by Jennifer Brandlon
This is somewhat painful, so I’d like to get it over with. In January, my friend Marlene took the General Ordination Exams for priesthood. There was a call from our church for people to pray for her at specific times during the exams. I signed up for slots on all three days.
Then, like Peter denying Jesus, I went and forgot to do it. All. Three. Times.
I have adult-onset Episcopalianism; I grew up in a steadfastly non-believing household, and all my family plus an important segment of my social circle is non-Christian. The good part of that is I didn’t inherit much guilty religious baggage, so I don’t suffer from fear that my failure to pray at the appointed time had any negative impact on the outcome of Marlene’s testing. But it bothers me that I was a no-show on her prayer team, and I think that’s actually not because of what I believe about the power of prayer, but because of my belief in the power of habit.
Much has been written (and preached) about the importance of developing a regular practice of prayer in order to open ourselves to intimacy with God. My gradual process of perceiving and trusting God has depended in great part on learning the habits of coming to church, speaking the prayers that have sustained generations of uncertain souls before me, and letting the cycle of liturgical seasons influence my view of the world.
One of the valuable lessons of that process has been that it’s OK to let God be real to me, even though God isn’t real in the eyes of many people whom I love and respect. It’s quite common for me to get questions from my inner circle about why a smart cookie like me has a “superstitious” belief in a caring, listening Lord. One family member in particular is vehemently opposed to the notion that anyone believes there’s an omnipotent power of love in a world where all kinds of evil happens to the innocent and helpless.
Such questions are not comfortable for me, of course, but they are powerfully formative. I’m one of those people who have to think about why I pray before I can just go ahead and do it. Praying is not really a habit for me yet. But the thinking process always leads me to a renewed recognition that what I am amounts to what I choose to think, say and do. I might have been your basic humanist except for my conviction that God provides a framework of love around this unending human search for identity and purpose, and that Jesus Christ demonstrated how to carry out a mission of love in his own time, and how I can do it in mine.
Engaging with these questions is important to my spiritual development, but also to my relationships with problematic people in my life. I’ve been drawn closer to the questions and the questioners. When they ask me what and why I believe, the God I’ve learned to perceive and trust is revealed in my answers. The more I’ve allowed others to test my faith in love, the stronger and deeper the faith and love have grown.
You may know this quotation: “Watch your thoughts, they become words; watch your words, they become actions; watch your actions, they become habits; watch your habits, they become character; watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.” I didn’t pray for Marlene when I said I would, because I’m not in the habit of prayer. That’s painful to admit, but there’s the truth – I’m still in the habit of forgetting to pray. But thanks be to God, I’m in the habit of love.
Jennifer Brandlon is a journalist and musician from Portland, OR