Before my family moved to Pakistan, prayer was relegated to the Sunday morning church service, the evening service and Wednesday night prayer meeting at McLauren Baptist Church. Our family had “family devotions–a daily time for short Bible readings and prayers–and we prayed before each meal. However my perspective on prayer was largely first formed in Pakistan—the place where most of my childhood was lived out. Remarkably, these were lessons which Muslims who prayed taught me. Even now when I pray to the Father in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, I am nonetheless grateful for what I learned about prayer from my Muslim friends and neighbors.
I remember vividly those first weeks after our move to this unusual and new land. New sounds, new sights, new smells affronted my small self. Overwhelmed by the strangeness of it all I remember tears and a funny feeling in my tummy. I felt ill at ease as new friends prattled away with extraordinary sounds in an unaccustomed language. I felt disconnected and disjointed as I tried to make sense of it all. In the middle of all the chaos there was one sound, poignant, and pronounced, that I loved from the start and that was the Muslim Call to Prayer. Five times a day, loudly and intrusively, there came from the loudspeakers the invitation to pray from the muezzin. Chosen for his melodic voice, and possibly his volume, he called out the need to pray.
Admittedly it was bewildering at first. I remember playing during those first few days with some neighbor girls on my auntie’s front verandah. We were coloring, if my memory serves. Suddenly, out of the awkward silences that form when little girls who don’t know each other and can’t talk to each other, there was, what felt like, a cacophony of noise. I remember being startled by it. Soon the entire sky was filled with layer on layer of sound as other muezzins joined in from other mosques. As soon as it started the crescendo mounted, and equally suddenly it was over! Normal sounds of camel bells, and vegetable sellers and donkey brays and barking dogs quickly filled the space.
The call to prayer punctuated my childhood. As I look back on it now there are a few striking lessons I learned during those years. Here are a few of my thoughts on prayer and my Pakistani childhood:
- Pakistani Muslims, like their counterparts around the globe, bow to pray. Prayer is living and it involves motion and movement. There is a specific posture to each phase of the prayer. They stand, bow deeply, lower their foreheads to the floor, and sit. Pakistani Muslims understand intuitively the deep connection between body and soul and spirit. Their whole bodies are involved as they prostrate themselves humbly before God. They know they were created to worship and for them prayer is worship. The older I get the more I am realizing the profound truth that was modeled for me as a child. We are whole people. Our bodies are not disconnected from our inner reality. We go together, my body and I. As I watched Pakistanis, with their heads lowered before God, as they kept their bodies in line with their spirits, in seeming submission, I was challenged to bring my own self in alignment. Nowadays I occasionally raise my hands in supplication. Often I sit. Occasionally I pace out my petitions, walking back and forth before the Holy Throne of God. Often I kneel. Occasionally I bow face down before God, acting out what is true—that He is God and I am not. My prayers are directed to a Living God and often they are moving and motional.
- My entire theology on prayer expanded as I watched with childlike curiosity my neighbors pray. For them, prayer wasn’t static and quietly compartmentalized. Prayer was a part of every single day. There were no exceptions. If you were in the middle of something, you stopped to pray. If you were busy and distracted, you were called back to prayer. No one was exempt: the rich prayed, the poor prayed, the villager prayed, the city dweller prayed, the tribal elder prayed, the plains person prayed. They were a praying people and that influenced me in significant ways. Prayer became for me a normal requisite to a normal day.
- Pakistanis also understood the benefit of community in collective accountability. It was assumed: you pray, I pray, we all pray. Business contracts were paused while prayer mats were unrolled. Conversations over tea, kitchen gossip, homework all took a break for prayer. If your brother-in-law wasn’t praying you knew something was amiss. Everyone prayed. I love that community element. I love the structure that provides for a populace. There is routine and rhythms built around the call to prayer. It was this measured out, predictable schedule that warmed my heart to liturgical prayer. The stage of my heart was set for the high church’s loyalty to traditional written prayers. I love that those words have rung out in churches around the world and around the centuries. What stability is procured in that! I’ve always been intrigued by the monastic commitment to praying the liturgical hours. This official set of prayers marks the hours of each day and sanctifies the day with prayer: There is regularity in it. There is holy rhythm and purposeful pacing.
- The muezzin begins with a recitation of the Islamic creed. Millions of Muslims repeat back to themselves, no less than five times a day, what they believe to be true. There is great benefit in learning this lesson from our Muslim friends. We have the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. What if we too deliberately remembered what is true? What if we recited back to our weary-from-life souls the character of God, his faithfulness, his sacrifice, his provision? Imagine the reassurance that might wash over our reactive emotions, our crises, our desperations, our superficial happiness? We could learn a lot from this repetition of doctrine throughout each of our days.
- Growing up, I watched a whole community decide collectively to connect with God. They were given regular opportunities to have their obsessions with fickle and frail things pried away. I would love to claim that I learned this lesson as a child. I did not. But as I think of it now and reflect on it more, I wish I had. How often I’m distracted! How often I forget to remember my living connection with the Living God. I wish to live spiritually connected to the God who loves me and initiated relationship with me. I long to live from that reality all day long! Punctuating my day with intentional prayer would certainly help.
- The idea that we can talk to God baffles me and strikes me as marvelous. I firmly believe that every prayer need not start with “Dear God” and shouldn’t necessarily end with “Amen”. Some of our deepest groans and yearnings float up as prayer. A thought unbidden of a faraway friend surfaces memory and prayer. To-do lists sighed over are heard by our kind Father as the true prayers of our overwhelmed hearts. Tears and sorrows become intercessions and laments. If we bounce our hearts up to the divine we live out our prayers. I watched my Pakistani Muslim friends stop, toward the end of their ritual prayers, for the silent session of “dua”. This was the space in their recitations for them to lift up their hearts in prayer. They prayed for whatever was on their minds: a sick relative, a final exam, a financial need.
I love to pray. I don’t understand how it works but I believe it does. This is true, not because of who we are and how we pray, but because of who God is and how he receives the “earnest prayer of a righteous person (which) has great power and produces wonderful results” (James 5:16). I realize now that a lot of our thoughts on prayer are developed while we are yet formative—and for me that was when I was surrounded by Pakistan and her people of sincere faith. My theology on prayer is wider and deeper for having learned from them some on what it means to pray.
Don’t worry about anything; instead, pray about everything. Tell God what you need, and thank him for all he has done. Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus (Phil 4:4-7).
See other writings of Robynn at Communicating Across the Boundaries of Faith & Culture.