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Streets and Silence

I’m just now learning how to talk to God.

It’s seven in the morning. Normally, I dread this hour. But waking early has become a life-giving liturgy for my Friday mornings. This morning—somewhat cooler and wetter than the normal Oregon winter morning—is pretty much like any other Friday morning. On Friday mornings at seven, I wake early to pray.

I won’t be praying just any kind of prayer this morning. Each Friday, right next to the red striped shed at the far end of the parking lot of the old Episcopal church down the street from my house, a small yet gregarious group of brave and often tired Christians gather together in a circle to hold hands. People look particularly exhausted this morning—I often think in the back of my mind that holding hands is the best we can do to keep from falling to the ground asleep. We say “good morning,” or whatever rote greeting we can muster in the few confusing moments after the alarm goes off. Clearly, this morning, silence is our group’s best greeting.

People are tired. As we wipe the crusties from the corners of our eyes while warming ourselves with a decent cup of steaming coffee, someone opens us in prayer: “Jesus, we just pray that you’d hear our prayers this morning as we…”; we’ve heard this prayer many times before. Prayer isn’t all that creative early in the morning; you leave epic, creative prayer for nighttime. After the lackluster, predictable opening vesper, we commence our weekly trek up and down the still-dark streets of Southeast Portland. We walk. And we pray.

Some of the mornings, I admit, are downright brutal—we’ll be tired, hungry, out of prayers. It isn’t surprising to have one of those mornings every once in a while. When they do happen, our tendency is to want the prayer walk to become a prayer run back to the parking lot. We try and fight that urge, sticking to it even when our minds are dead tired. Turns out, this isn’t that morning. We started out tired but soon enough blood runs through our veins and our energy from the night before has been resurrected. One of the members in our group feels particularly led to pray that the porn store on Division would go out of business. We pray, in Jesus name. This often happens: an issue, a vignette, a theme will emerge in our prayer walks. Some might just call is coincidence or geographical happenstance—we’ve come to believe it’s the Holy Spirit.

This morning, we walk shoulder-to-shoulder, looking down, up, all around as we walk the neighborhood. I’ve come to like the posture prayer walking forces upon us—prayer walking models for us a non-selfish kind of Christianity that the church of Jesus desperately needs. Prayer walking brings Christians together in such a way that they are focused on the streets, the city, the neighborhood; not themselves. Prayer walking forces us to look forward. To just be there. To walk the streets.

When I pray for my city, I’m always caught of guard at how quickly I run out of requests. What strikes me most is how I find myself praying the same prayer over and over and over like some broken record. But the fact that that I’m expecting to be creative in prayer is telling of my cultural assumptions about what prayer is supposed to be about. Perhaps prayer isn’t about what I always think it is.

Before her death, Dan Rather interviewed Mother Teresa. Rather was caught off guard by her answers:

Rather: “When you pray, what do you say to God?”

Teresa: “I don’t say anything. I listen.”

Rather: “Well, okay…when God speaks to you, then, what does He say?”

Teresa: “He doesn’t say anything. He listens. And if you don’t understand that, I can’t explain it to you.”

When I think of Teresa’s explanation of prayer, I am reminded of David’s words that he “rest in the Lord.” (Ps. 37:7) Prayer, resting prayer, isn’t a free-flowing exchange of intellectual ideas. Prayer, resting prayer, is just being there. Prayer, for Teresa, is listening to a God who’s listening.

What’s the point of sharing both of these kinds of prayers, of prayer walking and silence in prayer? As a pastor, the two tensions I feel pulled toward in my prayers are activist prayer and contemplative prayer—prayer walking and prayer silence. There are times for both. What we need is the gumption to know which is needed at each moment. Just now, as I said, I’m learning to talk to God. I’m learning that God sometimes wants to hear me speak and sometimes God wants me to shut up. I’m learning that prayer is less transaction and more hanging out than I previously thought.

As I work through my own vocation as a pastor, I’m more in agreement now with Eugene Peterson than ever before. In The Pastor, he describes being invisible six days a week and incomprehensible the seventh. What happens during those six days?

I’m learning that most of it is about walking the streets and being silent.

That frees me up from a lot of unnecessary busy work.

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