In this episode of The Bible for Normal People Podcast, Pete and Jared talk with Sarah Bessey about what the function of prayer is as they explore the following questions:
- What is the purpose of prayer?
- How has prayer shifted for Sarah over the course of her life?
- What is the Book of Common Prayer?
- If prayer isn’t about controlling outcomes, what is it about?
- What is the constancy of prayer?
- Why is it important to stay curious about prayer?
- How do we unlearn things about prayer that aren’t helpful?
- How are examples of prayer more helpful in the Old Testament than in the New?
- Is the purpose of prayer always the same?
- Why did Sarah write a book on prayer?
- What advice would Sarah give to people struggling with prayer?
- How is prayer linked with the Bible?
- How can praying with someone else’s words be healing?
Pithy, shareable, less-than-280-character statements from Sarah Bessey you can share.
- “There was something about the idea of resting in the prayers of other people that was really healing for me.” @sarahbessey
- “I feel like the Bible is way more honest about prayer than churchy people are.” @sarahbessey
- “There was something about the honesty and the rawness and even the anger and the joyousness and the earthiness of prayer that I saw in the psalms that I didn’t really see in a whole lot of places around me.” @sarahbessey
- “Scripture is so multifaceted that you can return to the same thing over and over again and then on like the tenth or eleventh time you see things differently or read things differently.” @sarahbessey
- “It’s funny to me how often passages of scripture that I had understood one way end up becoming beautiful songs of liberation and of love and of wholeness for people and for me.” @sarahbessey
- “I feel God right beside me waiting and I just cannot make eye contact just yet.” @sarahbessey
Mentioned in This Episode
- Book: A Rhythm of Prayer
- Book: Miracles and Other Reasonable Things
- Book: The Book of Common Prayer
- Class: Beyond the Prince of Egypt
- Patreon: The Bible for Normal People
Powered by RedCircleRead the transcript
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of The Bible for Normal People. Before we jump in, just want to mention that we have a class. If you haven’t heard the last few weeks, we have the book Exodus for Normal People out now. We thought it would be great to do a one-night class as well on Exodus, you know, because we just can’t get our fill of Exodus. So, February 25th, 8:30 – 10:00 PM ET, it’s called “Beyond the Prince of Egypt: How to Read the Book of Exodus Like an Adult.” Pete, you want to give a word about what you’ll be doing?
Pete: Yeah, way beyond the Prince of Egypt. So, yeah, the book of Exodus is intriguing, challenging, complicated, and there are just a lot of moving parts. So, we were going to talk about that in an hour with some Q & A afterwards and just sort of highlights about what’s going on in this book and what it means to read this book with adult eyes and not just sort of as a story we know as children.
Jared: Yup! So, go to https://peteenns.com/course/prince/ to learn more. It’s pay what you can, so we don’t want to turn anyone away, again, for a lack of funds. Pay what you can for this one-night class, February 25th, 8:30 – 10PM ET. See ya there.
[Music plays, then fades as speaker begins]
Jared: Welcome, everyone, to this episode of the podcast and today we’re talking about “Why Bother Praying?” and we have a friend of the podcast back on, Sarah Bessey.
Pete: Yeah, and what prompted this episode was a book that Sarah has been working on, apparently, for maybe about a year and a half that just came out recently, I guess maybe a couple weeks ago, and it’s called A Rhythm of Prayer: A Collection of Meditations for Renewal, and you know, I don’t know how you people feel about like, a book about prayer. Like, oh gosh…is it techniques? No, no, no. No, no, no.
No, no, no, no, no. This is a raw, honest book that I think is the kind of thing a lot of people can resonate with.
Jared: I, it’s just a, for me, it read like a book of poetry. I mean, just a real beautiful set of things that really hit home. So, be sure and check that out and also be sure and stay tuned to this episode of the podcast. For a special treat, if you wanted to just hold onto the end too, for those of you who know Rachel Held Evans, Sarah dedicated this book to Rachel and we had her read the dedication as a sort of benediction at the end of this episode, so, stay tuned.
Pete: Yeah, check it out.
Sarah: I remember a pastor once telling me that the same part of you that worries is the part of you that prays, and since I can pretty much worry without ceasing, I can definitely pray without ceasing too.
The Bible is way more honest about prayer than churchy people are. You get to rage and grieve and lament and long. It’s not like God only gets my really contemplative, like, warm and fuzzy side; you bring your whole self to prayer. Your humanity is not a liability to Jesus.
