We do; we pray
The plainspoken elder stood before a group of fidgeting teenage Native American youth at a community center in a suburb of Seattle. She was teaching them beading and telling stories as she taught. Their completed work would be given as gifts.
She also was slipping values education into her remarks, but in a style so subtle it was unnoticeable to the youth.
"You should never work on a gift when you're in a bad spirit," she said, "because the spirit will enter the gift, and it will not be a good gift. Instead, clear your mind of that bad spirit and think about the good that your gift will bring.
"You know why?" she asked.
"Because your work is your prayer, and you want your prayers to lift you up, not bring you down."
I have often reflected on her idea that what we do is often our prayer. When we dance, take a beautiful photograph, write an inspiring thought or complete an act that lifts us above ourselves and enhances others as well, we pray.
We can pray with our hands and feet as well as our thoughts and mind.
In seminary, I wrestled with how to define prayer. I recall a discussion in which prayer was described as lifting into conscious thought whatever lay beneath the surface and putting it into words so we could lay it before God.
This is a more abstract way to describe prayer than that of the grandmother. And, it's more limiting. It limits prayer to words. Out of curiosity, I did a Google search for a definition of prayer, and it returned 342 million results. It seems there are many ways to define prayer.
The Scriptures contain many forms of prayer — from the celebratory psalms to the yielding cry of Jesus on the cross at the end of his earthly life.
Sometimes our pain is too great for words. When we've lost someone and we're deep in grief, or when we face some other profoundly dislocating and unsettling event or emotion, words can fail us. All we can do is utter a cry and throw ourselves before God.
But we can't stay there. Of course, we can ask for strength, understanding or courage. We can rail at the unfairness of it all. But in due course, we must set out on the journey toward healing. It is not an easy journey, but it can be a prayerful one.
The teaching of the grandmother for these young people was that it is better to clear our minds of destructive thoughts and focus on how to rise above them than to allow those thoughts to hang around and drive us to abuse drugs or alcohol; to get free of them rather than give in to them.
And I think prayer is not only our words, but also our acts. It is those moments when we bare ourselves before God, when we are so intensely focused that our work itself raises us to the sublime, the point at which we are most exposed, yet also most closely in communion with God.
It is heart and hands, word and spirit laid bare before God who, in ways that words alone cannot fully capture, fills our emptiness, cleanses our bad spirit and heals our brokenness.
The Rev. Larry Hollon is publisher of Interpreter and general secretary of United Methodist Communications. Read his FAITH MEDIA+CULTURE blog at www.larryhollon.com.