When I was a kid, a friend introduced me to Dungeons & Dragons. I was hooked immediately. My parents forbid it—those were the days of so-called “Satanic Panic”—but I played anyway. I loved it. I still play D&D. During the pandemic, my in-person gaming group adapted to online play. But that’s just the latest adaptation.
My appreciation for and understanding of roleplaying games is much more sophisticated now than when I was 10. I see now there’s more than one game and more than one way to play even just D&D. I now have words to describe running and playing the game, that was just intuition or “the way we always did it” then. I have some experience with the stages a new player and new gamemaster goes through. I respect the history and influences, how the game and its culture has evolved and what evolutions are still needed. And all of this has increased my love for the game.
I can say the same for prayer. The Love that hooked me in prayer also led me to seek understanding. That’s born fruit of humility, self-awareness and self-knowledge, and the wisdom of experience. I’ve also gained new words to describe prayer and its movements and “stages,” a broader set of prayer practices than what I experienced growing up or stumbled into along the way, and a respect for the history, schools of thought, and old and new influences. None of this was a chore or a duty but a natural course of deepening Love in prayer, of God’s ongoing new creation.
I’m grateful for all my teachers of prayer. One key early book I read was Jesuit Mark Thibodeaux’s Armchair Mystic. Something clicked for me, reading about his four “stages” of prayer—Talking at God, Talking to God, Listening to God, Being with God. And I’ve used one of his exercises many, many times. I’ll share that exercise in full, from page 126, because it seems just right for these days of prayerfully preparing for Pentecost.
Worthy People Distractions
This exercise begins with the presumption that I am in the middle of my prayer time and am having trouble quieting myself because of some worthy distraction about a person in my life.
1. Once I have decided that this distraction is worth praying over, I change strategies and now focus on it. If the distraction involves some other person (that I am worried about, angry with, in love with, etc.), I focus all of my attention on that person. I ask God to show me that person through his eyes. I continue reflecting on God's perception of this person as long as I am able
2. I ask God to show me his perception of my relationship with this person. For example, if I'm in love, I ask for God's impression of the relationship: "Is it true love, God? Is it healthy love? Am I handling the relationship in accordance with the gospel values that Jesus taught?" Or if I'm furious with my boss, I ask for God's impression of the relationship: "Am I right to be angry, Lord? Am I being fair, here? Am I being unjustly treated? Is this argument worth fighting for? Or should I try to let this one go? Also, is there some fault of my own that I have not yet owned up to?"
3. I spend some time thanking God for the life of that person (even if my present feelings toward the person are very negative) and I ask God to help me to carry God's own perception of this person throughout my day. If I've made some decision about how to act today and feel that the action is the right thing to do, then I ask God to give me the courage to do what needs to be done.
I write to you the morning after a tragic shooting in Zion’s neighborhood. As I understand, a twelve year old child was shot, a seventeen year old wounded. Anger, fear, and grief about this may interrupt your prayer. They’ve certainly interrupted my morning. This is a so-called “worthy distraction.” In other words, it may be God is the one drawing me away from my agenda for the morning or for my prayer. God may be inviting me to focus prayerfully on this disquiet (to put it mildly), which is not just my own but is God’s, because it is this community’s.
God show us these young people through your eyes. God show us the shooter through your eyes. God show us this neighborhood through your eyes.
The old self jumps to what do I do? and who do I blame? Or it avoids and ignores. The new self pauses in prayer, waiting for new eyes to see and new boldness from above. We see this in the first disciples. In Jesus’ invitation for them to wait in Jerusalem. It’s an active waiting. A keeping vigil. Letting God be God. Admitting my deep need, our collective need for live-giving mercy. I’ve learned this is neither distraction nor disengagement. It is the way. The way of Love.
Thanks be to God.
Pastor Clark Olson-Smith