Eugene Peterson continues to mentor me in what it means to have a living, breathing relationship with the Lord in the mix and muddle of everyday life (and consequently how to pastor fellow Believers in doing the same).
One way that he has really been messing with me lately is in the area of prayer. In some ways, I feel like I am re-learning how to pray, realizing that my language in prayer has drifted from what prayer was designed to be.
In his book The Contemplative Pastor, Peterson talks about 3 levels of language – level 1 is relational, the language of parent to infant, communicating love and emotion without words even being necessary. It is the language of lovers and poets. level 2 is informational, naming the things of the world and learning what stuff means, how it works. level 3 is motivational, using words to get people to do what we want them to do.
Much of our language use is on level 2 and 3. We want to know lots of things, and we want to know how to get people to see things our way or do things our way. We spend a lot of time telling others about things or receiving info from them, a lot of time persuading and being persuaded.
This language usage seeps into our life with God, too. Over time, we equate spiritual growth with knowing more about God and being able to pray in such a way that it motivates God to do what we want Him to do. Often times when I talk with people about God, I am teaching them information about Him or the Christian life or I am motivating them to do something. Being a pastor can sometimes be equated with having answers, having something to say.
But, Peterson argues, that prayer is level 1 language, and he believes that most Christians don’t know how to pray. Prayer is being with God and experiencing His love, His presence, His power, without gathering information. It’s relating to Him in intimacy, irrespective of our actions. God is. We are His. We rest.
As I’ve thought about this, I’ve been aware of how many sermonettes I insert into my prayers, wasting words telling God things that are really meant for the ears of those praying with me. I’ve been aware of how many times I start praying without knowing what I should say, praying out of tune with the Spirit and simply in tune with my own desires and needs.
Praying at a level 1 involves much listening and less self-assurance that I even have a clue what to pray for others. As I listen to God, for what He is praying and saying about a situation, sometimes I all I have to pray is one word. “Rest.” “Comfort.” “Truth.” Sometimes I have nothing to say, and I can feel awkward, knowing that those I am praying with are, like me, used to filling our prayer time with words.
Prayer is much more of a responding language than an initiating language, hearing from God and then speaking back to Him. Sure, there is room for me to simply cry out and pour out my heart to Him. But I think that Christian culture has drifted too far into the realm of, “God’s your buddy so He just wants to listen to all your problems,” without the necessary counterbalance of, “God is Your good Father and Your Lord – listen to Him and let your problems be awash with His words and His presence.”
I’m discovering that my role as a pastor, even more than informing and motivating, is to teach people to pray and know the language of intimacy with God. God is. We are His. We rest in Him.