Heart to Heart with God
I have a friend who went through a shattering breakup. The kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you feeling utterly broken, wondering “What now? How do I recover from this?”
She did all the things she was supposed to do to “get over” this relationship. She journaled, she ate ice cream and cried, she wrote letters both to the one who broke her heart and to God…she actually filled an entire journal full of these letters as an attempt to process what happened and try to figure out what healing meant.
She also reached out to loved ones, asking for words of wisdom, comfort, and advice. One time she was talking on the phone with one of her friends and after breathlessly pouring out what had happened and how she felt, the friend responded by saying, “Well why don’t you pray about it?”She thought to herself (sarcastically), “Hmmm wow what a novel idea, I hadn’t thought of that one, better get on it! It’s not like I have been praying every minute of every moment of every day….”
This person’s response stung. She went to a friend looking for empathy and she got stuck with what she felt was a cheap platitude that didn’t acknowledge the depth of hurt that he was drowning in. This conversation left her feeling self conscious and embarrassed.
Stories like these are what I immediately think of when I hear Paul’s words to the Philippians.
The Philippians were a tiny mainly Gentile church community of around 20-30 people. They were the ethnic and religious minority in the Roman colony of Philippi. Philippi had been occupied/colonized by different groups for the last 50 years. So they were a persecuted, odd group on stolen land, under the rule of the Romans whose philosophy of societal “peace” meant achieving that “peace” through military domination. Plus it sounds like there may have been conflict within the leaders of the Philippian community Paul was writing two. These leaders were two women named Syntyche and Euodia.
And on top of that Paul, the founder of this church community was in jail and the person who was supposed to carry letters back and forth between them, Epaphroditus, last they knew, was deathly ill. There was a lot going on! This community was really struggling.
It seems to me, Paul saying, “Just pray about it…pray about everything” doesn’t quite cut it. Not only did he say, “Just pray about everything,” he said “Don’t worry about anything.”
As someone who has struggled with anxiety I can tell you that if faced with your fears and anxiety someone says, “Just don’t worry about it”…then magically *POOF* all your worries, anxieties, stress, frustrations…will just disappear and all is right with the world.
No. It doesn’t work like that. It actually has the opposite effect.
Have you ever told someone, child or adult, who was having a meltdown to “Just calm down”? Same thing. Doesn’t work. It makes things worse.
Paul is a smart, careful, thoughtful, compassionate guy, right? Why would he send hollow cliché’s to a community that he cares deeply for and desperately wants to see again?
Also, he is in jail. It can’t be a super comfortable place. Paul has suffered a lot—he is suffering while writing this letter—and yet he is doing kind of a terrible job comforting others…while he also could use some comfort…It doesn’t make sense. At this point shouldn’t he be the expert in responding to suffering?
If you have suffered grief, loss, trauma, then you have a unique perspective that you can draw from to identify with others who have been or are going through painful situations.
So Paul…why the cheesy one-liner about not worrying and always praying?
Paul is known for long, in-depth, theological arguments. Why didn’t he choose this moment for a thorough exploration of why bad things happen to good people? Again…it doesn’t make sense.
Unless Paul’s words here are actually deep, complicated, and theologically rich. Maybe we just read and interpret and use them in cheesy ways?
Maybe it is the modern plague of what I like to call “Pinterest” or “Hallmark Christianity.”
I don’t have anything against Pinterest or Hallmark but they are both a cesspool of cheesy quotes and clichés.
Granted some things are cliché for a reason, but they have their time and place.
And it’s not scripture. I, personally, don’t have much patience for the ways that scripture has been taken out of context and been made into a catchphrase, bumper sticker, or “easy answer” to life’s hard questions.
Faith, our relationship with God, life, death, suffering, these are complicated, deep realities. There are no easy answers when it comes to the bigger questions in life. That’s why they remain the big questions in life. All we can do is sit in the uncomfortable space of struggling with the questions…all the while discovering new questions.
Slapping out of context, cliché scripture onto a complicated situation is like trying to use a Band-Aid on a gushing stab wound. It’s not going to help and it might make things worse. The pain, the wounds run too deep for surface “quick fixes”.
This does not mean that we cannot go to scripture or comfort and help as we struggle with the uncomfortable reality of being alive.
The Bible is rich, overflowing, with stories and people that we can identify with and learn from. Not to mention wisdom literature, poetry, and parables that speak into and shine a light onto our suffering.
Philippians 4:4-7 is one of those scriptures that can provide respite in difficult situations. But we can’t look at it through our Pinterest or shallow Hallmark lens. We have to, to the best of our ability, look at this text through Paul’s lens.
One of Paul’s big passion points is unity. For the gospel to spread then God’s people need to join together, work together to be conformed to Christ. And when Paul talks about following, taking on, or conforming to the way of Christ—Paul literally means to mimic Jesus in everything we do.