Pete: Sarah, welcome back to the podcast.
Sarah: I am so happy to be here!
Pete: You’re one of the rare few who get to come back.
I’m like one of those SNL people who are like, the five-timer jacket? I’m going for the five-timer jacket.
Pete: Yeah, the check cleared though.
The two-timer jacket, but that’s all right, okay. So, wonderful! Listen, we wanted to talk to you about prayer because it’s a topic that we get asked about a lot and I don’t think it’s the easiest thing to sort of dissect and think about, but people want to know, for example, what the purpose of prayer is. And, so, we thought we’d just start by asking you, because you know, you’ve thought about this sort of thing too, and you know, nobody is an expert in prayer, but… So, what would you say to someone who asks you “what do you think the purpose of prayer is?”
Sarah: That’s a good question and I think, especially for those of us who, maybe were given one particular box, or you know, formula for prayer or purpose for prayer, and when that kind of, you know, either disappears or, you know, becomes inadequate at a certain point you think often times you’ve then altogether, you know, lost prayer. What’s even the point of it?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: And so, I think that there is, you know, definitely some good theological and scholarly and you know, wise reasons why we pray. I mean, you can make arguments for everything from spirituality to, you know, physiology about why prayer is good or what the purpose of it is. But when I hear that question, I’m reminded, actually, of a story about my son.
Sarah: And I’m pretty sure, I can’t remember, I think I wrote this one out maybe in Miracles? Miracles and Other Reasonable Things, that book. But it was a while ago and I, you know, got his permission to share this story. I always try to check in with the kids before I go, like, trotting their spiritual lives out for everyone.
Sarah: But I ended up asking him if I could tell this story because it really shaped how I saw, like, what’s the purpose of prayer. Especially for me coming out of a faith tradition that was rooted in the charismatic, Word of Faith, prosperity gospel-ish kind of thing where prayer had this purpose of like, controlling outcomes.
Sarah: That was the purpose of prayer. It was to control outcomes, it was to be a victor, it was to get your health, your wealth, your healing, your whatever it is you were out for. And so, you know, no trauma and baggage around prayer at all from that…
So, I think in losing prayer and reimagining prayer and learning liturgical prayer and the prayers of other people and ancient prayers and all the different ways that we pray, that was all super helpful to me. But I remember this day with my son was doing like, an art project in Sunday school. Teacher came over and said, you know, hey can we chat afterwards? I want to show you what happened in class. And of course, anybody who is a parent knows that can go a lot of different ways, that conversation.
Sarah: But I remember sitting down, and they had drawn, they had been told to draw a picture of what they think prayer is. And you know, most of the kids had drawn things like, oh, you know, you’re praying around the supper table to say grace, or you have the pastor at your church is praying at the front, or you know, even your mom or dad is praying with you at bedtime. You know, like that kind of stuff. A couple of kids, I remember, of like, they actually wrote out lists of what they wanted just in case it counted, so there was like, a kid who drew pictures of like, iPads and he really wanted an iPad.
Sarah: And then she flipped around and said, I want to show you what Joe drew. And she showed me this picture that he had drawn, and it was, you know, himself, a picture of himself sitting in our back deck in one of the chairs and beside him he had drawn Jesus sitting right beside him.
Sarah: And they had, like, those little cartoon bubbles, like when, you know, like in a comic strip when they’re talking to each other. And he had written, “I love you, Jesus,” and then Jesus saying back to him, “I love you, Joe.” And then he had drawn these arrows saying they were saying it back and forth to each other over and over again: “I love you, Jesus;” “I love you, Joe.” And underneath he had written this is Joe and his Jesus, this is how we pray. And I, you know, that lives forever in my keepsake box.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: But I remember at that time having a really contentious relationship with prayer and wondering what the purpose of prayer was, and particularly suffering a lot of, you know, doubt and issues around how to pray and what to pray. And I remember just feeling like this absolute, like, oh. That’s the purpose.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: That’s what it is. It’s the conversation that you’re having underneath all of it all the time, which is to rest and abide in the unchanging, unconditional love of God towards you, and that it’s your place to be able to do that. There’s a lot of different pathways to get there, but I think that picture that Joe drew all those years ago to me is maybe what the purpose is all along.
