Quietly praying

Originally published on http://www.oconeestreetumc.com on March 4, 2016 as part of a Lenten Devotional series.

by Joe Dennis

Matthew 6:5-6
And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

In this politically-charged season, as some of our candidates flaunt their Christianity by using public prayer in their political outings, I am often reminded of something a political science professor once told me: “If you have to keep saying you’re running a ‘grassroots campaign,’ then it is likely not a ‘grassroots campaign.’ Likewise, I often wonder about our politicians who flaunt their Christianity.

Being educated in Catholic schools from kindergarten to 12th grade, prayer was a daily, mandatory part of the school day. Students would recite the same rote prayers every day, followed by the Pledge of Allegiance. I’m sure they were trying to instill good, Christian (and patriotic) habits in us. It didn’t work for me. Immediately after graduation and through my early adulthood, I abandoned prayer.

When Carla and I discovered Oconee Street UMC in 2001, getting back to the weekly habit of going to church was easy for me. Prayer proved much more difficult. It was during the aftermath of 9/11, and public prayer was becoming commonplace. But just like all those Catholic school days, the prayers felt empty to me.

Then I stumbled upon this verse, and it made complete sense. In order for prayer to work, I need to have a one-on-one connection with God. I need the silence to organize my thoughts to communicate with God. I need to be alone in the presence of God, so God can reach me.

If I flaunt my Christianity, my reward is Earthly: as people around me hear my prayers, they will praise me for being such a good Christian. But if I pray by myself in private, God is hearing my prayers, and my reward is Heavenly.

I’d much prefer the latter.

Prayer: God, thank you for the one-on-one time you give me every time I pray. Amen.

Breathe in, breathe out: meditate

The following was written as a Lenten Devotional for Oconee Street UMC on Feb. 16, 2016.

by Joe Dennis

Psalm 19:14: Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.

When I was younger, writing poetry was a passion of mine. I would isolate myself in my room, and all my teenage angst, coupled with what I now know was depression, elicited hundreds of poems. Most of them fueled with words of anger and desolation. My emotions were my ammunition for my writing, and it was so easy to get in touch with them.

As I got into college and into adulthood, the focus of my writing became journalistic. As my depression became treated and my angst faded, it became difficult to tap into my emotions to provoke my writing. Even when I was able to find a quiet place, my ability to write poetry was stifled.

Now, with the pressures of work and family, and the constant connectivity to external distractions through my phone (and watch and tablet and computer and TV and radio), finding a quiet place has been difficult for me. It’s been something I’ve been longing to do, especially after hearing fellow church members discuss the power of meditation and prayer. I’ve tried. But even in those rare times I can isolate myself from distractions, my attempts at meditation often end up like this:

Breathe in. Breathe out. Focus on your breaths. Talk to God.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Hey God. It’s Joe. Oh shoot. Did I ever register Jackson for baseball? Wait Joe. Not now. Focus. Breathe in. Breathe Out. Back to you God. So … wait a second. Damn. I forgot to put the empty boxes in recycling. Shoot. Now that will have to wait for two weeks. Joe! Focus! OK.
Breathe in. Breathe out. It’s me again God. I’m trying to focus here. So anyway … Please help me focus. Hmm. Focus.
P-H-O-C-U-S. It’s weird that the Vietnamese dish “Pho” is pronounced “Fa.” It makes no sense. JOE! STOP IT!
Breathe in. Breathe out. This is stupid. I’m going to check on Jackson’s registration.

I cringed when Lisa said at last week’s Ash Wednesday service that we will have time to meditate and work on an activity. With my three kids with me, I knew this would not be successful. My biggest concern would be keeping Jaydon off his phone, keeping Jackson quiet to not distract others, and keeping Matthew from running around. I even contemplated leaving.

But then Maxine took the boys away to do a kid-focused project. So I went to the activity table and naturally gravitated toward the writing exercise. I made sure my phone was on silent, read the prompt, grabbed a pencil and notepad, and started to center myself. And for the first time in decades, I was able to tap deep into my emotions through my writing.

For the first time ever, I feel like I had a heartfelt conversation with God. And it felt incredible!

Prayer: God. I know you are there, waiting for me to get in touch with you. Help me clear all distractions and find the best way to get to you.