Keith, you talk a lot about prayer being an important part of your life over the past forty-five years, particularly since you made a decision to try to surrender your whole life to the God Jesus called Father. I have two questions. First, how and when did you get introduced to praying? The other question is about whether the way you pray has changed or evolved over these many years. If so, how?
These are perceptive questions. I could (and may—but not now) write a book to deal with them. But for now I’ll just start by telling you about a time when I was a little boy, probably four years old. One night my mother was putting me to bed, and she changed our routine. She always sat on the edge of the bed and would leisurely ask me about my day and we’d visit. Then she would say a prayer. I have no memory of what she prayed about, but I loved her being present, and the sound of her voice.
But one night after the sharing time, she said, “Johnny*, God is listening for you to pray, to talk to him.”
I said, “You mean God is actually here in this room with us??”
Seeing the look of apprehension on my face, she said, “Yes, and he knows all about you, has forgiven you of your sins, and loves you very much.” Then, smiling, she kissed me on the forehead, tucked me in and left, leaving me in the dark with a thin shaft of light from the almost-closed door.
I looked up in the left-hand corner of the darkened room (somehow placing God there) and pulled the covers up to my neck. All I could think of were the nasty things I’d done in that room when I’d thought I was alone that I certainly wouldn’t have wanted God to know about. But then I remembered that mother had said, “…and he knows all about you, he’s forgiven you for your sins and loves you very much.”
So finally I whispered, “Thank you very much.” And my prayer life had begun.
As to how my prayer life changed during the next seventy-nine years, I don’t know when I realized various things about God and about myself. But I can say that for years, praying was something I did, mostly at night. But after the last member of my family died and I surrendered my entire life to God (not realizing how little I knew about my behavior and its effect on other people) my prayer life changed from just expression of gratitude and requests for help. I now wanted to be God’s person, so I began to ask God to let me know what I should do and to help me do those things. Later, after I wrote my first book and it was published in eleven languages, a lot of my prayers had to do with gratitude and a desire for guidance.
Then when I was forty-seven years old, there were serious problems and conflict in a marriage of twenty-seven years. I prayed for “solutions”—that would (I now realize) change my wife—although consciously I thought I was praying for our marriage to change. But I had developed a strange blindness that made it difficult (impossible) for me to see the extent to which I was out of touch with my own reality. I found myself giving God “weekends off” somehow.
Finally through a very agonizing divorce (primarily due to my self-centered, immoral behavior) I continued to pray, but the sense of intimacy with God was no longer real somehow.
After the divorce I began to try to find out who I now was. I had to face the fact that I drank too much and didn’t even want to quit. But finally in 1985 I went to a treatment center and there I learned about my intense self-centeredness, my addictive personality and my unconscious denial of unpleasant personal characteristics. Ironically I was praying the whole time, praying to be able to see the truth that was so baffling to me. Then at the end of treatment I had a gut-wrenching night of reality in which I vividly saw my selfishness and how much pain it had caused not only my first wife, but my children and some of my friends and business associates.
The resulting surrender of my life including all the previously denied “putting myself in the driver’s seat of my life where only God belonged” put me into an entire new place in my prayers. I had become more like a small child not knowing what to do with my life. There was a deeper quality of asking God what I should do and be. In addition to praying, I read the Bible and all kinds of books about recovery and the lives of people who had surrendered to God. And I consciously “took my hands off the wheel” each morning and listened harder for directions. I learned to ask for and trust people enough to take directions, to move toward recovery, and to share the larger awarenesses I was coming to in my daily attempts to live for God one day at a time.
During this period I prayed to discover God’s perspective concerning all of life—and for knowledge of anything else about which I might be in denial so that I could surrender the newly discovered deceptive and harmful thoughts and behaviors to God, asking him to help me remove them.
For about twenty-five years I lived in a world that I had not even known existed as I tried to help other people to find God, people who had never seen their own self-destructive issues of control and self-centeredness and the problems their blindness was causing. And since I was no longer hiding any areas of my behavior from myself or from God, my prayer life was much more tranquil. I felt peace and acceptance inside for the first time ever. During this time I traveled, spoke and wrote books in the field of codependence, control issues, the twelve-step spiritual process and business management. And although these were dramatic years of working with other troubled people in different countries, many of whose languages I did not speak, it was a time in which my prayer life became more who I was than what I did. Communication with God was often all through my days and nights.
Finally, I realized that although I was no longer recognized in airports or when attending public meetings, I was more at home with God, myself and people who were running from God (and secretly hoping God would catch them) than I was with many of the Christians I’d known.
During the last five years my prayer life has become more of a running dialogue with God that seems somehow natural for me. Prayer is not so much a series of staccato cries or requests for help as it is an attitude of intimate listening and sharing in a life in which I am learning how to love other people as I have felt loved by God and some of his other recovering children.
Almost every personal encounter becomes a chance to listen to and learn about the wonderful stories of all kinds of people. And sometimes now as an old man I can see small ways in which I can help some of them see the good things and value in who they are—things which self-centered parents (like me) may never have gotten around to telling them. All this is part of what I now see as my prayer life. And at the end of the day I feel inside like a little boy who has an intimate contact with a Daddy who created the whole game of life, about which I have an insatiable hunger to learn.
Lord, thank you for your invitation into a healing relationship with you. As I move through my days, help me to hear your guidance and feel your love and to learn how to share that life with other people. In Jesus’ name, amen.
“In prayer there is a connection between what God does and what you do. You can’t get forgiveness from God, for instance, without also forgiving others. If you refuse to do your part, you cut yourself off from God’s part.”
– Matthew 6:14, The Message
“He who has learned to pray has learned the greatest secret of a holy and happy life.”
– William Law (1686 –1761)
British minister and one of the writers/translators
of the King James version of the Bible
“Prayer does not change God, but it changes him who prays.”
– Sören Kierkegaard (1813 –1855)
Danish Christian philosopher, theologian and religious author
“Prayer may not change things for you, but it for sure changes you for things.”
– Samuel M. Shoemaker (1893–1963),
Episcopal priest, instrumental in the
founding principles of Alcoholics Anonymous.
* My first name is John.