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 endeavors.
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 the prayers of 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.