Jared: Mmm. That’s a really powerful story, I appreciate you sharing that. You know, to go back, you had, you mentioned your tradition being charismatic and, of course, my initial reaction to Pete saying there’s no experts in prayer, I think, well my upbringing it was Bruce Wilkinson and The Prayer of Jabez.
Jared: That was my expert in prayer. But you know, for you, how has, and you hinted to this, but maybe you can speak a little bit more directly to it. How has prayer shifted for you over the years? And you mentioned, again, controlling outcomes was early on. But maybe, just flesh that out a little more of where you came from and where you are now in relation to prayer.
Sarah: Well, I think that, you know, in a lot of ways, you know, most of us kind of start off with some particular container for prayer and how we understand it. So, I think that a lot of times we do start off kind of with an initial understanding of prayer, and that’s helpful, right? It’s helpful to have a foundation or beginnings, a beginning point. But for me, and like most people, I think, maybe came up in that similar faith tradition that was very focused on, you know, expecting a miracle. You know, this is the way to get what you want, you know, watching your confession. It felt, it feels now, looking back, kind of magic spell-ish? And so, for me when, I think it was, you know, probably in my mid-twenties, we, my husband and I were having a miscarriage and I was already pretty deep in deconstruction at the time and I remember having this moment of being, like, that’s it. I’m doubling down. And I did all the things that I knew to do, you know – wrote out all the prayers on the index cards and taped them all over the house, and spoke only Bible verses, and watching your confession, and praying the way, like, the overcomer ways that I’d been taught to pray because I was so desperate for that baby. And ended up having a miscarriage, and I remember having this moment afterwards of thinking, well, that’s it. That’s it. I just, I don’t do this anymore.
Sarah: And in so many ways that included so many aspects of my faith, but one of the most acute ones for me to lose was prayer, because I always really did love to pray, but I didn’t pray the way that I’d been taught. And so, losing that and then losing prayer altogether for me meant I wasn’t going to pray that way anymore, and so that meant I couldn’t pray. And so, it was actually kind of through the back door of saying, I don’t, I can’t pray with faith anymore, I can’t, I don’t know if anybody is listening, I think God has probably forgotten me, that I for the very first time was introduced to liturgical prayer and to The Book of Common Prayer. And there was something about the idea of resting in the prayers of other people that was really healing for me. And so, then that began to open up the door to all the other different ways that people pray and have prayed over time, and eventually by following their pathways and learning from them and sitting at their feet, I did a lot of, spent a lot of time thinking, like, who keeps praying even when their heart is broken. And so, that turned me towards prayer circles of, you know, prayer circles of Korean grandmothers that used to meet in the basement of a church and kept praying, and you know, Black church leaders who keep praying like John Lewis and Desmond Tutu, and just so many different people. I’m like, who keeps praying because I need to know that if it’s not about controlling outcomes, what is it for? And that way of being able to say, okay, I find myself in a lot of different ways and a lot of different pathways, and then that began to open up the door again for me to pray, and that was when I really rediscovered that I love to pray and that praying is a huge constant in my life. I remember a pastor once telling me that the same part of you that worries is the part of you that prays. And since I can pretty much worry without ceasing, I can definitely pray without ceasing too.
Sarah: And so, there was that kind of constant conversation and sense of abiding in the vine, I think, that Jesus talks about in John 15 that seemed to almost be, have a rhythm of constancy to it, but the path there was definitely one that came through so many other traditions and ways of praying that was really beneficial to me.
Pete: Can you explain more about the constancy of prayer and, because that, I think this is getting into how your own attitude and maybe practice of prayer has changed. I mean, you mentioned liturgical prayer, but you don’t, probably don’t carry The Book of Common Prayer around with you and just open it up as you’re walking, right? So, how do you get that sense of constancy and how does that happen for you very practically? Because I think people want to know, you know? I think people are looking for that sort of thing, because the mechanical stuff, the, I love the way you put it, the, you know, controlling outcomes approach – that withers really quickly for a lot of people because it doesn’t work.
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, what do you, what’s the point of it all? Which is, that’s usually where the question comes from, at least in my experience. It’s not working, I don’t see the point, God’s not there anyway. So, why bother doing it? So, and maybe the constancy is one of those things to look at. So, could you just flesh that out a little bit more?
