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One of the things I’ve found myself doing more regularly since I began as a pastor is praying. Not just private prayer (i.e., pleading with God to help me learn how to do this job well and with integrity and honesty) but public prayer as well. I’ve been given the opportunity to offer something like a “global prayer” during the service on most of the Sundays since we arrived here and it’s been both a rewarding and a challenging experience.  It’s forced me to wrestle in a more focused way with questions such as:

  • “What are we doing when we pray?”
  • “What do we think our prayers will accomplish?”
  • “What ought we to pray for and why?”
  • “What ought we not to pray for and why?”

Perhaps the overarching question under which these and others could be located (and it is an old one indeed) is “What role does prayer play under God in the world?” What, if anything, do human words—from selfish pleas for personal gain to grudging entreaties offered more out of duty than conviction to the most eloquent and majestic masterpieces—contribute to God’s work in the world?

I’m hardly the first to notice this, but quite often, it seems, prayer simply doesn’t work. We pray privately and we pray publicly, we pray for small things and large things and the world seems to just roll along pretty much unchanged. Of course the cynic has an answer for this at the ready: What else would you expect in a godless universe? Of course nothing changes—there’s no one there to change anything. You’d have about as much success if you asked the tooth fairy to prevent war between Russia and Georgia as “God.” Prayers, in this view, are nothing more than empty words thrown out to the wind, pathetic and meaningless gestures, a waste of energy that would be better spent on more practical endeavours.

I’m not entirely unsympathetic to this view because often this is exactly how it seems. We pray for peace yet wars rage on. We pray for health yet all around us those we care for get sick and die. We pray for our children to make good decisions and they waste their time and talents and end up on destructive paths which we know will only end in heartache and despair. We pray that God’s kingdom will come, on earth as it is in heaven, yet so many places in our world seem like a living hell. Prayer doesn’t work—this seems, on the face of it, like a reasonable interpretation of the data, no matter how irreverent or frightening this conclusion might seem.

I’m currently reading An Imperfect Offering where James Orbinski, past president of Médicens Sans Frontières, writes about his time spent in Africa, facing some of the most abject human suffering imaginable. In one of the earlier chapters he recounts how, as a boy, the image of starving Ethiopians left him devastated and heartbroken. His mom tried to comfort him. She held him close and whispered “We’ll pray for them.” And she, like many other ordinary Christians, probably did pray for them. Yet as we know, so many of them died. So many of them always die.

The temptation is to think that if God doesn’t answer prayers offered by and on behalf of these people, then how could anyone justifiably expect prayers for more trivial matters to be answered? Indeed, when I think of the kind of misery Orbinski has witnessed any prayer whatsoever seems like an inadequate (if not irresponsible or immoral) gesture. How can we, with anything resembling integrity, pray that God would help us find a new house or a more fulfilling job, or that he will help us to have a “good vacation” when little children are wasting away from preventable diseases half a world away? What does responsible prayer look like in a world where God has given his children such terrible freedom and has chosen so frequently to allow his will to be accomplished through fragile, fallen human beings?

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I continue to pray. I pray because the alternative seems a more hopeless option. I pray because I believe God has answered my prayers in the past and continues, however mysteriously, to answer my own and those of others in the present. I pray because brothers and sisters through the ages have prayed better and more frequently than I, and have testified to God’s enduring presence and action in their lives. I pray because God asks his children to pray. Perhaps prayer is, in some ways, an act of defiance—a daring declaration of hope in the promise of God, and a “reminder” of sorts: Do not forget your people! For your name’s sake, rescue the afflicted and the destitute! We need you! Help us! For Christ’s sake, act!

Prayer is ultimately based upon the conviction that God does, somehow, stand over the events of our world, that he does have a purpose and a plan in allowing the many things that we cannot understand. Prayer is a way of declaring an alternative reality—to God, to ourselves, and to others. And prayer is, of course, also about changing you and I. If God’s perceived inactivity makes me angry or confused does this lead me to a deeper commitment to bring light and life to places of darkness and death, or does it make me jaded and cynical? Does it make me love life and love others more, or does it make me bitter and complacent? Ultimately, I am not responsible for how God acts in the world. I am, however, responsible for how I act in the world. That seems like more than enough to worry (and pray) about for now.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post Ryan.

    I’m just back from a week in the Denver area. Sunday night there were several tornadoes, and the local evening news had all sorts of coverage. One woman interviewed spoke of praying for the tornado to turn away, and it did. She was convinced God had answered her prayer. Of course, that doesn’t do much for all the good, praying people who have been impacted by severe weather, just to name one particular ‘act of God.’

    I’m with you on not being clear what happens when we pray. But, we’re told to do it, so I do. I’ve come to the conclusion that the proper action is for me to pray, then to ‘get up off my knees’ and try to be the answer to my own prayer. After all, why would I ask God to intervene to help people and circumstances when I’m not willing to do the same? Overall, my prayer is that I may operate within God’s will, and not without.

    Hope you’re enjoying Island life!

    August 26, 2008
  2. Ken #

    Your congregation is quite fortunate to have you.

