Chaplain Norris Burkes

Chaplain Norris Burkes. Photo by Wade Spees. June 6, 2014.

“Don’t you ever listen to your voicemail?” asked a 92-year-old hospice patient whose tone pronounced her assumption.

I returned a puzzled expression and she revved up her rant.

“I left you a message requesting a visit last week, but you never came.”

“No, I’m sorry,” I said, unsure how I’d missed the message.

“That’s OK,” she said, glancing at her diminishing body. “God’s not returning my calls these days either.”

The nonagenarian was expressing a sentiment familiar to all ages.

“God isn’t answering my prayers,” or “God is ignoring me.” Or, as another patient expressed earlier the same day, “I thought dying would feel more spiritual than this.”

While I hear the hurt in these statements, I’m sometimes able to cajole them with this piece of advice: “Stop badmouthing God behind his back.”

Prayer should express exactly what we are thinking. If you’re mad at God, I encourage you to stand up and shake your fist at him. Tell him to his face, not behind his back. That’s right, God overhears your complaints to friends about him not taking your calls.

A grandmother once told me that she’s not been on speaking terms with God since her granddaughter died.

“I understand that.” I paused then added, “And if I can relate, God will definitely understand.”

I encourage people to cut out the middleman. Look toward the heavens. Speak to God face-to-face. Begin with, “Hey, God! This life stinks!”

I love Anne Lamott’s observation that the two best prayers in existence are “Help me. Help me. Help me” and “Thank You. Thank You. Thank You.”

I have a chaplain friend who sometimes expresses her frustration with an, “Oh-my-God!”

If she senses a disapproving look from me, she’s quick to claim, “That was a prayer!”

“Not sure that counts,” I tell her, “but I get it.” God wants to hear about our frustrations in an authentic way.

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My advice to speak your mind to God usually settles people’s attention long enough to help them see how prayers can be like paintings: They needn’t follow the formats of traditions, language or posture. Like art, prayers should reveal who we are and what we are feeling.

With that artistic analogy, I often challenge my patients to explore three questions.

  • How do I pray? Loose the greeting card language. Prayer should be conversational. God isn’t swayed with our use of King James English or our command of iambic pentameter. (Yeah, I had to look that one up too.)
  • Where can I pray? Prayer may bring us to our knees or put us prostrate on an altar, but it needn’t begin there. To paraphrase Dr. Seuss’ “Green Eggs and Ham,” we can pray “in a house, with a mouse … here or there, we can pray everywhere.”
  • When do I pray? Any time. All the time. It doesn’t matter if it’s been forever since you said the Lord’s Prayer or expressed anything remotely prayerful. Prayer doesn’t have an expiration date.

Finally, when the anger recedes — and it will — sit down or lie back and begin speaking to God like a friend. Speak to him like you did to your best friend on one of those all-night, half-awake sleepovers. Tell him your secrets, tell him your fears.

Or maybe talk to God like you are talking with your spouse, emulating those kneecap-to-kneecap sessions you had while working out the trying moments of your relationship.

Maybe you could picture your departed mother and pray like you’re talking to your mom, late at night, over the kitchen bar, mapping out your life plan.

These are the best conversational guides I know that will help you articulate your thoughts to God.

Last of all, if you want to share your prayer requests with me, I’d be honored to pray them with you. Write to me at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602.

And I promise, if you leave me a voicemail at 843-608-9715, I’ll check them, religiously. Groaning pun intended.

Contact Norris Burkes at comment@thechaplain.net or 10566 Combie Road, Suite 6643, Auburn, CA 95602 or voicemail 843-608-9715.