Experiencing Jesus in Prayer

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“Why do you Presbyterians pray with your eyes open?”

I had never heard a question like that before, but my friend meant it honestly and curiously. He had noticed as he had been hanging out in our little church in my hometown that everyone seemed to offer their prayers with their eyes open, rather than closing them and folding their hands like he was used to. It was a little bit of a mystery to me, as I really hadn’t paid that much attention to it. But after he pointed it out, I couldn’t stop looking.

A few weeks later, my friend joined me at the traditional service at my hometown church, and shortly after the prayer of confession tapped me on the shoulder.

“That’s why you all pray with your eyes open! You’re used to reading the prayers in the bulletin rather than making them up!”

To my friend, and his more evangelical sensibilities, that seemed wrong to him. He wasn’t so much a fan of the prayers that everyone said together without having any input into what they’re praying. What if the person who wrote the confession had something to confess that I really wasn’t struggling with? I think that’s an interesting line of thought, though to be sure I really love being a part of a tradition that is in fact much bigger than myself. Some of the classic prayers that we lift up in worship have been around for centuries, and it’s a bit humbling I think to place ourselves in that great tradition.

But it turns out I really do like praying with my eyes open.

I like praying when I am aware of how Jesus is moving in the prayers I’m offering up, and I like to see it happen in real time. I think prayer is remarkably powerful, and sometimes we miss how prayer is actually affecting the real world.

I’ll give you an example:

Most of us know our student and friend Maddy Johnson was in a car accident this summer, sustaining a fairly major brain injury. That first week of recovery for Maddy, one of the larger concerns for doctors was her brain pressure. They were using some sort of sensor to gauge that, which was connected to a screen that everyone in the room could see. A good number was low, like 4 or 5. Anything about 20 or so was cause for concern, especially if it was sustained. So on this particular day, I walked back with the family to sit with Maddy and say a prayer or two over her. While we were back there, Maddy’s mom pulled out a tissue and started to wipe Maddy’s nose. As though to prove that there is still a teenage mind at work in her, Maddy’s reaction to her mother wiping her nose in front of everyone caused a huge spike in brain pressure. She was up in the mid 30s. I started to pray, but watched in that same moment as Maddy’s mom bent down and started whispering something in her ear. I don’t know what she was whispering (she later guessed that she was singing a childhood favorite song), but I do know that her brain pressure dropped all the way from 34 to 5 in a matter of minutes.

I love this story on so many levels. I loved watching a mother’s tender love for her children on display. I loved watching an entire community that had gathered around Maddy, holding her up, walking through this long and challenging road to recovery with her. I loved that as I was praying, eyes opened of course, I got to see Jesus answer my prayer in real time. What a remarkable gift and blessing that was.

Maybe you prefer the free flowing prayers, coming before God in a moment of stillness to pour your heart out before your creator. Maybe you prefer the written prayers, joining together in a stream of Christian witnesses as old as our faith itself. I think both are great options. But here’s my advice, pray with your eyes open. Not just in the moment of prayer, but in the moments, hours, days, and weeks that follow. How is Jesus moving in the world when we pray? How is Jesus carrying our deepest sighs and longings in his heart? Sometimes we don’t get a great picture of this, but sometimes we do. Sometimes we get to see Jesus answer prayers in real time.

I for one never want to miss that.

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