The Prayer Tower: Thoughts about Seeking God in High Places
A Personal Essay About Encountering God, Prayer, and Hiding in a Prayer Tower
The afternoon assignment at a writers retreat is to take a walk and describe our observations. Leaving the rest of the group in search of some needed solitude, I come upon a sign that simply says, “Prayer Tower.” I can’t ignore the opportunity. Suddenly, my journey has added purpose.
I take a sharp left and begin my assent. A few steps, a landing, and then more stairs. Turn right, walk a bit, and climb some more, I wind my way up the hill. There’s another landing and then a U-turn, followed by more walking and more stairs: fifty steps and counting; soon seventy-five gives way to one hundred.
What will I find? Am I climbing a stairway to heaven? One hundred and sixteen steps later, I reach my destination: a platform, presumably for prayer. A prayer tower. Panting, I pause to catch my breath.
The vista is grand, with the panorama of Lake Michigan, my favorite of the Great Lakes. I look west, with water as far as I can see; the far shore hides behind the horizon’s dip. A few ships dot the distance before me. An occasional car announces its presence behind me. All around are tree-covered sand dunes, sprinkled with homes and a string of condominiums.
With winter giving way to spring, naked tree branches creak to a brisk breeze. The biting wind tightens the once warm skin of my face. Below me friends walk along the beach, next to the frigid waters with wind-swept waves. Others, having grown tired or cold, are already retreating, seeking to recapture the warmth of inside.
The sight and sounds of birds, varieties mostly unknown to me, abound, too many to count. Gulls prevail with their plaintive caw, while a diligent woodpecker tap-tap-taps, either searching for food, forming a home, or seeking to attract a mate. Gray skies, decorated with blustery clouds, complete the picture.
God’s nature surrounds me. His wind pushes against me. Only with commitment to my task do I stand firm against winter’s final onslaught. I stand in awe. I try to pray, but words allude me. Why do I need to climb a prayer tower to pray, anyway?
In the Bible Moses ascends Mount Sinai and God’s glory descends. There he encounters God’s power (Exodus 24:15-18).
Jacob dreams of a stairway connecting earth with heaven. Angels traverse it; God stands at the top. Jacob proclaims this awesome place as God’s house and the gate into heaven (Genesis 28:12-17).
Although encouraging, these verses, do not confirm that I need elevation to better connect with the Almighty.
In a less reassuring instance, Moses—denied entry into the Promised Land because of one act of disobedience—is told to climb mount Nebo. From there he sees in the distance what God is withholding from him. Then he dies (Deuteronomy 32:48-52 and Deuteronomy 34:1-6). His mountain vantage doesn’t symbolize connection with God as much as punishment for sin and a lost reward.
Other biblical accounts point to elevation as a place of temptation.
From Leviticus to Amos, the “high places” (mentioned 59 times in the NIV) are usually a site for idol worship and heathen practices, providing an ongoing snare to God’s people, repeatedly distracting them from him. Some kings remove the high places or at least try to diminish their use, only to have a future generation restore them.
The tower of Babel, intended as a monument that reaches up to the heavens isn’t an attempt to connect with God as much as an arrogant tribute to aggrandizement. God quickly ends their brash scheme (Genesis 11:3-9). I can pray anytime, anywhere, and God hears me just fine. Click To Tweet
Balaam has his issues with altitude, as well. Although God prevents him from cursing Israel when atop various mountain vistas and thereby keeping him from earning the rich rewards he desires (Numbers 22-24), things don’t go well for Balaam when a sword later ends his life, exacting God’s final punishment (Numbers 31:8). Jude labels this profit motive as the error of Balaam (Jude 1:11).
Jesus likewise encounters temptation in high places, with Satan twice attempting to use an elevated vantage to derail Jesus from his mission. Fortunately for us, Jesus prevails, and the enemy retreats (Luke 4:1-13).
Based on my quick review of what the Bible records about elevated places, it seems a prayer tower may not be the ideal place to connect with God. Yet here it is, and I stand atop it, seeking to do just that.
From my hilltop perspective, I don’t just see nature and friends. I also spot remnants of other activities. Bottles, mostly broken, suggest this place of prayer gives way to revelry in the nighttime hours. Other trash is more disparaging. I see that SB climbed a tree to carve his “forever” love to ND. I try to not consider the ramifications any further. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so close to God. This prayer tower, this high place is as much hideout as haven.
Although I encounter God in the prayer tower, I pray little. But that’s okay. I can pray anytime, anywhere, and God hears me just fine. After all, he’s always with me (Psalm 73:23).
Peter DeHaan writes about biblical spirituality to confront status quo religion and live a life that matters. He seeks a fresh approach to following Jesus through the lens of Scripture, without the baggage of made-up traditions and meaningless practices. Read more in his books, blog, and weekly email updates.