Elie Wiesel quote: “I have not lost faith in God. I have moments of anger and protest. Sometimes I’ve been closer to him for that reason.”
The greatest lesson I ever learned about prayer was not taught in a classroom before a professor. In fact, school was very much out for that summer. It was mid-August of ’98 and my classroom was a northbound Honda Odyssey driving at a cruise-controlled 10 mph over the speed limit. I was making good time on 77 when somewhere between the first and the last rest-stops in South Carolina I found myself in the middle of a master’s class on prayer. My professor was a gangly Cambodian boy who was maybe 15 years old with a late 90s mop-top haircut about which I suspect he is glad that there are no surviving photos. We were hauling a youth group’s worth of luggage from a week in Florida—Disney World, Daytona, Cape Canaveral…the whole megillah—following a compact church bus. I offered to drive the luggage as the bus’ air-conditioning was suspect. The professor volunteered to ride shotgun as he too was not fond of sweating for no good reason. I’d listened to every mixtape he owned, an impressive pirated collection. I had grown tired of his mixtapes somewhere in south Georgia. By the time we got to the South Carolina state line I was hoping he’d fall asleep. I was looking forward to the sound of his snoring and the wind buffeting the windshield.
This kid knew my backstory because I had shared it as part testimony and part confession. There is an unspoken bond between folks who have had to grow up too fast and with little supervision. He started talking about his poor relationship with his father. We shared that as plainly as our love for air-conditioning. He was an angry teenager fed up with the world around him. (North Charlotte back then was not the gentrified hipster-filled enclave that is now NoDa.) This young man recounted story after story of pain and disappointment. This witty, clever kid who was usually bursting with an annoying level of youthful energy aged with each passing mile marker. And as the miles passed we found ourselves, unintentionally playing, “who had it worse.” I assure you that this kid never enjoyed his comfortable lead. Miles passed as tears were shed and pains were shared, until we found ourselves in an awkward silence of wind buffeting the windshield with neither one of us moving to turn the mixtape back on.
In that moment, I recall feeling overwhelmed by what this beautiful soul had dared to share with me. To my relief my copilot broke the silence, “So…I guess now is the time when we pray about all this $h!t.” I managed to say, “Probably…you first and when you stop I’ll start.” It was a classic clergy-sidestep to gain composure while I thought of something to say that might speak to the moment. He starts praying and I know that the Spirit intercedes for us in wordless groans (Romans 8:26), but his groans were far from wordless. There was no “G-d is great, G-d is good” but plenty of “where the hell were you?” His cursing and calling out the Almighty was passionate and raw. He showed me a vulnerability before G-d that, to that moment, I never had the courage to risk. I had never heard a more sincere prayer before or since. The lesson ended when he spotted the signs for Carowinds and chose to change the subject. I whispered an amen while trying to hold myself together.
I’ve shared this story many times as a minister. I’ve shared this story and have been amazed by those who fixate on notions of reverence and respectability. I am amazed by those who hold to decorum and take offense. I am amazed that there are people who would live under the weight of pomp and circumstance choosing that weight over an honest dialogue with the all-knowing G-d who listens to our prayers. In the spirit of this story, if G-d is only observant; surely G-d can recognize our BS when G-d hears it. I’m not saying we should all take up swearing just for the hell of it. I’m not saying as a minister that I would preside while offering prayers laced with f-bombs. I say this out of love for others so that they will not endure a wind-buffeting the windshield-forever looking for a mixtape relationship with G-d.
Teach people how to pray. Encourage people to pray, even to pray without ceasing (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Teach people to pray without editing for content. And sometimes their prayers will be Our Father said confidently on the plain (Matthew 6:9ff). And sometimes their prayers will be let this cup pass said in the darkness of the garden (Matthew 26:39). And sometimes their prayers will be the agony of Eloi, Eloi (Mark 15:34).