The Practice of Being Present to God {Book Club}

Before we dive in, thanks for the book suggestions! I think we’ll read an Elizabeth Von Arnim novel in February. I’ve only read An Enchanted April and call it “my go-to happy novel.” So as I poked around for free books, I read reviews of her other books and it turns out writing happy books is kind of her thing. Then we’ll read a book Beth suggested in May when we finish Expectations and Burnout. 

Alright clubbers, anyone misread this chapter title? I mean other than me? I got so excited when the chapter about God being present fell on the week of Christmas. And then I started reading in An Altar in the World by Barbara Brown Taylor.

Oh, this is the Practice of Being Present to God. Not quite the same as practicing God being present to me. 

This turned out to be my most marked up chapter so far. I love the language of viewing prayer as practicing being present to God. It breathed life into what can often feel like something we should be doing more of.

Pain and suffering struck a chord with us last week and we had a rich discussion. I wonder if the topic of prayer will result in shame and shoulds  and result in some of us hiding behind the busyness of the week (a legitimate reason not to engage in book club) in order to avoid engaging a topic as wide, rich, and complex as the ocean. All this to say, no shame, no guilt, just an invitation to chat.

“I am a failure at prayer. When people ask me about my prayer life, I feel like a bulimic must feel when people ask about her favorite dish. My mind starts scrambling for ways to hide my problem.”

I LOVE this. Who among us hasn’t said to someone, “I’ll pray for you.” Knowing full well you wouldn’t and then felt guilty about it?

“To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life but I do not breathe much. The only way I have found to survive my shame is to come at the problem from both sides, expelling two distinct possibilities: 1) that prayer is more than my idea of prayer and 2) that some of what I actually do in my life may constitute genuine prayer.”

The word I can’t shake as I read this is “expansive.” Growing up, and I mean this as no slam to my childhood rearing but more as an observation, I picked up the idea that prayer involved words and bowing your head. I knew it could be silent or spoken out loud and corporate or individual.

What I missed was that reverent prayer, like this, was one form of prayer. Not the sum total of prayer. In adulthood I’ve been able to broaden my understanding and practice of prayer to be more in line with what Barbara describes. But I rarely speak of  it because I might appear a bit too outside of the flock. And to show I’m a bit all over the board, I’m also more drawn to liturgy than ever before.

Once again, Barbara has offered us a variety of topics.

What did you think of her distinction between prayer and prayers?

Or when she tackled answered prayer this way: “The problem, I think, is that divine response to prayer is one of those beauties that remain in the eye of the beholder. What sounds like an answer to one person sounds like silence to another. What seems like a providentially big fish to someone registers as blind luck for someone else.”

These practices overlap like a glorious venn diagram. The practice of being present to God can be woven in with waking up to God, paying attention, wearing skin, walking on the earth, getting lost, encountering others, living with purpose, saying no, carrying water, and feeling pain.

My heart is for this discussion to breathe life into you and not heap shame or hiding. It’s important we create space to have these chats. How have you thought about prayer? What has helped you grow in this area? What holds you back or discourages you? What else did you highlight or underline in this chapter?

Grab a cup and let’s chat. I enjoy these talks, thanks for commenting :),


P.S. Next week we finish this book with an exploration of the Practice of  Pronouncing Blessing

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Photo Credit: Unsplash


  1. Jenny December 22, 2014

    When I finished this chapter I could not wait to talk about it here, more than any other chapter, hoping to distill my cluttered thoughts and let others’ insights maybe clarify some of my own confusion.

    So first I want to talk about this idea of prayers vs. prayer.  Like you, Amy, I grew up with mostly associating prayer with a certain form, and have loved experiencing many different forms of culture and tradition now.  Many of the books I’ve read about prayer have this same idea of prayer being these more expansive (great word!) concepts and I like that.  But, please bear with me, I struggle actually believing that is true.  All the chapters leading up to this are, just as you said, specific ways in which we can be present to God, I believe that totally.  But is prayer the right description for that?  I have read beautiful writing based in experiences of believers that would persuade me, but when I look in Scripture I’m just not sure.

