By Meredith Dodd
I have no idea how to pray.
I’m not alone. Scripture reminds us that when it comes to prayer, none of us really knows what we’re doing. “The Spirit helps us in our weakness,” Paul consoles us, “for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words” (Romans 8:26).
The Spirit might be sighing. However, most of the time, I am too distracted to even hear those sighs. During centering prayer, my mind starts writing my grocery list, worrying about my kid’s math homework, remembering lyrics from the musical Hamilton.
I have no idea how to pray.
But I do know how to write.
So last year, I decided that I would quit wishing to be someone else and simply offer God who I already was. For forty-something days, as a form of Lenten discipline, I wrote every day. Some days, I just wrote in my journal about my busy schedule. Some days, I wrote poetry, fiction, reflections on Scripture. It didn’t matter. The point was simply to write. So every night, after dinner, committee meetings and my children’s endless bedtime routine, I wrote.
I still don’t know how to pray. But I do know that my writing practice has taught me a lot about myself, about ministry and about God. For example:
— I am beloved of God. You would think I’d know this by now. Too often, especially after yet another day of missing the mark as a pastor, I whisper to God, “I know that you love me now. But it has been a bad day. Will you still love me tomorrow?” Writing for its own sake, without regard to the end product, reminded me that God loves me not for what I do, but for who I am. No matter what.
— Even a minute counts. At Annual Conference this year, we learned that even sixty seconds of Sabbath could change how we approach our work. Some nights, I was too exhausted to write for more than a single minute. But being grateful for what I could do, rather than loathing myself for what I could not, helped clear away resentment so I could listen more deeply for God.
— Accountability matters. I practiced my Lenten discipline alongside a trusted friend and colleague. Knowing that somebody else cared about what I was doing (and was doing the same thing) made me more likely to do it, even when I felt busy or scared or inadequate.
— It’s not selfish. Jesus spends lots of time on the mountaintop. He eats and drinks with friends. He prays, rests, laughs, and does many other things besides preaching, teaching and healing. But I cannot think of a single Christian who calls Jesus selfish for doing these things. My writing practice is not selfish. It’s how I draw closer to God.
— The Spirit takes me to uncomfortable places. When I sat down to write, I had no idea what words would appear on the page ten minutes later. I listened to the Spirit, I wrote down what I heard, and I let go of the outcome. Some nights, nothing changed. Some nights, I found myself surprised by my own tears. Some nights, I untangled a conundrum in my personal life or my ministry, even though I was writing about something else entirely. None of this felt comfortable. It did however feel sacred.
— People can tell. A famous musician once said, “If I miss one day of practice, I notice it. If I miss two days, the critics notice it. If I miss three days, the audience notices it.” As he trudged up the stairs in his bathrobe one night, my husband surprised me by saying, “Make sure you write before bed – because you’ll be impossibly grumpy in the morning if you don’t.” I was even more surprised when members of my staff-parish relations committee said the same thing. “We can tell you’ve been writing,” they told me, “because your preaching is better. Your ministry is better. When you walk in here healthy and happy, church goes better for us, too.”
Because I write, I am healthier as a human being. I am healthier as a minister. The people I lead are healthier too. This health can feel like an accomplishment, and I consider that a pure gift.
As a beloved child of God, my job is not to manipulate outcomes. My job is not to do and say all the right things to produce positive metrics for the denomination. My job is to pray, to offer God who I am, and listen for the Spirit. Moreover, my job is to trust that when I get to the point where I say, “I do not know how to pray as I ought,” that the Spirit can take it from here.
I don’t know what prayer looks like for you. Maybe it’s three deep breaths on your way to work. Maybe it’s photography or gardening or running or meditating on Scripture or (God bless you) centering prayer.
For me, writing is prayer. In this form of prayer, I hear the sighs of the Spirit, and my own. And THAT has made all the difference,