Let us pray. With these words we close our eyes, bow our heads, fold our hands together and . . then what?

We wait for the minister to continue speaking. We reach out to still a squiggly child. We start a grocery list in our heads for the quick stop at the convenience store on the way home. We become immersed in thinking about a project at work that has occupied us mentally for most of the weekend. Chances are good that praying privately can find us running the same gamut of interruptions and distractions in our thoughts.

Our culture has decided fairly recently that it is okay to use the word prayer in general conversation. Newscasters, talk show hosts and their guests, television characters mention keeping people in their prayers or praying that a situation will work itself out for everybody's best interests. There is conversation about prayer, and some fictional programs do feature characters who visit the hospital chapel for a private moment with God. But overall, lots of talk, not that much action. It feels as though “We're all praying for you” has replaced “I'll bring over a casserole” as the modern version of comfort language. There's a whole lot less investment. People are pretty clear what it means when the casserole shows up, but are a little less clear when the prayer isn't shared in person, or if it is being offered at all. There's no dish to clean up and return, so where is the real support?

Church, culture, and a word used very easily in conversation, but perhaps not so consciously engaged or understood as a clear, powerful action. We follow the ritual every Sunday and at other points during the week, at vesper services, weddings, Bible studies and fellowship gatherings. We nod at the television screen, pleased that celebrities aren't afraid to at least imply their belief in God. But what are we really saying to ourselves and to each other about our own faith and about this thing called prayer?

First, what is prayer?

The Bible gives various examples of how we should go about praying and presents specific prayers we still use today, including the Magnificat and the Lord's Prayer. But it is the dictionary that gives us a gimpse into our cultural understanding of prayer. The definition of prayer in the Oxford Dictionary includes prayer as a solemn request or thanksgiving to God, or to entreat or beseech, to ask earnestly. It also mentions prayer as a formula or a form of words used while praying, such as the Lord's Prayer. In short, we are asking God for what we want, being polite and expressing our gratitude and sometimes trusting familiar words to carry us through the process. That's what the dictionary reflects of our culture, but is that how you understand prayer in your life? We are all part of our culture, but our experiences may or may not match this definition.

The Interperter's Dictionary of the Bible offers several ideas about prayer that broaden and deepen our understanding of the meaning of prayer itself. This resource points out that the Bible moves the idea of prayer as magic to prayer as spiritual communion with God. It goes on to say that prayer is an identification with God's will and action in the world. And, finally, prayer between us and God is designed to affect the nature and cause of our relationship with God. What is most interesting is that all of this depends on how the nature of God is conceived, and, I would add, perceived.

What is clear about this understanding of prayer is that there is a relational basis, a communion, a journeying together in mutual understanding and purpose, an engagement with God. From Moses, to Mary, to Jesus, to Paul and untold, and unnamed people, before, during and after their lives, it is clear that prayer is about more than words sent out on a brisk wind toward heaven.

How these definitions fit or don't fit your life brings us to the second question of this article. What is prayer to you? Is it a series of requests, expressions of gratitude and the Lord's Prayer at bedtime? Is prayer a series of conversations through the day with God about what is going on in your world and the larger world, leaving some silences for God's input or direction? Perhaps your life, like most people's, is a combination of both. Both definitions begin with the acknowledgment of God and some level of engagement of God's presence in the world. Both are saying that prayer is communication with God. How far they move beyond that point are drastically different, as are the results and meaningfulness in our lives as prayer practitioners.

How we perceive prayer, its importance and viability in our lives, directly depends on how we view God in our lives. Do we value and respect our relationship with God enough to pay attention to it with regular, mutual communication, the kind in which both parties talk and listen to each other? If prayer by definition is communication with God, how we engage in or withdraw from that process speaks volumes about how we perceive our relationship with God and how it impacts our lives. How much do you want God to influence your life? How much do you want to impact your world and the world around you as part of this communication with God?

What is prayer. That question can be answered simply. Prayer is communication with God. What is prayer to you? That is a tougher answer. Only you can determine the level of quality or value of prayer in your own life.

Author's Bio: 

The Rev. Cory L. Kemp, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin - Green Bay with a double major in Communication and the Arts and Social Change and Development and a minor in Women's Studies, was ordained into the ministry of the Moravian Church in North America after completing her Master of Divinity degree studies through Moravian Theological Seminary. Over twenty-five years of experience in individual and community ministries gives Rev. Kemp an informed perception about faith, its implications and struggles in everyday life. Rev. Kemp focuses her work on helping people understand their faith and how faith can become transformational in their lives. Bring authentic, meaningful faith into your daily life by visiting www.creatingwomenministries.com.