Sarah: I for sure can. I think that there’s, that sometimes I think maybe some of the dangers of, or temptations, maybe, even is a better word, or tendencies whenever we lose something that maybe was once precious to us is to try to try on what has worked for other people. And that can be really helpful. You know, a lot of times, you know, you can practice and try different things and whatever else. I think there’s lots of different ways that I pray, I mean, because I do sometimes sit down and I’ll do The Daily Office for a month or two, or you know, and then you have your prayer book. I’ll have times I do love to read prayers from other people, and that can be really helpful and I think communal prayer. You know, the idea of a prayer circle or praying together is, I think, really beautiful and powerful. Praying with and for other people, you know, in a lot of ways, I love to pray benedictions. I end almost all my books like that and for me a lot of times that feels like praying over someone or almost covering them, you know, with prayer.
Pete Mm hmm.
Sarah: But when I think about the constancy of prayer, I think that it’s maybe somewhere in just in terms of awareness and contemplativeness of a never-ending conversation and presence, I suppose, is the way to say it. You know, in the book, Barbara Brown Taylor has this really beautiful poem. I think it ends the book, actually. I think it might be the very last one in there.
Pete: Yeah, yeah.
Sarah: Where she talks about approaching God like almost like a mountain you’re so aware of and you live on that you can see it with your eyes closed and you almost get to this place of like, beyond speech, or beyond words, or beyond petitions because there is just this presence.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: And in a lot of ways, I think that there’s ways to cultivate an awareness of that, you know, silence, contemplative prayer, sometimes even, you know, even after, you know, Joe taught me that stuff about prayer, like, I would just literally pull up a chair beside me and just pray, just sit in that moment of “I love you,” and “I love you” over and over again.
Pete: There’s an interesting paradox that I’m hearing that on the one hand, I think what you’re saying is that it’s something that is like, it becomes like breathing.
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Pete: It’s not mechanical, it’s “I love you,” right?
Pete: But it, there are a lot, you’re doing a lot of things to get there. It seems like hard work too.
Sarah: Hmm. You know, it’s –
Sarah: Yeah, maybe. Maybe there’s some discipline there. I mean, I don’t know! I guess I just, there was, I think, initially a lot of discipline in terms of staying curious about prayer and thinking that it wasn’t a conversation that had ended just yet even though maybe the language we spoke was changing. And I think that that, that was definitely part of it, and at the same time, in The Message translation, which I’m sure you love very, very much, there’s a way that –
Pete: Slight commercial here –
Pete: I was the exegetical consultant for The Message for the books of Exodus and Numbers.
Sarah: Were you? Oh, that’s brilliant!
Pete: Thanks for the assumption there, Sarah, that I just look down on The Message.
Pete: I think The Message is wonderful! So, go on. Please go on now.
I get so much crap from academics every time I talk about The Message –
Pete: Yeah, I don’t care.
Sarah: And it’s so hard.
Jared: We are The Bible for Normal People, after all.
Pete: Yeah, right, right.
Sarah: I just love it so, so much. But there’s this way that he translated in Matthew 11:28 where he talks about the unforced rhythms of grace and that was part of how I began to understand prayer is that it wasn’t a burden, that it wasn’t a “should,” that it wasn’t a ticking of a box or a star on God’s star chart, you know? It wasn’t about controlling outcomes, even, although I do pray in those directions. There was an unforced rhythm to it, and an ease and a lightness, I think, once you become aware of God’s heart for you, once you, maybe even believe that what you’re hearing back is “I love you.”
Pete: And just a very short plug for your book, which you haven’t really mentioned directly yet, but we will and we probably have in the intro. I don’t know what we’re doing, Jared. So, anyway, but just the title of your book, you know, A Rhythm of Prayer, and that’s what it means. I think that’s a, that’s a brilliant title that really gets to what you’re saying. It’s not a “should,” it’s not a task, it’s not a check box, it’s not God looking down angrily to make sure you’re doing the things you need to do. It’s something that’s a cultivated rhythm, which hopefully brings some peace amid difficult times, but –
Pete: Easier said than done.
Sarah: No, for sure. It is easier said than done. I think even that rhythm that we tried to capture was, like, a lot of times people will say, “well, can you say than when you’re talking to God?” You know?
Sarah: And it’s quite funny to me because I’m like, I feel like the Bible is way more honest about prayer than churchy people are. Like, we look at the conversations that people are having with God in scripture, and I mean, clutch your pearls, right?
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: And so, I think even that’s part of our rhythm, that you get to, you get to rage and grieve and lament and long, right? Have longing in your heart.
