Tuesday evening, my wife and I were delighted when one of our sons stopped by our house. He was returning our pickup after borrowing it for some errands. We invited him to sit and visit awhile. We talked about work, families, studies—the regular things of our lives. We were delighted that he showed up.
Some years ago, a mentor and friend of mine said, “When you pray, the most important thing is to show up.” You don’t need prepared words. You don’t need a salutation, good grammar, or a closing Amen. Instead, as the sixteenth century Spanish reformer Ignatius taught, have a conversation with God (i.e. a ‘colloquy’)—in other words, “speak as one friend speaks with another, or a servant with a master, at times asking for some favour, at other times accusing oneself of something badly done, or telling the other about one’s concerns and asking for advice about them” (Spiritual Exercises, 54). Just show up.
Showing up means coming to God just as we are. I think of Job, who was so distressed by the unjust catastrophes in his life that he in essence said, “God, I want to sue you” (cf. Job 23 and 31). Job showed up before God with all the rawness of his pain, loss and suffering. Honesty is a prerequisite for growing in Christ. A Kenyan seminary friend of mine modeled this for me. When her roommate took advantage of her financially, my friend responded, “I’m going to report her to God.” That’s showing up.
Our emotions are at home in this kind of prayer. If, like me, you have a hard time recognizing your emotions in the moment, ask yourself whether you’re feeling one of the four primary emotions: sad, mad, glad or scared. As someone learning to grow in emotional intelligence, I play with these four labels the way a child might mix and match primary colours to make purple or brown. For several months, I began my times of prayer by asking, “What am I feeling?” I often found that I was feeling some combination of these four primary emotions. Guilt could be a mixture of sad and scared; shame could be a mixture of sad and mad; love was a wonderful shade of glad.
In order to show up emotionally, we do well to pray the Psalms. John Calvin called the Psalms The Anatomy of all the Parts of the Soul:
there is not an emotion of which anyone can be conscious that is not here represented as in a mirror. Or rather, the Holy Spirit has here drawn…all the griefs, sorrows, fears, doubts, hopes, cares, perplexities, in short, all the distracting emotions with which the minds of men [sic] are wont to be agitated. Institutes, pp. xxxvi-xxxvii
Similarly, Martin Luther wrote that the Psalms provide a glimpse into the hearts of the saints—delight, grief, death, gloom, fear, and hope are portrayed and spoken to God more vividly than in any painting or by any orator (Preface to 1531 German Psalter). Speaking or chanting these written prayers of God’s people—just as Jesus did—is a wonderful way of showing up in the company of God’s people.
I believe that God delights in us showing up. God welcomes us as unadorned as we may be. When the prodigally profligate son returned to his father, having calculated what it would take to earn a place back in the family, the prodigiously compassionate father ran to embrace and welcome his son home—and did so before the son had even said a word. The son had simply showed up. (And I imagine that the father’s shameless grace brought about a lifetime of transformation in the son.) Like that son, I sometimes come to God with calculated confessions and resolves. Yet before we can even spit out our words, God embraces us with delight for having showed up. (BTW: I’m intrigued by this artist’s interpretation of the parable; click on the photo to see the details.)
Even when we come to God in long sustained silence—unsure what to say, unsure what we’re feel, unsure what we want yet knowing that our yearnings run deep—the Holy Spirit is already praying for us with sighs too deep for words, asking God to do for us exactly what God knows we need (Rom. 8:26-27).
This evening, I’ve been invited to join three men who’ve been meeting weekly for twenty years. They meet over coffee to share life and to be accountable—to show up. I can hardly wait to join them. When I asked one pastor what helps him overcome the hurdles to praying, he spoke about his need to pray in the company of people with whom he could be open and transparent. When we spend time with honest friends who welcome our honesty without censuring us, we come to trust that God truly does want us to show up.
How do you pray? Conversation, honesty, feelings, Psalms, silence, vulnerability and friendship are all important. But first of all, be sure to show up.