Part One of "Early Prayers": The Prayer of Awareness: "O God"

  • During my time at Regent College I took a class on Prayer from Eugene Peterson. One of the assignments he gave us was to write a paper on “the soil of our prayer lives.” His intent was to have us reflect on the various aspects of our lives out of which we learned to express ourselves to God. It was a helpful exercise for me and I recently enjoyed reading the paper again. I’ve re-written it here now in three parts, entitled, “Early Prayers.” Below is Part One.

Plants grow in soil. They need an environment in which they can receive nourishment. Prayers are similar. They don’t exist or mature independently of their surroundings. They require a certain setting. They are located in a life.

It was God, of course, who ultimately determined the nature of my soil and who planted faith and prayer in it. But he had labourers in his field, those who worked the soil. Among these labourers, it was without a doubt my parents who contributed most to the richness of my soil and to the development of my prayer life.

My parents are both well educated and are teachers by profession. Despite this, they both had an uncanny willingness to take risks, a quality that in my understanding could only be attributed to their faith and trust in God. They both studied abroad, away from their countries of birth. They met in the U.S., a foreign country to both of them. There they were married, away from their families, but in a community of faith, what they considered a true home. From there they moved to England, had three kids, and then moved to Canada, where I was born, within two years of their arrival. They raised a family in Canada, but when my younger sister had graduated from high school they moved overseas to Russia where they learned a new language and culture and embraced a new challenge.

For most people, international travel has romantic connotations. But actually moving from one country to another inevitably evokes feelings of insecurity and stress. In many ways, I feel that I was born with an inability to differentiate between the two. For me, traveling and moving were one and the same, and they meant one thing – excitement! This sentiment was to never leave me or forsake me. (I wrote this, originally, as a single person. When I married and had children, I came to a new understanding of the complexity of both traveling and moving with a family. But I can say that the excitement has never waned. In 2005, my wife and I moved to India with our three daughters, where we have now lived together for the past three years.)

Throughout my life I have been fascinated with moving and traveling, whether it was a ride in the car as a child, or moving from one bedroom to another in our giant farmhouse, or going to university abroad, or taking short-term teaching assignments in Asia and the South Pacific. And it was not only the new location and the new faces that stimulated me; it was the transition itself, the process of change, that I found exhilarating.

I received this from my parents. It was not taught to me. It is a noteworthy ingredient in the composition of my soil. It’s what I love. It’s a part of who I am.

Incidentally, the weeds of anxiety and self-concern also grow well in this soil. And even though my soil was rich and ready for the planting of God’s choosing, there were competitors, impostors, that also latched onto this nutrient and tried to suck it dry, to subvert its true purpose. These weeds would rear their ugly heads even when faith and prayer were present, and sometimes they grew up together side by side.

I remember well the insecurity that I felt being a new arrival at elementary school when our family moved across town, or the paralyzing self-consciousness that accompanied a new haircut or braces on my teeth. I was tempted early to resist who I was and to scorn my love and appreciation for change.

Fortunately for me, the seeds of faith and prayer were already firmly planted in my soil and they provided strong competition for the weeds. And though the weeds would always be a threat, God and his labourers were faithful with the work of the hoe.

Prayer flourished in the midst of change. More than anything else, it seems to have been my affection for change that was the first element of my soil that nurtured my young faith. If there was a prayer that I expressed to God in response to this stimulation, it was something very simple like, “O God.” It was a prayer of awareness, nothing more or less than an acknowledgement of God’s presence with me. Although I don’t remember necessarily uttering these specific words, in a profound way they capture the spirit of my early faith and my sincere belief that God not only existed but that he took interest in my life.

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