The language of Prayer by Kimberlee Conway Ireton

by Christine Sine

Today’s post in the Lenten series Return to Our Senses is written by Kimberlee Conway Ireton who has embarked on a Year of Prayer. To help hold her accountable to this commitment to live more prayerfully, she promised herself (and her blog readers) that she’d write about (some of) her prayer experiences.

My twins are napping, my oldest is at the pool, swimming with a friend, and my daughter and I are sharing a rare moment of just-the-two-of-us time. I make tea, while she sets out teacups and saucers, bread and jam. When the tea has steeped, I pour it into our cups, and we sit together, talking a little between sips of tea and bites of jammy bread. The late afternoon sun slants through the dining room window, falling across the table, across the tea tray, onto Jane’s dress.

It is a moment of no import. Once it has passed, I forget all about it—until days later when I meet with my spiritual director, and she asks me where God has met me this past month. We sit in silence as I wait for God to speak, to reveal to me His presence in my life these past weeks. And the image that comes to mind is of Jane and me, sitting at the dining room table, drinking tea. In my mind’s eye, the sunlight streaming into the room seems to be the very presence of God.

Later still, I re-read chapter three of Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer, about the language of prayer, in which he claims that prayer is, first, the language of desperation, of someone in trouble who needs help, deliverance, redemption. It is “primal language,” the language of a baby who wails or fusses so that someone will feed her or change her diaper or pick her up or rock her to sleep. (Stay with me here, okay? This will connect back to that afternoon tea, I promise!)

Peterson goes on to sketch a rough map of language, dividing it into three levels: Language 1, the language of intimacy and relationship; Language 2, the language of information; and Language 3, the language of motivation. He outlines how we move through these stages of language as we grow from Language 1 in babyhood (“mama, dada”) to Language 2 in toddlerhood (“doll, table”) to Language 3 in childhood (“give me, I want”).

Languages 2 (information) and 3 (motivation) are the languages of school, the workplace, politics, and advertising. Our culture is very good at these languages. As we grow older, Peterson says, we don’t practice Language 1 (intimacy) much, and it withers.

But Language 1 is the primary language of prayer. Prayer is relational. It is intimate. It is very much like the language of that crying baby who cannot articulate her needs and can only cry out for someone to come help her, someone to come figure out what she wants or needs and give it to her.

This language of need is, I think, a language of being. It is, Peterson says, the language of those who recognize that they are in trouble and cannot help themselves, and who hope or maybe even believe that God can. It is our first language. And it is the language of prayer.

But we are unpracticed in this primal language of prayer. Learning to pray, Peterson says, is not learning something new, but rather recovering our first language. Intimacy is at our core. Relationship is at our core. To learn to pray, we must return to this core, to the first language we ever knew, the language of need, of trust, of relationship. That is where prayer begins.

Peterson then launches into a discussion of Psalm 3 by observing that, at the very center of the prayer, after the initial cry for help, the psalmist lay down and slept and woke again (vs 4). “Three verbs,” Peterson says, “describe what everyone does each evening, night, and morning: lie down, go to sleep, get up. These actions are prayer.”

As I read those words, I thought again of that moment at the dining room table with Jane. I can’t remember what she said, or what I said. But what we said is less important than who we were—a mother and a daughter quietly enjoying one another’s company. We were living, for a moment, the intimate, relational language of prayer, a language born of trouble and need but maturing into mutual pleasure and delight and enjoyment.

Sipping tea, talking softly so as not to wake the babies, enjoying sunlight streaming through the window—these actions are prayer.

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mark lloyd richardson March 8, 2013 - 10:53 am

Looking at the language of prayer as primal, relational language is helpful. I have always appreciated Peterson’s insights, and this was a beautiful example of how God meets each of us in the ordinary events of life if we are paying attention.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton March 16, 2013 - 10:43 am

Thanks, Mark. I appreciate Peterson’s insights, too, and I always need the reminder to pay attention to what God is doing right where I am!

Anonymous March 12, 2013 - 9:02 am

Thank you for these words! I love the language breakdown. And I love the image of a mom and daughter, sharing time and a meal.

I cried so deeply and powerfully at church this past Sunday that I had to find a quiet space for myself. I couldn’t articulate very well what I was crying about. However, it was the deepest prayer that I’ve prayed in a while. However, I didn’t see this crying as prayer until I read your post.

It was messy, runny, makeup-mussing prayer. It filled my cup.

Kimberlee Conway Ireton March 16, 2013 - 10:42 am

Tears are prayer, one of the real-est, truest prayers we pray, because they come from deep within. I think sometimes tears are the groaning of the Spirit made manifest in our bodies. I’m so glad you were able to see your tears as prayer. And so glad you felt filled even as you were emptied. What a beautiful paradox that is!

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