He believed that by doing this our physical, fleshly bodies will go through a transformation to be just like the body of Christ. So when Jesus comes again we too will experience a bodily resurrection. Plus Paul thought that this was going to happen soon—like maybe in his lifetime or shortly after.
So, for Paul, there was a true light at the end of the tunnel. He had no reason to fear death—in fact he says he might prefer death to life because then he would be with Jesus. But if he is alive then he can continue his missional work. Either way, no matter what happens to Paul, his suffering in jail was effectively spreading the word. The gospel was being heard not in spite of his suffering, but because of it.
From Paul’s perspective, his life and death were win/win situations. Seeing it that way, there was a lot for Paul to be thankful for. His ministry was flourishing no matter what he did! We have to give Paul points for optimism and enthusiasm.
This gives us a bit more depth to Paul’s advice to “not worry”. It is akin to when you are enduring a hard thing—maybe a workout or a timed test and knowing that there is an end, knowing when your hardship will end, allows for endurance in the mean time. And hey, in Paul’s eyes, since it will all be over soon, you might as well take joy in what is happening.
Paul welcomed suffering because he thought that it brought it closer to becoming like Jesus—taking on the body of Christ—because Jesus also suffered, was persecuted, and executed. We might find this perspective on suffering not only harmful, but frankly sadistic. What is worse is Paul’s view of suffering has been used as justification for the suffering that people in abusive and toxic relationships have experienced.
This is not ok.
And not what Paul intended.
Finding perspective when in pain, when it feels as though the world is ending, is excruciatingly difficult. Our default setting isn’t a steadfast grounding in the knowledge that God has redeemed the world and that Jesus has defeated death.
I imagine that when people have gone through a terrible loss, say the loss of a loved one, the knowledge that your loved one isn’t coming back—means that there is no end in sight to the grief that you feel. The knowledge that Jesus has defeated death might not mean much when you are in the throes of pain and grief. It doesn’t mean that you can wake up and simply go through life as if everything is back to normal. No. All you can do is try and breathe, get through the day and hope that tomorrow might be a bit better.
Since Paul didn’t view life and death the way we typically do, and because he wasn’t speaking into a situation of unexpected grief or medically diagnosed anxiety or depression—then we can’t just copy and paste his words into situations of abuse, grief, heartbreak, and diagnosed anxiety or depression, expecting them to be appropriate.
In Paul’s context, it does makes sense that he would advise the Philippians to pray. To not worry. He desired their unity; he wanted them to conform to the way of Christ. And Jesus sure did pray a lot. So Paul uses himself as a model for how to be like Jesus. Paul wasn’t worried and he prayed a lot—so the Philippians should do the same.
But we have to keep in mind that Paul never said that prayer means that God will act like a genie—granting your every wish. OR that God is like a vending machine. If we just put in the right amount of change—the right amount of prayer, good behavior, etc…then PRESTO God will hand deliver a Dr. Pepper per your request.
No, Paul just said, if you take everything to God then God will guard your hearts and minds with an incomprehensible peace in Jesus Christ.
An appropriate question in response to Paul’s words would be: ok how would one go about telling God everything? I forget to tell Nick really important things…how am I to remember to tell God everything?
In our busy lives we don’t take the time to stop, get on our knees, and pray—telling God everything that is on our hearts and minds. If I did that I would be kneeling and praying for hours…I wouldn’t have time for anything else.
Ok so be honest, it’s ok this is a grace-filled community here—how many of you intentionally block out time in your day, every day or almost every day, just to pray?
Praying like this is just not weaved into our culture and daily lives. And to be honest I feel guilty about this! I feel like I am a bad Christian because I don’t carve out time for daily prayer.
However this mentality fails to acknowledge that there is more than one way to pray. In fact there are countless ways to pray…they are only limited by our own creativity and imagination.
I want to offer up 3 different types of prayer that will look different than quiet prayer in the dark.
The three are:
1. Praying through movement
2. Praying through Art
And then there is #3. I call it the “Awkward Prayer”
The point in presenting these different types of prayer is to assure you that there is no “right” way to pray and also that prayer is not necessarily about receiving answers from God.
We might feel tempted to give up on prayer because we try so hard to say the right things and listen really hard and not getting distracted and…nothing. We hear nothing.
Or we fall asleep.
Prayer doesn’t have to be a Q and A with God. God chooses when and how to answer our prayers. God’s voice might not sound like the little voice in our head. And God certainly is not bound by our timetable and busy schedule. God does not have stock in our instant message, instant gratification, fast food society.
Prayer can be less about interrogating God and expecting immediate answers and more about opening up our hearts before God. Prayer can be about our own posture in approaching our maker. Prayer is about vulnerability. About transparency. About honesty with how we feel, both with ourselves and with God.
