The Art of Prayer
There is a Jamaican proverb that states “Prayer only from the mouth is no prayer.” Earlier this year I was at a branch of our local library. I was in something of a hurry and as I looked for my much-needed reference book, I spied a volume shelved incorrectly. Combine a habit gained while working in a library with a pet peeve involving books that one needs and cannot find because they are not shelved properly and you will realize why I picked up this orphan book and felt I really had to – positively had to – reshelve it correctly. Then I took a good look at the book.
How a book that belonged in religion and spirituality ended up in the middle of gardening and cookbooks is a mystery. Like most public libraries, this one shelves books according to the Dewey Decimal System. The Dewey Decimal System is an American invention, a system for classifying books first developed by librarian Melvil Dewey in 1876. Prior to Dewey’s system of arranging books according to a numerical designation based upon subject matter, books were catalogued by date of acquisition. Currently over two hundred thousand libraries in over one hundred and thirty countries use the Dewey Decimal System as does the Online Computer Library Center.
It can at times be difficult to know exactly how a book will be classified if one is not familiar with the system and even if one has a great understanding of it, sometimes classification is a matter of opinion. Philosophy books are found under the “100” heading while religion books are located under “200”. Whether something is philosophical or religious can be a matter of context or the classifier’s opinion. One must have some patience then when books in one area are found in another. Prayer and cooking, I felt, were enough of a different subject matter that they should not be confused. I did check the book’s spine and saw that it had the correct Dewey designation; it had simply be put down one the wrong bookcase. Then I looked even closer at the book. What truly interested me from that point forward was the name of the author. “Surely it is a pseudonym” I thought confidently. It did seem a bit corny, trite even, was my next thought.
The book in my hand that needed to find its proper shelf home was titled “Praying for Strangers”. The author whose name caught my eye was …River Jordan. As I mentioned before, I was in a hurry and yet, the author’s name really caught my attention. I didn’t have the time to read the back cover which usually contained the author’s bio so I did the next best thing – I checked the book out. That way I could resolve my curiosity about the author’s name at home when I had more time. Then I could determine if the author’s obvious pen name was lever, corny, or inspired. In today’s high stakes marketing world, everything on the book jacket is scrutinized for its appeal, even the author’s name. This one had certainly captured my attention.
What I expected with this book was not what I received. I thought the book was a manual about praying, perhaps a collection of written prayers. I was positive the author’s name was a pseudonym, a pen name. I was incorrect in both of those expectations. The author’s name really is River Jordan and she has quite a few books published, although not in the religious genre. “Praying for Strangers” is not a how-to book; in fact, many would call it self-help rather than religious or spiritual. (Self-help would be a different Dewey classification entirely.) The book is actually a diary, a journal that began out of a frustrating few minutes.
Much about life starts with “a few minutes of frustration”. A bully can begin a person’s downward spiral into suicide with a few minutes of frustration. A couple caught up in the throes of divorce, a time of pain and anguish hurl insults at each other in a few minutes of frustration. A man reaches behind his head as he experiences a few minutes of frustration on the highway and fires the shotgun he’s positioned in the gun rack of his truck. At the beginning of this book, the author tells about going to a public restroom and overhearing a woman in a neighboring stall berating a small child who is wearing blue shoes. The author imagines a variety of scenarios in which she plays hero, rescuing the child and criticizing the verbally abusive woman but both have left by the time the author exists her own stall. All the author can do is pray.
I seriously doubt there is anyone who has not uttered a prayer. I am certain there are those out there who will claim they never have but I think they might be forgetting their own “few minutes of frustration”. Quaker Richard Foster describes prayer as “finding the heart’s true home”. For some people, prayer is conversation with a spirit. For others it is an intensely deep religious event.
During this series of 26 essays we will delve into the art of prayer, not so much from a specific theological perspective but from a more all-encompassing human angle. My own system of classification of these daily essays or blog posts is based upon the calendar of the Christian year. Today is New Year’s Day, the first day of the Christian calendar, the first day of the season of Advent. Advent is perhaps one of the best known of all the seasons. Stores sell advent calendars which help count down the days until Christmas with everything from candy canes to toys to scripture and quotations.
Whether you consider Advent a season of preparation or introspection, we can most likely all agree that it is a season of waiting in great anticipation. The same could be said about prayer, especially the great anticipation part. Prayer can seem so natural and yet, it remains clouded in mystery. I have no magic answers but it will make for a most interesting series as we explore this thing called prayer. Some cultures use a prayer wheel while others have prayer beads. This most ancient form of communication is most curious since it involves conversing with the unknown, the unproven, and the unseen. Do you believe in the power of prayer? How do you define it? Most importantly, can anyone pray? I am eager to do this series. There are some scriptures regarding prayer that I take issue with and then there are others that comfort me. I believe in the power of prayer … or do I just believe?