Yesterday I bought picture at the Salvation Army for two dollars. It’s a small, framed “Magic Eye” – a 2D image that hides a 3D image. If you stare at it for a while, the 3D image pops out and you say “Whoa!” before it goes flat again. I thought my teenage kids would have fun with it, but it just frustrated them. “I can’t see anything,” one complained.
“How long do I have to stare at this dumb thing?” asked another.
“Let your eyes go blurry,” I suggested. “Or try crossing your eyes.”
Nothing helped, and they eventually gave up in frustration. It reminded me of my recent adventures in prayer, especially the kind of passive prayer where you sit in silence, waiting on God. “Be still and know that I am God,” says the Psalmist. Only knowledge often gets in the way, because human intellect is too small to comprehend God as He really is. Just like my children who tried too hard to see the 3D image, I often let my striving thoughts distract me from my purpose. I experience a kind of mental ADD when trying to center myself in prayer. The advice I get from veteran prayer warriors is to keep at it. I will learn to allow my distracting thoughts to pass by without being frustrated or hampered by them, like noisy kids romping along the street in front of my house. Easier said than done.
It’s difficult enough to sit and meditate on an image or verse of Scripture. Try NOT meditating on anything. Try “to concern yourself with no creature whether material or spiritual nor with their situation and doings whether good or ill,” as one medieval handbook on contemplative prayer suggests. It’s like someone telling you not to think of a white elephant. Guess what mental image immediately springs to mind!
As I sit, eyes closed, trying very hard not to try very hard, I wonder, “How long do I have to stare into the darkness before I see God? How long do I have to listen to silence before I hear His voice?” I am ready to give up when in my failure and frustration I notice something inside me that wasn’t there before: a greater desire for God.
So I sit a little longer.
There’s a pond near my church at the bottom of the hill behind the cemetery. It’s quite an ordinary pond except that a pair of Canadian Geese seems to live there. I never paid much attention to the pond until I started taking walks through the cemetery and noticed the sound of flowing water. Curious, I investigated. At the end of an ancient stone wall about thirty yards from the pond is a culvert where water flows from the pond into a tiny creek. There’s a foot bridge I never noticed before, because it’s sheltered by trees and lies just out of sight from the road that loops through the cemetery. It’s a peaceful and beautiful spot. On Sunday morning I asked a man who has lived in town all his life where the little creek goes. “It flows into Wankopin Creek,” he said.
“Where does Wankopin Creek go?’ I asked.
“It flows into Goose Creek.”
“And where does Goose Creek go?”
“It flows into the Potomac River.”
I know the Potomac River flows into the Chesapeake Bay and the Chesapeake Bay into the Atlantic Ocean. Suddenly the ordinary little pond behind my church seemed impressive, not because of what it is in itself but because it flows into the ocean. It’s the same way with our lives.
Our lives seem ordinary and unimportant until you realize that they flow into God. God is both the source and destination of our existence. No one whose life begins and ends in God can be commonplace. We are all extraordinary. I wonder how we would live our lives if we kept this in mind.
Prayer is both doing and not doing, effort and ease, talking and listening. The same God who says “When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13) also says “Be still and know that I am God!” (Ps. 46:10a). So this is prayer: searching for God and being still to allow God to find us.
Many of us make prayer a monologue when it’s supposed to be a dialogue. We need to balance active prayer (talking) with passive prayer (listening). Listening is best done in a quiet place. We hear God speak in silence, not with our physical ears but with the ears of our heart. The problem for most of us is not that we spend too much time seeking God and too little time being still. The real problem is that we spend too much time seeking things other than God.
Aidan Clarke tells a story about a boy who lost his dog in New York City. As he walked up and down the streets systematically and slowly, a friend complained that he wasn’t even looking for his dog. He answered, “I’m not looking for him. I’m letting him find me. Sooner or later he will discover the trail I am putting down and follow it until he comes to me.” Prayer is putting down our trail so that God can find us.