Words

Preamble: What follows is a brief reflection on prayer, as informed by personal experience, seminary studies, and a Master’s Thesis I wrote on the nature of prayer and attention. It interacts with prayer in ways that are likely unfamiliar to many, but which are, I assure you, quite orthodox (as in “theologically acceptable”). My intent in writing this was to create space for certain questions or curiosities in the reader’s prayer life that may have the potential to lead one into something… more than what present experience may allow for. If you find this to be the case for yourself, please feel free to connect with me. I would love to discuss it with you.



*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

This has been the largest portion of my prayer life for over a year and a half now. It began as part of a class assignment. It is now one of my greatest comforts and a source of a sense of safety when the world around me seems chaotic or overwhelming.

It is not, strictly speaking, about the request. I do seek the mercy of God with each of those prayers: the mercy of His presence, whether felt or seemingly absent. I repeat the prayer, again and again. I do not do so to make something happen, not to ask for more, and not for anything I lack. I repeat it because my heart is prone to wander and I feel it. Each time I pray that prayer, I renew my attention on the Merciful One. This is true prayer.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

I am a very wordy person. I like love words. I… have been idolatrous with my use of words. I know how to pray articulate prayers. I have received compliments for the same. I have worked to improve them. And God has been merciful to me with this.

There came a point several months ago, however, when God confronted me on this issue. As I was working on my master’s thesis (which touches on similar themes as this post), I realized how much my attention in prayer was skewed. God allowed me to notice myself in prayer, particularly at Southlands Fullerton’s pre-service prayer time. I noticed how much I depended on people’s “Mmm-hmm’s”, “Amen’s”, and “Yes, Lord’s” as markers for how good my prayers were. In a time dedicated to prayer, my attention was not on God.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

It was a disheartening and disorienting experience. In the few months that followed, worded prayer became very difficult for me; pre-service prayer was a labor. I still came because it’s an important rhythm of our church and such rhythms are very important to me, but it was not an easy commitment to uphold.

My prayers became shorter, if I prayed them at all. I became more familiar with silence. At times I would pray the Mercy Prayer (also known as the Jesus Prayer) in silence. Often the silence was internal as well. The same became the norm in other areas as well. A few moments of silence replaced my meal time prayers. The Mercy prayer was my go-to prayer when I received prayer requests from people. Words seemed stolen from me.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

Over time, some shifts began to take place in my heart. I became detached from the responses of others. I don’t know how it happened; I think it was a very slow process. Eventually, however, I became slowing more detached from others around me and less concerned with whatever I thought they might be thinking of my prayers.

I know I am far from completing this journey, but God seems to be giving my words back to me, albeit very slowly. It seems a bit oxymoronic to say it but I have been able to notice my attention in prayer being more focused on God than on myself or those around me and I know this is good. There is much left to grow in though.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

We seem to be such wordy people here in America. We use words for everything. Our solutions are heavily worded. Our church services are filled with words. Our prayers are filled with words, many of which turn out to be meaningless. This may not be bad if used well: for a purpose other than meaning, but I do not think this is a normal use of words in Western cultures.

Have you ever stopped to notice what you’re saying in prayer? Analyzed each word as it came out? I cannot say what you will find if you try it. It may be enlightening, confusing, frightening, disorienting, humorous, surprising, etc. You may find it to be thoroughly unhelpful. It’s just a suggestion really, but God may have something there for you to notice.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

Where is your attention in prayer? I submit the idea that it is not the words that make the prayer. Neither “Dear Jesus” nor “Amen” make a prayer a prayer. God is not magically bound to these words. Bear with me here. What one says in prayer is important, but it is not everything.

Of course, God’s attention is always fixed on us; The Bible clearly establishes this and I believe He delights in each and every moment of His attention on us (read that again). I do not think it wrong to anthropomorphize God a bit here and say that I believe His heart beats faster when our attention mirrors His and returns His gaze of love. This is prayer. It need not have words.

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

*Breathes in: “Lord Jesus…”
*breathes out: “…have mercy.”

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