Carly Rae Jepsen has everyone from Cookie Monster to Katy Perry to Obama singing, "Call Me, Maybe." As the catchy tune plays ubiquitously across the radio and Internet, I'm reminded of many a children's message or sermon illustration that draws on a phone call as an image of prayer.
You've heard this comparison. God, the neglected friend, is sitting by the cell phone waiting for that vibration to startle and ask God to answer and then be in divine conversation. We have the tools to pick up the phone and be in prayer but are too often distracted and thereby distanced.
Sometimes, in that moment of urgency or profound beauty we dial into God. But too often our "phones" sit neglected. In other developments of the metaphor, God actually calls us -- but is then left frustrated with a "busy" signal or left to endure "call waiting."
I'm curious if this is a metaphor for prayer particularly used in the Christian tradition, or if this image is drawn on by our common ancestors in the Jewish and Muslim faiths?
The strength of this tired metaphor is its insistence on the accessibility and constant possibility of prayer: the tools are at hand, God is ready and waiting, we simply need to make the call. The weaknesses of the image, for me, far outweigh the strength. Prayer becomes something you dial into rather than a constant state of being. Thessalonians tells us to "pray without ceasing," a state that requires a continuous cry, creativity and consistency.
The second downfall of this image is its tilt toward chattiness. Prayer is listening as much as talking, stillness more than chattiness. A phone call is anything but silence. But those seasoned in the practice of prayer know that "listen" is "silent" rearranged.
As I've prayed through many a "Call Me, Maybe" song in the van with my too-close-to-tween girls, I've wondered what alternative images for prayer might guide those longing to draw closer to God. These images are drawn from poets, saints, biblical writers and contemporary seekers. While there are many to be named, I offer nine, in the spirit of those numbers on the cell phone pad.
1. Prayer as Velvet Bridge: One of my favorite images for prayer is from poet Czeslaw Milosz who writes,
All I know is that prayer is a velvet bridge...
That bridge leads to the shore of Reversal
Where everything is just the opposite and the word "is"
Unveils a meaning we hardly envisioned.
The images of comfort and compassion that emerge from this poetic picture draw on both the embrace of velvet's waft as well as the passage and connectedness of a bridge. For Milosz, the velvet bridge is the comfort and possibility for change that is found in prayer.
2. Prayer as Wrestling: In the book of Genesis, Jacob is estranged from his brother Esau. As he journeys to seek reconciliation, he sleeps on the cliffs of the Jabbok River and has a moment of transformation while he wrestles in the night. The text is unclear on several points. Is this a dream or is this real time? Does Jacob wrestle with God? An angel? A stranger? Or himself? Perhaps the restraint of the text is meant to engage several interpretations. Prayer, as wrestling, happens both in daytime and in dreaming. Prayer, as wrestling, occurs as we engage God, neighbor and self. And, in an often forgotten point, prayer as wrestling is always on that metaphorical cliff. If we do not feel poised to tip, then perhaps the prayer needs to nudge us even further to that precipice.
3. Prayer as Lever: "Prayer is not a lever we use to nudge God in a specific direction." These words in an editorial by John Buchanan in The Christian Century stirred a response from Old Testament theologian Walter Bruggemann. In a letter to the editor, Bruggemann responded, "Prayer," he wrote, is a "primitive engagement that violates our best reasonableness. ... It is a genuine engagement between two lively partners." In other words, prayer may actually serve as lever.
4. Prayer as Paying Attention: Throughout her poetry, Mary Oliver names "paying attention" as a starting point for prayer. In her poem "Praying" she describes how often we try and make prayer more complicated than it needs to be. Pay attention, she invites, and then patch a few words together in prayer.
5. Prayer as Drawing Circles: Mark Batterson offers a similar critique as Mary Oliver. We complicate prayer. Try instead, he suggests, what Honi the Circlemaker did in drawing an imaginary circle around a particular need and then fully inhabiting that space in patience while waiting for Got to move.
6. Prayer as War: While the image of war is unsettling, the concept of prayer as battling all that is evil and at odds with the good is an important image for prayer. The film "Pray the Devil Back to Hell" depicts Muslim and Christian women of Liberia coming together to bring down the evil force of Charles Taylor through their focused prayer. Here, prayer has the ability to change the fate of a nation. "Prayer Warriors," by taking on the peaceful posture of prayer, disarm the spiraling violence and chaotic peace talks.
7. Prayer as Game Theory: In a recent TED talk, Jane McGonigal speaks to a practice of mind that carried her through a difficult recovery. When confined to her bed for months, she relied on quests for power, healing and nourishment to guide her imagination and rebuild strength. She calls it "gaming." I wonder if the practice is a form of praying.
8. Prayer as Connecting the Dots: A pastor friend of mine begins his day not by looking at the long list of to-dos alongside the crippling and unnamed expectations of his flock, but instead by praying "God, let me connect the dots today." His mantra frames the entire day as a prayer so that his eyes are open in each moment to the possible needs and his heart is open to the unexpected tugs of the day.
9. Prayer as Practicing the Presence of God: Brother Lawrence revolutionized prayer by saying all things should be done by practicing the presence of God as a 24/7 prayer. He wrote, "men invent means and methods of coming at God's love, they learn rules and set up devices to remind them of that love, and it seems like a world of trouble to bring oneself into the consciousness of God's presence. Yet it might be so simple. Is it not quicker and easier just to do our common business wholly for the love of him?"
Beyond Carly Rae Jepsen, what image or metaphor have you found helpful as described by a musician, a poet, a religious leader or a friend? What image or metaphor would you use to describe your experience of prayer?