Sarah: I think that having room for all of those rhythms of your life and saying, look, it’s not like God only gets my really contemplative, like, warm and fuzzy side. The whole, you bring your whole self to prayer. Your humanity is not a liability to Jesus.
Jared: That was a great segue into what, I was going to share, you know, two and maybe get a little more commentary on this line of thinking, because I do think a lot of people, we talk about prayer, we can talk about formality and discipline, and I think of all these tropes in movies where someone who’s not particularly religious is asked to say the blessing at a meal and it gets all formal and stuffy. And the two influences that I think meant the most to me looking back now on my conception of prayer, because I remember this being a turning point for me, even though I didn’t quite get it yet. But in high school, two movies – one was Braveheart –
Jared: And I remember thinking, there’s this, the Irishman.
Sarah: [Continued uproarious laughter]
Pete: Oh my.
Jared: I don’t know if anybody knows this movie –
Sarah: Does anybody know this move? Hi. Has anybody spent any amount of time in evangelical churches in the 90’s?
Jared: Oh yeah, that’s true.
Sarah: 2000’s? Yes, we all know this movie!
Jared: So, I love, I love, I mean, it just sticks out to me so clearly. I was probably 8th grade, 9th grade when I see this movie, and you know, Stephen, just the basic, almost, and it’s almost the vulgarity of his relationship with God. It was an affront to me when I first saw it.
Jared: Like, what? You know, there’s this part where he, and of course, he’s a little bit mentally unstable, but he says, you know, “the Lord tells me he can get me out of this mess, but he’s pretty sure you’re fucked.”
Jared: And like, just that phrase, that quote was like, so impactful to me. And so, to think that we could just relate to God at that level. And then, the second one was the movie The Count of Monte Cristo, where we have this, for me, the first time I see someone arguing and struggling with God, where it’s not just, “I’m here to be pious and say all the right things and to earn your favor, God,” but I can actually be pissed at you and say, “this is unfair,” and “where’s the justice in this?” and that that’s okay. So, maybe you can say a little more of your experiences or learning how to undo, I think, years and years of expectations for bringing our best selves to God rather than bringing our true selves.
Sarah: You know, I think that there’s a lot of different ways where you can get a picture of how people pray or the moments that are really impactful. I know a lot of people have even talked to me about an episode of “The West Wing” where the lead character plays the president has this like, angry confrontation with God in a cathedral.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: And feeling that sense of release or permission even. And I think that in a lot of ways maybe that’s what we’re looking for is for some permission, right? It’s looking for a “you’re okay to do this.” And I did feel like I saw a lot of that and a lot of my teaching on that came from the Psalms because I don’t know, it’s one of those things where I remember, I mean, obviously we have, you know, a lot of conversation about prayer and teaching about prayer all through, you know, the New Testament, but there was something about the honesty and the rawness and even the anger and the joyousness and the earthiness of prayer that I saw in the Psalms that I, I didn’t really see in a whole lot of places around me. It sure didn’t look like “name it and claim it.” You know?
Pete: Mm hmm, right. Yeah.
Sarah: So, having that sort of permission to begin to have that level of honesty, I think especially because in a lot of ways I was taught that, you know, David is someone who walked with God, a man after God’s own heart, and so knowing that you can have a heart after God and you can walk with God and still say these sorts of things or write these sorts of things, to me, was really beautiful.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: It was a picture of intimacy and honesty of living your life with your eyes wide open to one another. And that was really appealing to me. And so, yeah, that began to change things. I think especially because I had initially grown up in this tradition that so highly valued the words that you speak. You know, a big part of that is like, you know, watching your confession – you can’t ever say that you’re sick, you’re coming down with a healing. Right?
Jared: Oh man.
Sarah: I wish I was kidding. I wish I was kidding.
Jared: Wow, wow.
Sarah: [Continued laughter]
Pete: Oh my.
Jared: I grew up charismatic, but not that charismatic.
Sarah: Listen. It’s just a whole thing, and so the idea of being able to be honest to God and being like, “I’m sick” –
Was revolutionary to me for a time, right? And so, and whatever, I think often times we need to round out or find with is this idea of the constancy of walking with God, of abiding with God, that it’s not a one-time event or a magic spell or a thing that we’re trying to preform, but this is, this is where we live and move and have our being.
