Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 2:4 (NRSV)
When you have intimate, long-term relationships with others you find that communication takes a myriad of forms. Wendy and I are together almost all of the time. We live together, work from home together, serve in the community together, and spend most of our free time together. We have layers of communication:
- Conversations about culture and world events over breakfast and the news.
- Brief exchanges from the top of the 2nd floor landing to the bottom of the stairs on the main floor.
- Text message exchanges.
- Non-verbal body language cues.
- Short notes left on stickies on the counter.
- Emotional rants of aggravation.
- Nuts and bolts planning and scheduling over calendars.
- Cell phone conversations when one of us are running errands.
- Long, intense personal conversations over drinks or a meal.
- Pillow-talk as we retire for the night.
I have found that my conversations with God have similar diversity of communication. From long, structured, formal give and take to brief exchanges and casual conversations of spirit. There are blurted exclamations of anger, frustration, gratitude, or need. I quiet my heart and open the ears of my spirit to hear what God might have to say during my coffee with God each the morning. I sometimes pour out my heart to God in long, hand written letters. If prayer is simply communication with God, then each one of these mediums is a different, yet legitimate form of prayer used as needed based on the time and circumstance.
In today’s chapter we learn that Nehemiah served the Babylonian king, Artaxerxes, in his court. His heart heavy with the news of the destruction of his hometown Jerusalem’s destroyed walls, Nehemiah cannot help be send non-verbal cues regarding his mood. The king notices and asks him why he looks so depressed.
We cannot fathom today the pressure placed on servants in ancient royal courts like that of Artaxerxes. Kings and Queens held ultimate power and routinely took the mantel of diety upon themselves. Servants in a royal court were expected to always be in a good mood, always serve with joy, and to treat the royals as if they were gods who lived in a higher dimension of being than everyone else. Any slight, mistake, errant word or look could result in an immediate death penalty.
When King Artaxerxes notices the cloud of depression on Nehemiah’s face, his immediate reaction is fear. Nehemiah doesn’t know whether to answer truthfully, beg forgiveness, say “it’s nothing,” or make up some plausible story. One wrong word or move, a simple raising of the King’s ire, and Nehemiah’s a dead man. Nehemiah chooses to tell the truth about his depression over Jerusalem’s walls. Then, Artaxerxes raises the stakes even higher by asking, “What do you request?”
Nehemiah is now in an even more treacherous fix. Ask too much and the king could take it as arrogant insubordination. Blow off the request and it could be perceived as false humility and refusing to answer a direct question. But Nehemiah needs to answer the king and he needs to answer it quickly. What does Nehemiah do?
He throws up a prayer.
Nehemiah had no time for religious ritual. He couldn’t stop the moment to languish in conversation about this situation with God. He could ask the King to spare him a moment while he got on his knees and recited a psalm. Nehemiah threw up what I like to call a “popcorn prayer.”
Like a kernel of popcorn jumping up quickly in the heat to explode into bloom, popcorn prayers pop out of my spirit in a moment and last little more than a breath. Popcorn prayers often get uttered in heated situations. They acknowledge in an instant that God is always present, always listening, always open to listen in all of the diverse ways two beings in an intimate relationship communicate.
There are times for long conversation, and there are times for popcorn prayers. Both forms are legitimate methods of communicating with God. God answered Nehemiah’s popcorn prayer, and the desires of Nehemiah’s heart were about to miraculously be answered via a blurted prayer from Nehemiah’s spirit.
Today, as I quietly listen to what God might be saying to me through the chapter, I hear this: “Keep popping.”