Further, prayer is not about getting in touch with a God that is somewhere “out there.” It is about getting in touch with God that is “in-here” (our bodies/hearts). As Meister Eckhart said, “You do not need to seek (God) here or there. (God) is not farther than the door of your heart.”
One little story and then I will tell you about the three kinds of prayer.
When I was little my dad and I would go fishing a lot. One time, when I was probably 3 or 4 dad caught a fish. I have always been fascinated with anatomy and animals and bodies and so I was watching him fillet the fish and I kept asking dad to see the fish’s heart. After asking for probably the hundredth time, dad finally asked me why I wanted to see the fish’s heart. And I said, “I want to see God.” I was taught that God lives in our hearts and therefore I expected to see God in the fish’s heart too.
I love how this story reminds me of my innocent desire to be close to God. It was alive and well when I was three and I have a suspicion that it hasn’t ever really gone away.
Ok moving on to our three types of prayer.
1. I will start with awkward prayer because it is a category that I made up and hopefully it serves you as much as I enjoyed naming this form of prayer. I have heard people say over and over that they hate praying, particularly praying out loud, because they don’t feel as if they have the right words to say or they don’t sound eloquent.
I wonder if this translates to their private prayer lives. What do we even say before our almighty God? Well this is the beauty of awkward prayer. You don’t have to say anything at all. You can simply groan, sigh, weep, scream, laugh. Any expression of true emotion can be prayer.
God heard the cries of the Israelites and God hears us whimper into our pillow when we might feel utterly alone or misunderstood. This is the beauty of awkward prayer. You don’t have to try or change—all you have to do is feel.
Feel and do not fear the intensity of your feelings. Even if they are directed at God. If you think that God is offended at human rage then you should read the psalms.
God can handle it.
The other side of awkward prayer is our emotions put to “word vomit”. This means that it does not matter if our prayers are neatly organized with a beginning, middle, end and a three-point thesis. They can be stream of consciousness, whether you are praying out loud, in your head, or through journaling. It might feel awkward at first but that’s the whole point. This form of prayer is not polished, rather raw, unfiltered, and beautifully human.
2. Art as Prayer
This category is for those of you who just checked out because I said the word “art”.
This prayer is not about being skilled…if skilled harder time letting go of the outcome
What is required is relinquishing control.
This is about simple expressing, taking what is on your heart and dripping it onto paper.
Or working with clay, wood, music, any sort of medium.
As Kelly Schneider Conkling says in her book, “Prayer of the HeART”:
“This is not artwork, it is heart-work…this prayer has a reality of its own…it’s not just words that are spoken and somehow drift off, hopefully reaching God…but it has a reality that is almost tangible. It is prayer in its simplest form; the opening of my small heart to God’s very great heart.”
Ok now moving to #3, Prayer as Movement.
It is exactly as it sounds, it is moving our bodies as an expression of prayer. Of lament or praise. This can take many forms: skipping dancing, exercising, etc. If you can’t move your body in the way you would like to, you can visualize moving your body. Which can have the same physiological and psychological effects that actually moving your body can. Or simply moving what you can. There is this thing called a “hand dance” where you let your hand(s) move the way they want to. This can be done sitting, or accompany an embodied dance prayer.
There you have it. A quick introduction to three types of prayer.
I have books on all three if you would like to learn more.
Not worrying, prayer, gratitude. These are not simple things.
There are not easy answers. Or quick fixes.
This work we are doing is soul work, hard work, heart work.
Paul was well aware that he was not offering the Philippians an easy task.
The difference is Paul carried with him an absolute assurance of Jesus’ nearness. This assurance helped tame any fears he had about the future, his suffering, or even death.
That is next level faith and trust.
The grace in all this is that we don’t have to share in Paul’s worldview or be so intensely trusting in order to believe in and follow Jesus.
Our stumbling, awkward attempts at bearing our hearts before God are lovely in God’s eyes.
Whether we share in Paul’s assuredness or not, through prayer we can experience God’s overwhelming, indescribable peace. Perhaps in fleeting moments.
But God’s peace will prevail.
And for that reason I will rejoice.
 Quote taken from page 7 of book, “Prayer of the HeART” by Kelly Schneider Conkling. The Quote uses “him” in reference to God but I change it to “God” to be inclusive.
 I got this idea from the book, The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women by Christine Valters Paintner.
The Working Preacher
December 13, Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:7-18
by Lauren F. Winner
Believers Church Bible Commentary
Commentary on Philippians 4:4-7
Commentary on Phiippians 4:4-7
Prayer of the HeART
Kelly Schneider Conkling
Praying with Passionate Women
Bridget Mary Meehan