Pete: Right. Well, something you said, I mean, this is something that struck me too that really dovetails with what you’re saying, that, you know, Psalms and other places too as you know, like maybe Job or Ecclesiastes or some of the Prophets or something where there’s just this real rawness that you don’t always find in the New Testament and I think the “name it and claim it” idea comes from, more from, it’s more the New Testament idea, although it’s really not. But I think it comes more from that kind of a mentality. But the problem there is that the New Testament is very triumphal piece of literature that traverses a very short span of time, relatively speaking and it’s like – Jesus is coming back any minute.
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Pete: So, you’re going to have a different, maybe it is “name it and claim it.” Maybe God is here to heal you, you know, because the kingdom is upon us and things like that. But it’s been 2000 years and we have more in common with these Old Testament writers, like, Psalms written over centuries where times and circumstances changed. There’s a lot more time for crap to happen, for people to have to struggle with God. And so, you know, I guess it sort of, it dovetails, Jared, doesn’t it, with something we were hoping that maybe Sarah you could comment on a little bit more was just how the, maybe a bit more about how the Bible… How do I put this? Not informs, but like, do you engage the biblical tradition differently as you think about your life of prayer and how it’s evolved?
Sarah: I think so. Yeah, I definitely think so. I mean, you know, a lot of times I think, you know, especially if you begin to pray with the, you know, The Daily Office for instance, or you realize that you’re pretty much praying the Bible the whole time. Side note – I don’t know if you’re going to want to include this –
But I remember when I very first went to a liturgical church for the first time and reading, and like, and really enjoying it, and then I brought some family members who were also part of, you know, kind of the Word of Faith tradition, and said, they came up to me and they were like, “damn, that’s a lot of Bible for a high church!”
Sarah: I was like, who knew?! Right???
Pete: [Continued laughter]
Sarah: And so, anyway, all that to say, like, there’s this sense, I think, of, you know, even reclamation for me around that because I had been taught to pray through the scriptures, like, to almost use scripture as a way of kind of, you know, getting what I want or, you know, we call it reminding God of their promises, you know, like that kind of stuff. There was this sense, for me, of like, maybe a lot of those things are damaged now and yet for me in scripture I find now when I pray, especially if I’m praying with people or for people, those, the lines and words and longings of scripture are just through that language like, wine and water. Like, there’s just no way to kind of separate or undo that for me. And so, I actually end up being really, really grateful for that focus on the language of scripture on the hopes of God towards us even when often times they were over realized and out of context. You know?
There’s a lot of ways where those were gifts to me, where learning how to pray through the scriptures or learning how to pray, you know, for instance a lot of times I pray through Isaiah, you know, even now, especially now maybe when we’re contenting with what feels like a lot of apocalyptic, you know, moments and events and unveilings and revelations. You know, I find a vision of goodness and shalom and healing there that is good language for prayer for me.
Jared: And I don’t know if this is, maybe you can say if this is what you’re talking about, but when you said that it made me think of, you know, for me as I continue on this journey, I find that I’m able to repurpose those verses that I had in my head, right? So, the, all the verses are still there, but the packaging is different. It’s a whole different framework, it’s a whole different way of thinking about it, but I’m grateful that I have all these verses and passages stuck in my head because now there’s a new purpose for them that I find to be more loving, more open, more liberating –
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Jared: But it’s great to reuse the scripture in a different context. Is that what you’re saying?
Sarah: Yeah, I think so. I think that in a lot of ways, you know, again, scripture is so multifaceted that you can return to the same thing over and over again and then on, like, the tenth or eleventh time you see things differently or read things differently. And so, you know, I think that there’s a lot of permission there to just say, “maybe not now,” but I think we’re always circling around these things that formed us and seeing them with new eyes, finding new language for them, new understanding like you said. It’s funny to me how often, you know, maybe passages of scripture, you know, that I had understood one way end up becoming beautiful songs of liberation and of love and of wholeness for people and for me and so I think that there’s definitely something there. It kind of reminds me, I remember back when I was trying to figure out whether or not I wanted to follow Jesus, and I remember reading, like, all of the Gospels and finding a version of Jesus in scripture that I just simply had, could not even recognize. I remember being angry, I remember being irritated, I remember slamming my Bible shut after finishing the Sermon on the Mount and hollering at my husband, at Brian, and saying “I would follow this guy.” Like, I didn’t –
Sarah: This is beautiful. This is incredible! How did, why have I never, what in the world?!? And yet, I was a church kid who’d grown up in church and knew all the Sermon on the Mount, but for some reason reading it with fresh eyes, with eyes that were searching to know whether or not I wanted to keep doing this, I was like, well no wonder people drop their nets and chased after the guy. No wonder they all gathered. Like, this is, this is amazing! Have you read this? And he’s like, you know I went to seminary, right?