    I believe there is great meaning and worth in sitting with God, of being totally aware i’m alive in every part of me, serving others in love,  and so forth (these are the ideas that I have heard defined as prayer).  But I am not sure that ‘prayer’ is the word for them, or why I feel like, ‘whew, if all these things are prayer, then I am okay in the prayer category, but if it’s a more narrow practice, then I am behind.’  Why do I long for those things to ‘count’ as prayer and not just receive and enjoy them in themselves?  Why do I need a spiritual label for them?  God is leading me out of performance in other areas of my life so I know He wants that in prayer too.  Thoughts?!?!  Am I explaining my confusion coherently?

    1. Amy Young December 23, 2014

      Jenny you are! (Explaining your thoughts clearly, that is). And now I feel I need to take a pause and do a bit more exploring of what scripture says about prayer. I’m grateful for the recorded prayers — like that super long one for dedicating the temple by Solomon — such a great prayer to work though in community because it hits on basically everything. And for “the Lord’s prayer” (even that is comforting that the disciples asked Jesus to teach them how to pray and in essence that what this discussion is about. Love it! Scripture mentions times when there simply are no words. OK, I need to think on this more. But I do have a sense prayer means more than we think and there is freedom in that. Will reflect and return. Others, please chime in as you’re able to this week!


  2. Jenny December 22, 2014

    I disagree with her ‘the answer is in the eye of the beholder’ conclusion.  If I am a believer that God hears and acts when I ask, it seems pretty crappy for me to interpret answers as happenstance.  If my child longs and asks for a new bike and I give them one and they say, ‘huh, I guess it was good luck this new bike appeared,’ it would bring into question their trust and belief in me.  Of course sometimes I wouldn’t give the child the  bike( and that’s a whole other discussion!) but when a request is made and answered, it speaks love and trust into that relationship, as it does between God and us His daughters.

    I realize this analogy is oversimplification and there are plenty of times an answer is not clear but I was surprised that she seemed to think that a big fish could equally soundly be received as providence or blind luck.  🙂

    1. Amy Young December 23, 2014

      Hmmm now I want to go and reread this part (which is good! and why I love reading in community) — I didn’t get the sense Barbara was saying answered prayer is happenstance (but I haven’t reread it, so these now are merely my recollections of what she said and not an actual verification of it :)). I guess my interpretation of  “answered prayer is in the eye of the beholder” was a way to hold the mystery and concreteness together. Prayer, and other aspects of God, do not work like a vending machine — put a certain amount in and push the right button and you’re virtually guaranteed the out come. YET, it’s also not one big crap shot. As you say, God is a loving God who does see and care about us. Will also think on this part some more :). This is good for me, I can get moving through things too quickly.

  3. Elizabeth December 23, 2014

    Amy! I really want to interact on this topic, but with it being the holiday week, I may not get to it till Friday or Saturday . . . In the meantime, have a very Merry Christmas!!

    1. Amy Young December 23, 2014

      Elizabeth (and others!) — I get it! Let’s all feel released to show up whenever this week and on into the next. Read what others are thinking, review the chapter, add thoughts and questions. No pressure :). And for the first time this year, I’m trying to separate Advent from “Christmas” — it’s a bit disorienting that “Christmas” will start for me on Thursday and go on for 12 days :). I’m used to it being about done by Christmas night. All that to say, grace to each of us as we are present to one another in this season. Even in the subject of prayer, we can see how much we need Jesus to come and teach us :). Whenever you, fellow clubber, can join in, we welcome you.

  4. Elizabeth December 28, 2014

    I’m finally back 🙂 I actually laughed when she said, “To say I love God but I do not pray much is like saying I love life, but I do not breathe much.” Funny, bad, and true. I also have, over the past year, learned more about set/structured prayer, and I appreciated her perspective that “the categories in the prayer book were for sharpening my intention, not for winning God’s attention.” I think that’s very important when addressing any of the spiritual disciplines. They are not for earning God’s favor, but they are for us, to help us feel closer to Him, to position us to experience more fullness and abundance in Him.

    I was intrigued by the assertion that prayers are not the same thing as prayer. Still not quite sure what that means. Interestingly, my word for this year was “pray.” And as always, the direction i think my word will go in, is only part of God has in store for a year, and not all. 12 months later, “pray” is still a huge part of my focus, but it has shifted from just praying for the city i live in, to having more experience of prayer, and a relationship with God that is . . . different. I’m reading another book on prayer at the moment, and have had ample time to wrestle with God over some issues this past fall, praying over and over again and not always understanding the things he was saying to me, yet recording them anyway, and hoping they sink in at a later date!

