Petitionary means asking for stuff.
I’m sure there’s all kinds of ways to ask God for things in prayer but I wanted to talk about two specific very different kinds of petitionary prayers. 1. Prayers that call us to action and 2. Prayers that call us to letting go.
Petitionary prayer is often the first way we’re taught to pray as children. “Dear God please let Santa bring me a red rider bb gun for Christmas.” And often our prayers don’t mature much beyond this. Just asking for things- the prosperity gospel. But even if we do feel we’ve moved past this - are we all totally immune from it?
It would seem ridiculous to pray to get an A on a French final and then never even attempt to learn to conjugate verb forms, right? When we pray to ask for something, often, what we’re praying for is actually an invitation for God to join us in our endeavor. Help me get an A on my French final and then studying your butt off. Well, in the same way - when we pray for an end to school shootings or the end of discrimination and violence against black and brown people - if we don’t actually invite God into our own embodied action, we might as well be praying to get an A on the french final and never cracking a book. When we pray, we are not doing due diligence so that we can sit back and separate ourselves, we are jumping into it with our actual bodies to make actual change and asking God to sustain us in that effort. That’s why people hate “thoughts and prayers” because there’s an economy at work.. Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. We give up hoarding privilege when we pray.
The second kind of petitionary prayer is much different, its a letting go. It’s the prayer of the addict the first time he walks in the room. The prayer of the mother as her child is wheeled into the operating room. It’s the person feeling like they’re never going to find love. The teacher feeling like they’ll never get through to a student. The pastor at the end of her rope. It’s the prayer for all of us when we’ve tried to control and contain and worry ourselves into some kind of behavior or outcome that just never comes. This is incredibly hard to do. Especially in our culture of work hard and succeed. When our way doesn’t work, we have to let go. We pray for our burden to be lifted. This takes the same kind of volitional effort as the call to action, sometimes even more so. The effort to let go. But when we do - God is there - and in those moments when we pray I can’t do it, help me, we are changed. Burdens are lifted, miracles do happen.
Prayer is hard.. Its not praying for bb guns at Christmas. It takes commitment to step forward and to step back, but in either case - the thing that we are petitioning for - is for God to change us. To give us a new heart, to give us courage, or hope, or patience. So right now, take a moment to think of either something that you’d like to pray where you are inviting God to give you the courage and accompany you towards something. Or - think of something that you can no longer hold - realize that you can’t control. You can’t worry it into working. And you want to let go and let God.
Dear God - please give us the courage to pray the prayers that change us. Amen
Trust is not a head thing. It’s a heart thing.
So how can prayer help us to move from our head and into our heart where we can let go of our need to control and begin to surrender to the love and wisdom of the Creator?
Trust in the Lord with all your heart;
don’t rely on your own intelligence.
Know him in all your paths,
and he will keep your ways straight. - Proverbs 3:5-6
For many of us art, music, poetry awaken the stirrings of our heart. Lectio Divina or “Sacred Reading” is a form of prayer that utilizes the imagination along with scripture. As St. Benedict said, “to pray the Lectio is to listen with the ear of the heart.” But there are other ways to engage “divina.” Praying with music or visual art can stir the heart and awaken us to the love and magnificence of God. How can we not be moved and trust the God who created Puccinni or Rembrandt? Oftentimes poets are able to make visible the hidden mystery of God’s love through the perfect economy of image and language. Is God not there in a line of Maya Angelou’s poetry?
Lastly, remember that all Truth is God’s truth and all Beauty comes from God and so whether something is “religious” art has little to do with the professed faith of the artist and perhaps not even the subject matter.
If you need a little help finding pieces to use:
“Leonard Bernstein A Simple Song Nicholas Phan” (song)
“The Highwomen Crowded Table” (song)
“Snoop Dogg Love for God” (listen to the whole Bible of Love album!)
“Giacomo Puccini Coro a bocca chiusa from Madame Butterfly” (instrumental music)
“Anne Sexton Small Wire” (poem)
“Nikki Giovanni Mothers” (poem)
“Marie Howe The Star Market” (poem)
“Rita Dove Heart to Heart” (poem)
“Mary Oliver Starlings in Winter” (poem)
“Caravaggio The Incredulity of St. Thomas” (painting)
“Scott Erickson Teach Us to Pray” (iconography and lessons on VisioDivina)
“Rothko Chapel” (architecture and painting)
Chinese Proverb: Good Luck Bad Luck?
There is a story of a farmer who used an old horse to till his fields. One day, the horse escaped into the hills and when the farmer's neighbors sympathized with the old man over his bad luck,the farmer replied, "Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"
A week later, the horse returned with a herd of horses from the hills and this time the neighbors congratulated the farmer on his good luck. His reply was, "Good luck? Bad luck? Who knows?"
Then, when the farmer's son was attempting to tame one of the wild horses, he fell off its back and broke his leg. Everyone thought this very bad luck. Not the farmer, whose only reaction was,"Bad luck? Good luck? Who knows?"
Some weeks later, the army marched into the village and conscripted every able-bodied youth they found there. When they saw the farmer's son with his broken leg, they let him off. Now was that good luck or bad luck? Who knows?
Spend some time in prayer this week asking God to show you where in the past you’ve quickly jumped to judgement to name something as good or bad only to be shown later, after waiting and perspective, that it was in fact the opposite.
What’s the thing right now in your life that you are making judgements about without knowing the eventual outcome? Can you ask God to take this burden from you knowing that you don’t know what is in store for the future?
It's not only important to have perspective about the painful things in our lives, but also sometimes even the joyful things. By not attaching to the fleeting feelings of the moment, we are free to follow the path that God is leading us into the future.
Many of us are trying to get outside each day and take a walk. This week’s prayer challenge is to simply look for one beautiful thing each day as you walk or as you go about your life. Make this a daily practice. God has created our brains to honor this practice of gratitude. Neuroscience tells us that when we consistently practice gratitude, our brains start to scan our environment for things to be grateful for. It’s like a computer program constantly running in the background.
Another reason we need to make Gratitude an active, intentional and CONSISTENT practice is because our brains are evolutionarily wired for Negativity Bias. (When your day is filled with great things but the only thing you focus on is the one negative! That's negativity bias.) But at the intersection of Science and Spirit is our brain's own plasticity and we can rewire this negativity bias by feeding the flowers instead of the weeds. So take this challenge a step further and either write down your “one beautiful thing” or share it with a friend or family member each day. You could even try this as a daily text chain with your group of friends! This practice helps to shift our thinking from a place of scarcity (what we don’t have) to abundance (what we do have).
Worrying about the future or ruminating on the past creates anxiety, and yet when we sit down to meditate or pray, often that’s where our minds go. But we can actually practice being patient. And the author of Romans shows us one way to do this:
“But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit intercedes for us through wordless groans. And God, who searches our hearts, knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God.” (Romans 8:25-27)
None of us have gone through this before. That’s what makes this time so unique. It’s not personal, it's communal not-knowing. So as Romans says, “we do not know what to pray for” BUT the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. All we have to do is show up in our weakness. So for the challenge this week, just simply show up to the present moment with the Holy Spirit. There need not be any words, instead allow for “wordless groans.” You can think of these “wordless groans” as the moment we notice we’re drawn into worrying about the future; we can gently return to focus on the Holy Spirit and the present moment. You may want to choose a word to anchor you to this presence - perhaps “Love” or “Peace” or whatever word you wish.
As a practice of patience, try doing this for five minutes, and then the next day try for six minutes. Slowly increase your time in prayer and you will find that your capacity to be patient will increase with your capacity to sit in this patient waiting.