Like, this is what I do.
Pete: So, the answer is no.
Well, I want to circle back because I feel like we’ve been saying two things, and Pete, this may be getting to what you said earlier as a paradox, but I just, I want to name kind of the wisdom element here around prayer – that there isn’t a right way to do it. You know, and the way I’m hearing it is, there’s this more formal way that at certain times and seasons in our life can be such a balm and a healing place when we’re not praying our own words. And that, for me growing up charismatic, would’ve been kind of a no-no, right?
Like, it has to be personal. This is about a relationship and like, what kind of love letter would it be if you just took someone else’s words and wrote them? I remember hearing that. But there’s a time and place for that and there’s church traditions that highlight that and that can be a really beautiful healing thing. And then there are times when it’s me sitting next to Jesus saying “I love you” back and forth and just recognizing that, giving ourselves that permission, which I think is a good phrase you used earlier, to say prayer can be different things at different times –
Sarah: Mm hmm.
Jared: And it can be what we need it when we need it, and that’s okay. And we don’t have to keep trying to fit in this box of what it is or what it isn’t.
Sarah: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right; I think you’re exactly right. In a lot of ways, sometimes the most aware I have been of prayer and of feeling the most, you know, connected or, has been in silence. You know, it has been in tears. I mean, you can find a lot of different places where in moments and in ways of being there. I remember one time, you know, Evolving Faith we use the phrase “borrowing hope from each other” a lot –
Sarah: And in some ways, it can feel like prayer is part of that. It’s a way that, especially when you’re praying with people or using, you know, language that other people have prayed or you even just have a chance to say I don’t know what I think about prayer, I don’t even know what I believe about it, I don’t even know if I think it’s real, but I can rest in these prayers or I can rest in someone else’s. I can borrow from them for a little while. And I think there’s something really beautiful and communal about that.
Pete: Yeah, rather than just the individual always and that’s part of the whole protestant thing.
[In short choppy voice]
It’s you and God.
Pete: [Short choppy voice continues]
Don’t let anybody else. Just use those words, you know, you’ll be fine.
Pete: [Regular voice resumes]
The Spirit will give you the words and all kind of stuff like that, so –
Jared: Well, so, you have this, we mentioned it earlier and we mentioned it in introduction, a collection of prayers that you’ve put together it’s called Rhythm of Prayer. I’d be curious to learn again kind of this communal, I’ve been drawn lately since we had Dean Emilie Townes on who talked beautifully about a community of faith. What did you learn about prayer by putting this collection together from other women?
Sarah: You know, it’s an interesting, a lot of that is, honestly, has to do with kind of the origin point of the book because I had been circling around the idea of writing about prayer for a couple of years and just never really felt like I had a clear runway to do it. I was really cautious about, you know, about how to approach that conversation. And so, just never really kind of, you know, figured out a pathway. And it was in the immediate aftermath of losing Rachel that I just thought I need to get to work.
Sarah: I needed something to put my hand to. In that first season of grief, I needed something that would take up some of my thought and energy and time because I was just so incredibly hollowed out by the loss of her and this idea of the prayer book came to me and I thought, you know, I can’t write about prayer right now because honestly, me and God are hardly speaking at this moment.
Pete: Mm hmm.
Sarah: I feel God right beside me, waiting, and I just cannot make eye contact just yet.
Sarah: And I had this vision of a prayer circle, of all those times as a kid when I would sit with other women and just rest in their prayers in all the different ways that they prayed, in all the seasons of how they prayed and all the things that they cared about and what they would bring and I thought – that’s what I need. I need, I need a communal thing, you know, for being able to do this. And so, ended up going out to, you know, these folks who are all incredible teachers and leaders and activists, but honestly, I asked them because their work matters to me and I trusted them to be honest. And so, you know, just like we kind of tend Evolving Faith with a light hand and don’t give a whole lot of direction to speakers or the leaders who are coming to that space, I was surprised how when everything shows up, you would think from the outside that we planned every minute. Right? That we had all collaborated and built this thing from start to finish, because the thread that emerges that you know, again, me still being deeply charismatic, I believe that that’s the activity and movement of the Holy Spirit that it emerges. Right? When people, when the right people are there and the moment happens. And so, I saw that happen as these prayers began to come in and as I was sitting with them and tending them and writing my own essays and contributions and kind of pushing my way through that, I felt that sense of rhythm and that sense of rest in it. And so, yeah, that was a huge part of where that actually came to be was I needed to spend a year in the honest fullness of how other people whom I trust pray in order to find my own rhythm again.
