How is your prayer life? Has anyone ever asked you that question? It may feel intrusive, too private, or you feel guilty. It’s almost like asking someone how their sex life is going. Not just anyone can ask. There has to be a level of trust. I wonder why it feels like such a tricky question. In therapy, we are asked questions about our childhood, our deepest trauma, our dreams, fears, and sex life, but I can’t remember any therapist asking about my prayer life. That’s not their turf.
How is your prayer life? You might answer: I’m in my house all day with my whole family, sharing the internet, trying to do my job, and keep the kids focused on school. How do you think my prayer life is going? Or I’m alone all the time and have too much silence. I wish I could pray, but I feel consumed by silence. I need noise to get through my day. Or I don’t know what I believe about prayer. Does it really work? When I hear the news of all the terrible unjust things and suffering the world, it’s hard to believe prayer can make any difference at all. I’m too busy trying to keep my life afloat, or too busy helping, or engaged in the struggle for justice and peace. There is no time to pray. Besides, it’s just not my thing. I’m a doer, not a contemplative. Do any of these struggles make sense to you?
I’m asking because Jesus is praying regularly in our weekly scriptures right now. Last week’s passage in Mark 1, Jesus heals people and then is off praying in the early morning darkness. The text says the disciples hunted for him. (Not “searched” for him, but “hunted.”). When they find him, they say, “Everyone is searching for you.” Everyone. Maybe it was hard for Jesus to pray too. Next Sunday will be the first Sunday of Lent, and the Gospel lesson always focused on Jesus going into the wilderness to pray for 40 days without food, and he faces the devil’s temptations. Prayer sounds arduous, perhaps frightening. I don’t believe in an evil creature like Satan. Sometimes I don’t feel the strength to wrestle with my metaphorical inner demons. Is that what prayer is all about?
Jesus stops to pray 25 times in the four Gospels. He prays in Gethsemane, knowing Roman soldiers are coming to arrest him. He prays while carrying the cross; he even prays on the cross, shouting, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” which doesn’t seem very messiah-like. Jesus is not exactly living in a monastery, with the comfort of hours of silence. He is a busy itinerate pastor, preaching and teaching, running a soup kitchen for 5000 people, debating and being criticized by rival pastors called Pharisees, and making a lot of hospital visits to heal people. One time, Jesus gets in a boat to escape and pray, and the people run around the lake and meet him on the other side. How did he maintain a prayer life? I imagine Jesus often felt he couldn’t pray as much as he should. Did Jesus ever feel guilty or even ashamed for not praying more? And what difference did it make? Prayer did not take away his enemies, resolve every conflict, or even stop one of his inner circle from betraying him. What did prayer do for Jesus?
In today’s scripture, Jesus goes on retreat with Peter, James, and John, and they climb a mountain. That sounds great. I wish I could go somewhere, anywhere, with three friends, without getting on Zoom. While they pray, Jesus shines. Quite literally, he is shining. Jesus is shining like the sunrise, lit up like a lighthouse. Jesus is radiant. Then Moses and Elijah drop in for a chat, and just for good measure, God says, “This is my beloved Son, Listen to him.” What a show! It certainly beats my prayer life.
What does this story mean for our relationship with God? Is the Transfiguration historical and happened just as it says? If so, are we to expect mystical experiences of God? Or is it a mythical story Mark writes to show us Jesus is the true inheritor of the legacy of Moses and Elijah? I’m going to go with option C, some of both. Let’s let the story speak for itself. Moses and Elijah are powerful figures in our faith story, great prophetic figures. Moses liberated people from Egypt and Elijah challenged people to live faithfully. While they both did great deeds, we could also call Moses and Elijah mystics.
Exodus chronicles Moses’s many visions, including the burning bush where he first hears God’s call. In Exodus 34, we read where Moses’s face glowed when he came down from the mountain after speaking with God. His glowing face terrified people, so he had to wear a veil. The Transfiguration of Jesus is a mirror image as Jesus glowed as Moses did. While I can’t claim with certainty this is a historical fact, I will say with confidence that I believe dramatic mystical experiences are real. There are moments when the veil between God and humans is torn open, and people experience a vision of God’s reality. Without these dreams and visions, I don’t think we would have religion, just ethics, and morals. I would describe four times in my life as visions of God that led me into ministry and sustained my sense of call. I don’t think everyone has these experiences, nor are they signs of spiritual maturity. After all, Paul had a dramatic vision while he was operating a death squad against early Christians. But I do believe God scatters a few surprising glimpses to be made known to us. At the same time, 99 percent of my spiritual life is much more ordinary, which is why I’m glad Elijah is on the mountain with Jesus.
The most familiar story about Elijah happens in the cave in the wilderness. He is tired and hunted, and angels feed him and care for him. He hears God asking him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?” He airs his complaints, and God tells him to stand at the mouth of the cave, and God will pass by. There is an earthquake and wind and thunder, and then deep silence where he hears a still, small voice. These two stories have become metaphors for how God speaks-the burning bush and the still small voice. The burning bush illustrates the more dramatic visions and mystical experiences. The still, small voice captures the value of silence, contemplation, and more daily prayer experience of ordinary wonder, gratitude, and grace.
Now back to my starting question. How is my prayer life? My prayer life is often like a long-distance relationship. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. I had a long-distance girlfriend in high school, who I met at church camp. We didn’t have Skype, email, or cell phones. We wrote letters for months and only called on weekends when the rates were low. My love life revolved around going to the mailbox each day to see if I had a letter. Neither of us wrote daily, but checking the mailbox was the highlight of every day. We never danced together, never had a date, just one big fling at church camp. But I could pour out my heart and talk about my day, and seal it up in an envelope, and mail off my words, knowing someone far away was also checking her mailbox every day. This unseen person and improbable relationship was something steady and joyful for that time in my life.
Because I’m a writer, most of my prayer life for 30 years has been writing in a journal. Occasionally I go back and read them to see what I was thinking at certain times in my life. I read a lot of whining and worrying about things that seem trivial now. I obsessed about some issues for weeks, and some attitudes come and go my whole life. You would think I would overcome them. Sometimes I write to God directly, and sometimes I just say what happened yesterday. I have a new genuine insight about every 15-20 pages, sometimes a whole string of pages together that glow, like a brief moment of Transfiguration. Then I spend more days writing about worries and questions. But through it all, there is a point, a direction, a purpose, even a guiding hand that occasionally touches my own. Somewhere in my messy little scribbles and ordinary human words, God is still speaking.
99 percent of my spiritual life flows through the ordinary daily practice of listening and trying to be a good pastor. I think dramatic experiences like the Transfiguration of Jesus make my faith possible and open the door to the reality of God. But the heavy lifting of my spiritual life is primarily accomplished in the daily questions, struggles, trying to understand the scripture and do the right thing. I think it was the same for Jesus. He goes off to pray 25 times, a few are glorious, but much of it is wrestling without an immediate answer. If you struggle with prayer, you are in good company. A prayer life won’t work like magic and create a happily-ever-after life. To quote Richard Rohr, I think prayer is simply taking a long, loving look at Reality, a God-created and infused reality, and being shaped by this gaze. Some days it will vex you, challenge you, even deepen your suffering. But over time, it will heal you, strengthen you and save you. Friends, I wish you courage for the journey.