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When it came time for me to start first grade, my family moved. I found myself in a new school learning lots of new things. They had different ways of lining up in the hallway, eating in the cafeteria, even going to the bathroom. But the most painful difference in my six-year-old way of seeing things was that everyone in my grade knew how to jump rope. Everyone but me.
Everyday at recess, the girls would form lines and play games like Down in the Valley and Miss Mary Mack. I started out watching, trying to figure out what exactly was required to move as quickly and fluidly as they did through the ropes. A few times I attempted to join in, always falling or getting tangled up as I panicked, unsure of what to do with my feet. I remember one of the girls who told me “Try again, it’s easy, anyone can do it.” Still, my efforts always ended with me on the ground.
I came home crying, telling my mom that I hated my school. But she quickly figured out that what I needed was some after-school instruction in how to jump rope. My mom and I practiced every day for a few weeks as I built my confidence and my skill set. Soon I was able to join with my classmates, laughing and singing silly songs as we jumped our recess minutes away.
Many of us feel the same way about prayer that I felt about jump rope as a nervous first grader. It seems like it should be easy, it seems like everyone around us in church, in our Bible study groups, in our circle of friends already knows what they’re doing. In fact, we get advice, from friends, even pastors that tell us things like: “Prayer is easy, it’s just talking to God, anyone can do it.” And while there’s some truth there, the reality is a bit more complicated.
Prayer is talking to God. But if you’ve ever had any kind of meaningful relationship, you know both that
1. Talking isn’t always easy and
2. Relationships are made from more than just one person talking at the other.
My most significant human relationship is with my husband Chris. And while sometimes it’s easy to talk to Chris, other times it’s a challenge. It can be a struggle because I’m tired or he’s frustrated about something at work. Communication might misfire because we fought about something and both of us feel too upset to talk about anything else until our conflict is resolved. Sometimes being quiet together is more important than talking about our days. Other times, urgent things come up that I need to talk to him about, but I have to wait in frustration because I can’t get ahold of him. Yet, even with all of these challenges, I persevere in communicating with him because he matters to me.
Here’s the thing: prayer is talking to God. But talking – learning to communicate well, to listen and to speak – takes time and energy and effort.It has in my marriage and in my important friendships and it has with God. Sometimes prayer is easy, but sometimes maddeningly quiet as God feels far away. Often my own efforts are haphazard and paltry. I love this quote from pastor and author Tim Keller:
"I can think of nothing great that is also easy. Prayer must be, then, one of the hardest things in the world."
If we really want to know God in prayer, we have to submit ourselves to the challenging work of relationship building. We can’t expect three easy steps or a formula to substitute for the dynamic and sometimes frustrating experience of trying to know and be known by someone else.
Where can we start? I think Paul’s encouragement to the Colossians is helpful:
Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving. (Colossians 4:2)
There are three key ideas in this tiny verse that can help us as seek to become more prayerful people. These aren’t magic steps, more like guiding principles to help us develop the discipline of a relationship with God through prayer.
Here’s the first piece of advice from Paul – don’t quit. Keep trying. Be faithful to keep seeking God, to continue offering your own heart to Him. It’s true of learning to jump rope and it’s true of learning how to know another person. If we can remember that God is always with us, than prayer can become an ongoing conversation throughout our day as we keep at it, inviting God in our lives.
Look around. What’s happening in your life? Where are you celebrating and where are you struggling? Those are good places to start. I love it when a friend I haven’t seen in a while calls to say “I thought of you today when…” Pay attention to your life – and invite God into it. Tell Him when you find yourself thinking of Him. I bet He loves that too.
This is like the basic jump rope step for beginners. Be thankful is my go-to move when prayer feels hard, when I don’t know what to say, when God feels far away. Noticing the ways I’m cared for, the sweet blessings of sun and rain and wind, the daily provisions of food and water, all of these open my heart to the God of every good gift.
There’s so much more to prayer than throwing up a list of requests or reciting a liturgy known by heart. Those things are easy. But learning to be open to a real and living God, to fail in our efforts at communication, to be frustrated by His silence, to be known in His presence, this is the kind of prayer worth seeking. It’s okay that it’s not easy. Most things worth having aren’t.
Lindsey Smallwood works and writes in Boulder, Colorado, where she hopes to leave a legacy of good relationships and bad dance moves. After careers in campus ministry, special education and circus arts, she's currently chasing her little boys and serving on staff at her local church. Follow along with Lindsey on her blog at www.songbirdandanerd.com