    The section on “does prayer work, or doesn’t it?” was very important, i had lots of underlines there! Like when she talked about the predictable crises, like running into a wall of God’s apparent non-responsiveness. And the pressure we sometimes put on our selves for our prayers to be perfect, or at least good enough that God will hear and answer in our preferred way, and in our preferred timing. Take, for instance, my husband’s parents, who both died of incredibly aggressive cancers. He no longer believes people who think if you “just pray the right way, with enough faith,” physical healing will come. So many people prayed for his parents to be healed, including his own parents, and himself. If we subscribe to those ideas of our prayers needing to be good enough, then we are a failure when healing doesn’t come. But he can’t believe that, that all those people’s prayers just didn’t have enough faith to heal his parents.

    I sometimes talk with people who think the wording of prayer needs to be very precise, that unless you use specific and carefully chosen words and also pray with an excessively confident voice (especially when talking about spiritual warfare), that the prayers will not work. But when we visited the counselor before moving overseas, he really allayed my fears about that. He said the prayers don’t have to be perfect. You’re just talking to God. He loves us and cares about us, we don’t have to invoke special, powerful vocabulary. All we have to do is talk to God. That was so helpful!

    And then admitting she doesn’t know any way to “talk about answered prayer without sound like a huckster or a honeymooner.” This is so true! Depending on where i am at spiritually, i either love, or hate, people’s stories of answered prayer.

    So i do agree with Barbara, that “divine response to prayer is one of those beauties that remain in the eye of the beholder.” Specific, concrete answers to prayer, obviously don’t fit in this category, but many of my prayers are not concrete. They are abstract. They are asking God to change my heart, they are asking God to come in to a situation, to sit with me, to show me things in His word. So in that light, yes, the beauty is in the eye of the beholder, because the prayer is such a personal thing between me and God. And often the answers one person might get in a certain situation, would not satisfy another person, which is why we have to be careful in lecturing to other people how they should approach their own problems. God is more specific and personalized than that.

    In fact, that is why i so appreciate it when people don’t just tell people WHAT to believe about their problems, they tell you what to do about them: take it to God. He can answer the questions. That’s what the sermon was this morning in church, actually, and it mirrored much of what my husband and i have been learning about prayer lately. I so appreciated when she (yes, she) said to take the questions to God, and how she looked at the book of Habakkuk (and Job a little), and said, they had these questions, and then suddenly at the end of both books their demeanor changes. They had a spiritual experience, an encounter, wherein God spoke to them, and so they were able to change their perspective. But it only works when God himself does the speaking. It’s an internal thing. We can preach the “correct doctrines to believe” all day long, and that will NOT answer the deep questions and the persistent doubts. Only an experience of the Living God can do that, and i think that’s what prayer is, and why it’s so undefinable, and why other people’s answers won’t always satisfy me. Knowing God came through for someone’s finances, or other concrete things, those are helpful and edifying, to know God is working in someone else’s lives, and to increase my faith in His faithfulness. But the way God deals with our doubts and questions, that is so personal, and the answers sometimes satisfy only me (or whoever is doubting and praying).

    Wow, that was another long comment, but again, this has been my focus for the year, so i have lots of thoughts. . . I will end by repeating her ending prayer, which i LOVED:

    All I did was light the candles.

              Did God find me or did I find God?


              The time for words is past.

    1. Amy Young December 29, 2014

      As always, Elizabeth, it’s a treat to read your thoughts (especially in light of prayer being your word for the year and the ways that has brought an added layer of intentionality).

      You had me at Habakuk! I love that book 🙂 (side note, I was asked years ago to speak at a Saturday Women’s “Mug and Muffin” and I asked back if I could speak on whatever I wanted — I just couldn’t stomach another Mary and Martha talk — and my teaser was “Who was the only prophet to speak for the people to God instead of God to the people?”). As you said, Habakuk asks BIG and Significant and To The Point questions of God and God is willing to engage him. Yet by the end, final versus of chapter 3 are the true desire of my heart — that ultimately, no matter what happens, I will still praise the Lord.

      And then Job! What I have grown to appreciate about Job (the book) is the length. This is no short book. The prayers and discussions go on and on. We do not have to race through and land on the “right answer” when life throws us massive curve balls (or even not so massive or not so curvy). I realize more and more how the culture I come from has programed me for “fast” and “quick” in ways I didn’t think it had.


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