Periods are lonely creatures, stuck as they are, at the end of a sentence with not another dot in view until the end of the next sentence. A dot, on the very edge of an expanse of wide-open space before the next idea emerges from the page. That aggregation of a few pixels is immensely important, though. It signifies where a thought stops. In fact, the British call a period a “full stop”.
Now Moses was pasturing the flock of Jethro his father-in-law, the priest of Midian; and he led the flock to the west side of the wilderness and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. The angel of the LORD appeared to him in a blazing fire from the midst of a bush; and he looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, yet the bush was not consumed. So Moses said, “I must turn aside now and see this marvelous sight, why the bush is not burned up.” When the LORD saw that he turned aside to look, God called to him from the midst of the bush and said, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” (Exodus 3:1-4)
“Here I am.” Full stop.
Moses uttered not another word for quite a while. He listened. And, while still silent, “Then Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” A visceral response. Fear. Imagine this: the invisible God made a man shudder.
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Prayer brings you into the presence of God, does it not? How, then, do you pray? I know how most of us Christians pray. We barge into God’s presence, blurting out demands like the spoiled child of a king. No one else in the throne room matters. We believe that we, above all others, have the ear of the king, as if He has nothing else to do, as if we are more important than anyone or anything else. There is little, if any, regard for the stature of Him who is sitting on the throne. When we pray, we are like the Gentiles, who “suppose that they will be heard for their many words.” We immediately get to business letting God know what we want Him to do next. We do this because we do not know any better. We do not know God. If we did, and if we were in His presence, like Moses, we would be silent. Full stop.
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By way of both instruction and example, I have been taught that, when I pray, I should simply begin talking and that God in heaven will hear my prayers. Indeed, in response to the disciples’ query, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus responded, “Pray, then, in this way: ‘Our Father who is in heaven, Hallowed be Your name…” In other words, just kneel down and start in. Get right to it. I have to wonder, though: If the so-called “Lord’s prayer” represents the quintessential model for prayer, what was Jesus doing all night when, “…He went off to the mountain to pray, and He spent the whole night in prayer to God”? Did He pray the “Lord’s prayer” and then watch the stars travel across the night sky for the next 8 hours? Even if we were to be slightly less sarcastic, what did he do all night? Given the context of this verse in Luke 6, it would appear that Jesus was quite concerned about the fact that on the morrow, he would be making a fateful decision about the composition of the Twelve. How long would it take you to pray about this? Eight hours? Really, now, what was Jesus doing all night long?
Clearly, Jesus’ instruction in Luke 6, while useful, does not represent a full answer to the disciples’ query. The question remains: How should I pray? Looking at how Moses first encountered God might be a useful place to start since Moses and I, at this period in our respective lives, have much in common. Neither one of us have a whole lot of experience being in God’s literal presence. Since he plowed this ground first, maybe I can learn something that will keep me from making a stupid mistake.
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There is no indication in the Scriptures that Moses prayed even once during his forty years in the wilderness. We simply do not know the answer to this question, but I would submit that, even if he did, Moses’ prayers would have resembled mine over the last forty years: anemic, undisciplined, and largely selfish. But at the burning bush, everything changed. When Moses turned aside to see the burning bush, he was going to engage, not with the idea of God or the theology of God or his limited, private understanding of God, but with God Himself and I imagine he was doing so for the first time.
In this encounter with God, Moses was not the first to speak. God spoke first, telling Moses to take off his shoes because “the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” I imagine Moses scanning the local landscape thinking, “Holy ground? This dirt looks just like all the other dirt on this mountain! And, besides, four-hundred of my sheep traipsed through here just last week.” No, Moses, it is holy ground. This was the first thing that Moses had to learn. Everything has changed. A flock of sheep may have marched across this ground an hour ago, but now it is holy. Likewise, when I pray, the place where I am praying is holy. It is holy ground. This is the place where God meets me. Several people walk on the floor where I pray. But when I pray, it is holy ground.
And when I pray, I am silent. Instead of asking, at this point, “Of what benefit is silence?”, we should ask, “What is the benefit of speaking?” If I open my mouth, there is no chance that God will learn anything. He does not fill out His agenda based on my to-do list. He is not looking to me to solve His problems. He does not need me to speak in order to learn what my needs are. Neither one of us should trust my perception that “what I want” will be any good for me. Most importantly, if I speak, I will not hear Him, and that is what I need more than anything else in life. “It takes more than bread to stay alive. It takes a steady stream of words from God’s mouth.” (Matt 4:4, The Message)
Sometimes I am silent for 5 or 10 minutes. It does not seem like prayer. What do I know? I am just a beginner. What I do know is that I am on holy ground, and God is there. He is most certainly there. Two days ago, He made me shudder.