I’m up early, engaged in morning devotions, and I start to worry.
My prayers are lazy, a sequence of uncreative words to God rattled off without enough thought. I glance at prayers from the church’s past—rich biblical prayers like those in the Psalms or the letters of Paul, the laconic and comprehensive Lord’s Prayer, all those profound petitions of the English tradition that fill the Anglican prayer book—and the words I’m praying fall on my own ears as bland, even boring. If there’s one phrase that in its repeated use especially merits this charge of colourlessness, it’s the one that begins most of my requests for other people: “Lord, be with…”
As I pray, these words seem to pop up again and again. “Be with so-and-so.” “Be with me.” Can I do no better than this vague generality? I look again at the prayers of Paul, the one who told us to pray without ceasing. His words seem a rapture of the Christ-filled conviction that when he approaches God it is a matter of life and death. “…we have not stopped praying for you. We continually ask God to fill you with the knowledge of his will through all the wisdom and understanding that the Spirit gives, so that you may live a life worthy of the Lord and please him in every way…” (Col. 1:9-10, NIV)
I wonder for a moment, why these words? Are they no better than saying, “I pray for so-and-so,” “I pray for me”? Where does this phrase come from? I don’t say these words in any ordinary requests I make of people. Where did I learn this way of asking for help?
It hits me suddenly as I read the first chapter of Joshua that these words are at the heart of the Christian story. I’ve known this all along, of course: every Advent season we sing and speak of the coming of Emmanuel, God-with-us. I can’t be sure this is the reason why I pray these words, “Be with…” It’s very possible that I am simply an idle chooser of words. But regardless of any lack on my part, there may be more here than this.
I start to search in Scripture, looking to places that come immediately to mind, stumbling upon others that had slipped from memory. Those words I read from Joshua 1 tell how God will power Joshua’s leadership: “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1:5). Prefacing that promise are a few other words: “As I was with Moses…” I turn back to that (in)famous exchange between Moses and the LORD at the bush that kept on burning. Moses asks, “Who am I?” God’s answer proves how impertinent and ultimately inconsequential is such a question: “I will be with you” (Exodus 3:12). I flip the pages again and again, finding of course that the same had been said of God’s presence with Joseph, with his father Jacob, his grandfather Isaac, and the great father of them all, Abraham. I see that the words “God is with you” are meant to put an end to every other concern. Perhaps that prayer, “Be with…,” is not so bland after all. Maybe this prayer is the centre of everything, expressing the fundamental need of a whole universe.
I avail myself of the labours of others, and a commentary tells me that the words occur over a hundred times in the Old Testament. I know that when I turn to the New Testament, I’ll see those hundred requests, assertions, recognitions, promises burst forth into new, embodied life in Jesus Christ—introduced by Matthew as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23)—and in the community that bears witness to his presence. I also know that when I turn to the end of that Testament I’ll see that all of our hope for the future lies in the same direction: “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3).
The answer to the whole human predicament, then, is for God to be with us. The answer to my own predicament, situated as I am in the new humanity God has created in Christ, is for God to be with me. My lazy prayer words turn out to point to exactly what I need. Whether I need to become better equipped in the vocabulary, syntax, and grammar of prayer is almost beside the point. I’ve got the basic vocabulary, syntax, and grammar down fairly well: “God be with us.”
I recognize that, yes, this is what I want, and I venture to guess that it’s what everyone wants, even if they don’t know it or fail to name it as such. What I’ve been longing for is God’s presence, and especially the experience of knowing that presence. I understand that I’m supposed to mistrust my own experience. I know that the human heart is deceitful. If I hadn’t picked this truth up from C.S. Lewis I should certainly have picked it up from Jeremiah. But I think for a moment of Thomas Merton’s journey all the way to a Kentucky monastery from the literary life of New York City, a journey undertaken because in the end he simply wanted to know the experience of God’s presence for himself—and Merton’s motivation sounds a note that echoes in my own undependable heart.
I suspect I’ll continue to use those simple words that keep floating back into my prayers. Not that this is all I’ll do. I’ll keep reading and praying the Psalms. I’ll keep praying the Lord’s Prayer. I’ll cultivate my comfort in simple conversation with the Lord. And I’ll persist in a search among the words of others for words I might adopt as words of my own. But I will continue to say, when all else fails, “God be with me.” “God be with us all.” I’ll know that he is. I’ll know that in Christ he has been. I’ll know that at the end he will be again to an extent as yet unimaginable to my poor mind and untrustworthy heart. In the meantime, I’ll hope to have some little flashes of feeling his presence from time to time, and who knows but that I might. It will, of course, be God’s decision whether I feel his presence with me or not. Either way, he will be with me.