Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Party Line

We are renting a cabin on a lake in New Hampshire for two weeks. It is an old style camp with wall-to-wall knotty pine interior. It is set high on a rocky outcrop with a beautiful view of the mountains to the east and north. There is no internet service at the house (thank you, Lord!), but there is a phone. But this is no ordinary landline. This is a party line.

Remember party lines? We used to have one when I was a kid, but I thought they had gone the way of rotary phones. Nope. They are alive and well on the dirt roads of rural New England.

For those of you who have forgotten (or have never experienced) this relic of the twentieth century, a party line is a phone line shared by two or three houses. It makes privacy very difficult. Each customer can listen in on the conversations of their neighbors, if they so choose. You just hope your neighbors are not the nosy sorts. It also cuts down the length of telephone conversations since only one house can use the phone at a time.

If the phone rings, we listen carefully to the type of ring to see if the call is for us. Each house is identified by a distinctive pattern of rings. If the phone rings two long rings, that means the call is for us. Today the phone rang one long ring, which meant it was for our neighbor.

Party lines are kind of like public prayers - the kind of prayers that religious professionals like me pray at worship services and civic events. Such prayers are not really meant for God. They are designed for public consumption.

Public prayers are spoken in complete sentences with proper syntax and noble sounding language - fit to impress humans listening in on the spiritual party line. But Jesus said, "And when you pray, you shall not be like the hypocrites. For they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the corners of the streets, that they may be seen by men. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward."

Party line prayers are much different than private prayers. My personal prayers are staccato utterances that no one but God could possibly understand. They are filled with groanings, yearnings and exclamations.... and lots of silence.

There is no silence in public prayers. People start wondering what is wrong. It is socially awkward. People feel uncomfortable without outer noise to mask their inner fears. Noisy words keep God at a comfortable distance; "Thee's" and "Thou's" keep him in heaven where he belongs. Silence is too dangerous; it brings God too close. He might see us. So we hide in plain sight through public prayers.

But in private prayer, there is no such thing as awkward silence. Silence is the vocabulary of inner prayer, not just the punctuation. My soul speaks the language of silence, and God responds with silence. In this spiritual dialog there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. Silence is the answer my heart desires, and I am never disappointed. A party line is all right for phones... at least for a two-week vacation. But for spiritual communication, only the immediacy of wordless communication will suffice.

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