The everyday living of life seems to have something built into it that causes us to forget who we are and who God is, or perhaps that God is. Left unattended or unchecked, we steadily and surely find ourselves living in a world of our own making, where the resolution of every dilemma and the solution to every problem depends on ingenuity and effort. Invariably, we cannot resolve all the dilemmas nor solve all the problems even though the unspoken message is that we should be able to. We are left frustrated as we teeter towards despair. Such is often the case in a world that depends on us to keep everything in order.
We get reminded in all sorts of ways that our lives are not what we expected them to be or what others think they are. There are times when we are confronted with reality, and we realize that our lives are not what we need for them to be if we are going to be healthy and purposeful in our living. Those moments when we catch a glimpse of ourselves and the lives we are living can lead us in new directions, or they can add fuel to our delusions. We do have a choice. We can be intentional about living a spiritually meaningful life in a world that, at times, seems to function in so many ways to draw us in exactly the opposite direction.
Prayer can help us to move toward a clearer picture of ourselves and the world in which we live, if we will let it. At the same time, if we fill our time of prayer with our own words, our own perspectives, and our own explanations in our search to find our solutions, the result will most likely be a deluded picture of not only ourselves but the world in which we live. Years ago, Martin Luther, speaking about prayer said, “the fewer the words, the better the prayer.” His words echo the Hebrew proverb, “If a word be worth one shekel, silence is worth two.” The noise that surrounds our lives is so loud and so shrill that we have grown so accustomed to it. We may not be able to wrap our minds around the notion that silence can speak to us. More importantly, if we have offered that silence to God, then the voice we hear in the silence is that of God. No, we do not hear it all the time or even most of the time. Yet, if we never find the time and the space to be silent in the presence of God, how will we ever hear?
We begin where we are simply because it is impossible to begin anywhere else. We can only pray the prayer that we are able to pray. Wherever we are, we trust that God is with us listening, speaking, and loving.
Jesus tells a story about two men praying in Luke’s gospel.
“Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’”
The Pharisee’s prayer is filled with his own words. It is defined by his perspective of the world and who he thinks he is. There are no questions, empty spaces, or blank pages in his prayer. In short, there is no room for God to speak. There is no silence in which God might help this Pharisee gain a deeper awareness of himself, his life, and the world in which he is living. In sharp contrast, the tax collector cannot even raise his head to look toward heaven. His plea for mercy opens wide a huge door and creates much room for God to speak and to move, for God is nothing if not merciful. The tax collector has an awareness of who he is and he offers that to God. Jesus says that he returns home justified, made right. The Pharisee prays a prayer filled with self delusions, and when he finishes, he is no more aware of himself or of what God might want to do in his life.
The truth that the tax collector’s prayer reveals to us is that if we are ever going to grow in our spiritual lives, we have to have an awareness of who we are and what we really need. That sort of awareness can be, and often is painful. Why do we need mercy? We need mercy because we are hurting, or we have hurt someone. Why do we need grace? We need grace because we have sinned against God, ourselves, or someone else.
To grow spiritually and be alive to the presence of God in our lives means that we cannot hide from the hurting places within us. If we are to become more than we already are, we cannot hide from ourselves or from God. The more honest we can be about who we are the more fully God’s freedom can embrace us, fill us, and carry us deeper into the heart of God’s great love for us.