    In my experience, many pastors have lost confidence in prayer. It is so unfortunate when that happens.

    I think your convictions here are right.

    Sometimes prayer is all that is left. God seems to call some of us, more than others, to witness those situations. It is a challenging ministry. Confidence, faith, helps a lot.

    I think that the practice of contemplative prayer helps keep the confidence. In many cases it seems to provide reassurance that God is there, that prayers matter, that life and love survive the suffering, and that our hopes have been and will be fulfilled.

    August 26, 2008
  3. Thanks Mike – for the kind remarks and for being a good example of living in such a way as to be a part of the answer to prayer.

    (Island life is just fine so far, by the way).

    August 26, 2008
  4. Ken, I appreciate the kind words. I like your last line very much:

    …prayers matter, that life and love survive the suffering, and that our hopes have been and will be fulfilled.

    Very well said.

    August 26, 2008
  5. Mike, your comment reminds me of complex situations where one’s answered prayer can be another’s nightmare (in other words, I hope that swerving tornado didn’t hurt someone else).

    Interesting post, Ryan. I’ve often wondered what is the value of prayer, wondering if it’s only practical use was internal. After all, there must be a reason for praying other than doing it simply because you were told to.

    You said, “Perhaps prayer is, in some ways, an act of defiance—a daring declaration of hope in the promise of God, and a “reminder” of sorts… Prayer is a way of declaring an alternative reality—to God, to ourselves, and to others.”

    And Ken, you said, “In many cases it seems to provide reassurance that God is there,”

    This makes me wonder if religious belief can be maintained without prayer. ‘Cause, if it could, how does one practice such a belief?

    Naturally, believers might say, ‘How can you have a relationship with God if you don’t talk to Him?’ But I’m not talking about the relationship, I’m talking about the personal belief in God’s existence.

    What do you guys think – are some (or all) beliefs skills? Does the existence of one’s personal beliefs (not the belief itself) require some sort of repetitive mental exercise or training?


    August 27, 2008
  6. Ken #

    Responding here to Jerry’s question:

    What Christians seem to say who engage in contemplative prayer is that they have a sense that God is there because they feel loved and they feel their desire for God is met in such prayer. That seems to enhance their faith, to encourage their hope.

    I don’t think they regard belief as a skill, although deep contemplative prayer requires persistence. I think each contemplative finds his or her own way and is not trained for it. They say it is not a mental exercise.

    My own spiritual life is not great. Still, I do feel reassurance that God is there and that I am loved when I engage in a form of contemplative reading and prayer called lectio divina.

    August 27, 2008
  7. Jerry,

    I suppose that the plausibility of all belief-systems – from the most militantly secular to the wildly superstitious – is reinforced by repetitive mental activity or “training.” Whether that makes belief a “skill” or not I don’t know. Prayer could certainly be a part of the “skill” of belief-maintenance (i.e, a psychological exercise, for lack of a better term) but that doesn’t preclude the possibility that something more might be going on as well.

    Re: the question of whether religious belief could be maintained without prayer, I suppose everything would depend on how “religious belief” was defined. If it meant the mere cognitive acceptance of a body of propositions which included the existence of a God or gods, then prayer would seem unnecessary. If the definition was a bit more robust, prayer would, I think, certainly enter the picture as an important part of the process.

    August 27, 2008
  8. some good thoughts and questions here…
    What I cannot seem to escape is the notion that prayer is essentially a selfish thing. Whether encountering the presence of God or placing even the most unself-interested requests, we are pressuming upon the Almighty to act in the way we have identified as most suitable for our purposes. What seems odd is that God would require such a self-indulgent activity as an act of obedience. What is even more peculiar is that it seems that God somehow is affected by this kind of a project.
    I used to believe that one of the significant purposes of prayer was to re-orient our perspective from self-reliance to reliance on God. From the closed reality of our own limited to perceptions to the acceptance and reverence of a God-reality.
    Now I have to admit – I am not entirely sure.
    i guess in some ways i am challenging the underlying assumptions of your last paragraph Ryan. I don’t really want to because I think there is something wholesome in a conception of prayer that places it less self centered paradigm but…
    I am also mystified by the coincidence of midnight prayer and a dishwasher on fire.

    its perplexing…

    September 4, 2008
  9. I think you’re right Dale, prayer is odd, peculiar, and probably selfish/self-indulgent in many respects. I don’t think that acknowledging prayer as the strange animal it is represents a challenge to the assumptions of my last paragraph, however. We undoubtedly do need to be moved to a more selfless, God-centred view of the world, but the focus of my last paragraph was mostly ethical. I was arguing that however poorly we understand the mechanisms by which prayer operates or God’s reasons for commanding it or how our prayers actually influence God’s activity in the world, we are still, ultimately, responsible for how we live.

    I think that if we continue to locate prayer within the context of a determination to live according to what light God has given, the paradoxes and ambiguities of how prayer works might recede from view a bit (and we may get some bewildering and unexpected answers to prayer – as your post describes!).

    September 5, 2008

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