the right answer (aka the answer I would give) is that both are true, though not always at the same time, and that with growing spiritual sensitivity we better discern those times when we are called to intercessory prayer to change circumstances, and those times when the call is to personal change so that we can better handle difficult circumstances in a grace filled way.
When it comes to praying yesterday, it is the second dimension of prayer that springs to the fore. As we meander through our memories of yesterday, the joys and disappointments, the times we were let down, and the times we let others down, the times that still see us tense up, and the times we wish would come back again, we have a moment to acknowledge, “this is my story… these are the chapters I have travelled through.”
As I remembered, I found it helpful to start some prayers with the words:
For this God I am grateful
For this God I am heartbroken
For this God I am confused
For this God I am sorry
For this God I am pleased
Grateful, heartbroken, confused, sorry and pleased. Because we are praying yesterday it can be helpful to stretch our hands out, turn them downwards, and imagine the hands of Jesus beneath ours, taking our joys and pains. His are the safest hands to leave them in.
It also helps to note which emotion we primarily feel – gratitude, hurt, confusion, sadness, pleasure. Perhaps you can simply ask the question, “when I think of the past I primarily feel…” Note the other feelings as well, but then focus on the big one. What will it mean to leave this in the hands of God?
Of course in reality you don’t just pray yesterday once and then find it completed. Even as we leave our past in the hands of God, we might find a desire to rush back to retrieve our hurts so that we can agonise over them again and again. It helps to notice how difficult it is to leave some things behind, and to ask God why we can’t let them go. We must be willing to listen to the answer that comes, and to allow our self to grow as we hear it – even if the journey it points towards will be long and stretching.
Yesterday is also a long time – twenty, thirty, sixty, a hundred years. You won’t remember it all in one prayer session. You might find it helps to pray through different seasons – the sixties, the seventies, my early marriage, when I lost my job, when we moved – they are your seasons. Give them back to God.
Why pray yesterday? Because unless we do, it might control and direct us in ways we don’t recognise. Yesterday’s resentments often obscure todays moments of grace. Yesterday’s pain might stop us from saying “yes” to today. Yesterday’s unheeded lessons, might trip us again today.
Most of us instinctively pray today. We are conscious of what lies immediately ahead, and appropriately bring it to God. We usually have an agenda as we do, for we know which outcomes will please us, and which will not.
The challenge of praying today is to spot the things we might not otherwise notice. The way God speaks to us in the unexpected interruption, the annoying disappointment, the serious letdown. When we pray today, it helps to remember Hebrews 13:2. I try (often unsuccessfully) to make it a bit of a mantra “Practice hospitality… for by so doing some have entertained angels without knowing it.” That little moment when we have to decide whether to be open or closed to the other is sometimes the moment when we are open or closed to God. From a biblical perspective, an angel is simply a messenger from God. God will speak many messages to us when we are open to others.
Depending on your theology, you might well say that there are no accidental encounters, and that in their own way, all meetings are providential. That does not mean that they are devoid of risk or hazard, but it does mean that God operates even in the details of life. If you hold that belief (and I do) all of life becomes a teacher – an invitation to say “yes” to God.
My greatest challenge in praying today is that I often become too busy to notice. I start to do things in autopilot, because thinking about them would slow me down, and the list I have to get through is long. In reality, many days simply are busy. While people sometimes smugly say that they are “too busy not to pray” I can’t pretend that it always works that way for me. But I do challenge myself with 1 Thess 5:17 “Pray without ceasing.” I no longer recall who wrote it, but remember some lines that have long challenged me: “If we knew how to look at life; If we knew how to look at prayer; All of life would become prayer; All of prayer would become life.”
You keep praying today for as long as you have a today. Psalm 90:12 is a moving prayer: “Teach me to number my days that I may gain a heart of wisdom.” The time will come when there are no more todays. Praying each one well, makes it possible to eventually say goodbye to today.
While I have today, it is good to pray with hands open, willing to accept what God places within them. Sometimes we might even stretch out our open hands, willingly taking up what we sense God calling us to.
It is fair enough to ask if we should pray tomorrow. After all Jesus said “Do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matt 6:34). True, but that is an instruction not to worry about tomorrow. That is different to praying about tomorrow.
To pray tomorrow is to pray a radical “yes” to the plans of God. That “yes” might be to a work that God wants to do in us (and sometimes that work is the deepest and the most profound), or a work that God wants to do through us. It is not usually about what is about to happen in 24 hours time, but is sometimes about what will happen in 24 years time.
To say yes to tomorrow might requires us to note the closing of today. This can be the hardest part of praying tomorrow, and requires us to be open to the new thing God might want to do. To pray tomorrow is to stand in the temple with Isaiah and to hear God ask: “Who shall I send, and who will go for me?” It is to find yourself stammering the reply: “Here am I Lord. Send me.”
It might work the other way around. Sometimes tomorrow is an extension of today – the continuation of the same song, though perhaps as tomorrow dawns it will be sung more melodically and with richer harmonies. Our lives are books, and most often one chapter leads logically to the next. Tomorrow is the outcome of all our todays. But some books (and often they turn out to be the very best books) have unexpected turns and twists. To pray “yes” to tomorrow, is to open yourself to different possibilities. It is to be willing to listen for the whispers of God – be they whispers to stay, or whispers to go.
We pray tomorrow with hands reaching out, high and upwards. God has something to place in them. To pray tomorrow is always an act of faith. It reflects our belief that God is, that God is involved, and that God continues to work in the world. It is to be open to the possibility that God wants to do some of that work through you, or me, or an angel who comes in the form of a stranger who I encourage along the way.
Prayer is never an escape from life. It is a commitment to journey through life listening to the finest whispers of God. For none of us leads an unaccompanied life, and to consciously journey together with Jesus opens up extraordinary possibilities.