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having a conversation with God

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Prayer. It seems so easy and so difficult at the same time. Hans Urs von Balthasar writes these words about prayer:

"Most Christians are convinced that prayer is more than the outward performance of an obligation, in which we tell God things he already knows. It is more than a kind of daily waiting attendance on the exalted Sovereign who receives his subjects' homage morning and evening. And although many Christians experience in pain and regret that their prayer gets no further than this lowly stage, they are sure, nonetheless, that there should be more to it. In this field there lies a hidden treasure, if only I could find it and dig it up. This seed has the power to become a mighty tree bearing blossoms and fruit, if only I would plant and tend it. This hard and distasteful duty would yield the freest and most blessed kind of life, if only I could open and surrender myself to it." [1]

I often have the sense that there is so much more to conversing with the Creator of the Universe than I am experiencing, and yet, I don't quite know how to move from my present habits and words and groans to a more profound and fruitful communication with the Lover of my soul. If we think of prayer as dialogue or conversation with God, perhaps the rules of good conversation might provide some insight into the area of prayer. I recently came across an article which expounds on the 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist [2] and when I read it within the context of conversing with God, I found that a lot of the principles apply.

1. Be genuinely interested in the person. Who are they? What is on their mind? What motivates them? In the context of prayer, are we interested in who God is? Do we spend time asking about him? Do we talk about topics that are not centred around us but around him?
2. Focus on the positives. Rather than talk about past grievances, opt for a discussion of future goals. Are our prayers filled mostly with complaints or problems or do we talk about projects we would like to do together with God?
3. Converse, do not debate or argue. This is not a platform to air your opinions, not a battleground to win. Be ready to chat, discuss, and hash things out, but amiably. Allow for things to be left open-ended. In other words, are we open to hear things from God that we don't agree with? And are we willing to leave room for more discussion next time instead of having everything spelled out today?
4. Respect: Don't impose, criticize, judge, or demand. Respect the other's space, point of view, and choices. If we listen to our prayers, we just might find that we lapse into imposing our ideas and choices onto God instead of respecting his ways, timing, and process.
5. Put the person in her/her best light. Give credit where credit is due. Don't assume you know why they did something unless they explicitly tell you. Look for ways to make them look good. Are our prayers filled with graciousness in how we interpret God's actions or non-actions? Do we reaffirm God's lovingkindness toward all of creation, even when we might be having a bad day?
6. Embrace differences while building on commonalities. Appreciate their uniqueness. Build on common links. Use both difference and commonality to reveal more about both of you. When talking about a divine/human relationship, we can tend to focus too much on God's distance from us, both in goodness and in ability or power. Or perhaps we think of Jesus as our buddy and are overly familiar in our prayers. Let us make room for recognising common ground (Jesus) as well as appreciating God's holy uniqueness in our prayers.
7. Be true to yourself. Don't cover up who you are. Be real. Don't just mime what the other person is saying or do what you think is expected. God already knows us better than we know ourselves, so there is no advantage to putting on an act. Let our conversations with God be filled with integrity and humility.
8. 50-50 sharing. Both parties should have equal opportunities to contribute to the conversation. Don't do all the talking. Pose questions and listen. Yes, one hundred times yes.
9. Ask purposeful questions. To have a meaningful conversation, ask meaningful questions. Get to know a person better by asking good questions. I know that sometimes my questions in prayer are pitiful, rhetorical, or vague and not at all thoughtful. We can all learn to ask better questions, even of God.
10. Give and take. Give someone the benefit of the doubt. Put things in a larger context to get perspective. I believe this also means that we should be good at both giving and receiving. Prayer can be a lively exchange, a respectful silence, a pouring out of our concern or grief, a search for guidance, or an intimate exchange between friends. Sometimes we will be on the giving end more than the receiving end; other times we will be happy to listen and sit quietly. Let us cultivate both skills.

"Prayer is dialogue, not man's monologue before God." [3]

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer (San Francisco: Ignatius Press), 13.
[2] Celestine Chua, "Art of Conversing: Do You Meet These 10 Rules of a Great Conversationalist?" http://personalexcellence.co/blog/conversation/.
[3] Balthasar, 14.

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