Pete: Mm hmm. Mm hmm. Yeah, and you have a beautiful dedication to Rachel at the beginning, so I, so this is your women’s prayer circle.
Sarah: Yeah. Yeah, it really is. It really is in a lot of ways and I felt the same way now, I think, just in terms of like, this is holy ground in a lot of ways.
Sarah: Even, and I feel that way even though, you know, there’s things that I know will surprise people within this, because it’s not like how you would normally picture like, a ladies prayer book, you know?
The language and what they talk about –
Sarah: But I needed that. I needed that permission for, you know, to cry out about injustice and to talk about struggles with prayer and to talk about the embodiment of prayer and poetry and finding God in the places other people don’t deem sacred. That was, I mean, all of this was deeply transformative and healing for me and so, that’s my hope that it would be that way for everybody who come to these pages.
Jared: Well, this has been, I, this actually has been a very helpful conversation for me and so I have to say I’m sad that it’s coming to an end here, but I think it would be good to ask you, who’s gone through and experienced a lot of shifts in your faith and around your prayer life, just ending with this question of – if you could go back and give yourself some advice as you were in the midst of kind of losing sight of what prayer is about, or losing hope in the idea of prayer, you know, what’s some advice that you would give to yourself in that place?
Sarah: Hmm. I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that before. I… hmm. You know, I think that in a lot of ways, the experience of losing something that was once precious to you or what felt like a North Star way that you charted your course – that could be prayer, it could be a relationship with scripture, it could be the people in the community of people, you know, who are around you. It’s a profoundly disorienting experience. There’s a lot of grief to it. It’s very rarely, you know, theology for the fun of it. Right? There’s a sense of contending for something. And so, I think that the thing that I would’ve maybe needed to hear then and that I would hope that most people would hear now is that you’re not in that place because you were faithless or broken or wrong, that that invitation is actually from the Holy Spirit and there’s goodness and wholeness waiting on the other side of that, that you’re loved and that you can relax into that. I think that a lot of times the energy that we spend on trying to be right and get it right and do this certain right thing, we miss the conversation that’s happening all along as we said earlier, but I think ultimately there’s an element of unclenching your fists, you know, relaxing your shoulders, and breathing deeply into the new era that you’re about to walk into.
Pete: Yeah. Well, prayer is one of these topics we talk about forever and still not get it –
Pete: But we’ll still have to bring it to a close.
Sarah: So true.
Pete: Sarah, thank you so much for taking the time from your busy schedule and for just being with us on the podcast. It was really, really wonderful to have you back again.
Sarah: It is an absolute joy to talk to you both every time. And so, I’m so grateful for your thoughtfulness and for this community, and yeah, just really honored to be here. So, thanks again.
For Rachel Held Evans:
Who gave permission to a generation,
Who made origami out of hate mail,
Who kept the faith,
Who told the truth,
Who dared to wonder “What if I’m wrong?” out loud,
Who was willing to keep wrestling until the blessing came,
Who pulled up more chairs to the Table and scooted over to make room,
Who made us laugh and made us think,
Who was bold and courageous and kind,
Who would not be budged from her conviction that this Gospel is Good News for everyone,
Who moved to the margins because she knew this is the center of God’s story,
Who never lost her love for telling that Story,
Who loved us,
And whom we loved.
Eshet chayil, woman of valor.
Megan: We also want to give a shout out to our producer’s group who support us over on Patreon. They are the reason we’re able to keep bringing podcasts and other content. If you would like to help support the podcast, head over to https://www.patreon.com/thebiblefornormalpeople where for as little as $3 a month you can receive bonus material, be a part of an online community, get course discounts, and much more. We couldn’t do what we do without your support.
Dave: Thanks to our team: Executive Producer, Megan Cammack; Audio Engineer, Dave Gerhart; Creative Director, Tessa Stultz; Marketing Wizard, Reed Lively; transcriber and Community Champion, Stephanie Speight; and Web Developer, Nick Striegel. From Pete, Jared, and the entire Bible for Normal People team – thanks for listening.