A problem a lot of people run into, whether or not they're religious, is that they try to pray, but nothing much happens, externally or internally.
There's no lightning bolt or ground-splitting earthquake, obviously.
Most people don't expect that anyway.
But for a lot of folks, a lot of the time, there's not even a faint shimmer of divine presence in the prayer's soul. Nothing. Their prayers seem as dry as dust.
Pollsters such as Barna report that more than four-in-five Americans pray.
Still, I hear fairly regularly from people, including fellow clergy, who say they're disappointed with their prayers, which have gone stale. I've experienced this myself.
There's nothing new about it.
Two thousand years ago, Jesus' disciples begged him, "Lord, teach us to pray." Apparently, their own attempts weren't getting them anywhere.
When I was a kid (no, that wasn't in the New Testament days), I remember hearing adults complain that "the heavens seem like brass," or that their prayers were "just bouncing off the ceiling."
Of course, skeptics will say the reason we meet with apparent silence on the other end is because there's no one up there to respond. It's all void and cold.
Could be. To those of us who believe there is somebody listening and answering, however, the problem may lie elsewhere.
It might be we've simply fallen into a rut. We're praying the same prayers the same old way every time, and our spiritual ears consequently have grown dull.
Fortunately, there are countless ways to pray, each productive in its season. When one method isn't working, we might want to change our approach for a while.
If your current prayers leave you feeling as if you're flinging useless words against the rafters, try one of these:
■ Pray the Psalms. The biblical psalms run the emotional gamut from despair to fury to joy to praise. Select a psalm whose content sounds like what you're experiencing in your life, then read it aloud, slowly, thoughtfully.
■ Pray formal prayers, hymn lyrics and portions of liturgy. Across the centuries, Christians have written many edifying, even profound works. Thousands of these have been collected into books. On our shelves at home, we've got The Catholic Prayer Book, The Book of Common Prayer, Christian Prayer. I assume other faiths offer similar volumes. If your prayers aren't working, use somebody else's.
■ Pray informally. Talk to God as you'd talk to your best friend. Which he is. Ask what he thinks about the Seattle Seahawks. Tell him about your sore bunion. Ask him for advice about improving your marriage.
■ Meditate. Online, you can easily find step-by-step suggestions from various sources for meditating prayerfully.
■ Breathe consciously. "Breath prayers" are short utterings tied to the rhythms of inhaling and exhaling. For instance, try (inhale) "My loving God ... (exhale) I need your peace." You can use your words, or find lists of these prayers.
■ Read. Reading inspirational books or magazine articles in a quiet place can engage both the mind and the spirit, leading you to new insights.
■ Perspire. Poets such as Kentucky's Wendell Berry have long extolled the spiritual value of manual labor. Hoeing your garden's corn patch or repairing a fence can empty the brain of its clutter and make room for the creator's voice.
■ Sing. Singing or simply listening to powerful music transports us to a higher realm.
■ Write. Keep a spiritual journal. The act of writing down your hopes, frustrations and elations provides a record of your day-to-day development. Patterns develop. Moreover, the writing process itself refocuses your mind.
■ Pray in tongues. Many people think this is weird, but learning to pray in glossolalia, or unknown tongues, is for many people a peaceful and at the same time stimulating experience. Hey, 500 million Pentecostals can't all be wrong.
■ Hold your kids or your beloved pet. You don't have to say anything religious. Just sit with them and think about the wonder their lives present to you, the marvel of their birth, the gentle reassurance of their love. I never feel closer to God than when a couple of my grandkids are snuggled on my lap.
■ Interview God. I once read in a Bible dictionary that a root word for prayer (I believe it was in Greek) meant, "To interview God." As a former journalist that helped me. When I interviewed people for a living, I asked them questions — and waited to hear their answers. It wasn't about my own opinions, as this column is. An interview is about the other person's opinions or expertise. You ask a question, then hush and listen. That's how I prefer to pray now.
■ Pray with a partner. It's comforting to talk with the Lord alongside a trusted friend or spouse. This sometimes is referred to as a prayer of agreement.
■ Give thanks. I can't explain why, exactly, but the act of simply listing your blessings — eyesight, clothes to wear, a job, conscientious parents — and thanking God for them seems to open heaven's floodgates.