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“I Pray For You Every Day”

I’ve written a number of times here before about some the difficulties I have with prayer (here, for example).  I am convinced that prayer is a crucial part of how God works in and through us for the salvation of the world.  And yet the questions abound.  How does prayer work?  Does prayer work?  How can we tell?  Is God influence-able?  Is God reactive?  Does God need prayer?  How can God “listen” to so many different (often wildly contradictory) prayers at once?  What does it even mean to say that the God of the universe “listens?”  And then, of course, there are more personal questions.  “Why does God seem so remote and absent sometimes?”  “Why wouldn’t God help person x who is in such desperate need?”  “Why do our prayers for peace and justice seem so hollow?”  “Why, despite all our praying and lamenting and petitioning and longing, does evil seem to flourish in our lives, our communities, our world?”

I have discovered that all of the questions above (and many more) can very easily degenerate into little more than elaborate excuses for not praying.  When I was younger, I would rise early each morning to pray.  This was when I had to be at work earlier and had a day of manual labour to look forward to.  I would fill notebooks with my prayers.  Looking back at these prayers now, they seem naïve, idealistic, and very selfish.  But still.  I prayed.  Regularly.  Enthusiastically.  Passionately, even (much as I hate that word).  Now, when part of my job description is praying, I find it more difficult.  I have many more impressive words and categories to employ, a head full of knowledge of the history of prayer, the prayer lives of the saints, the theology of prayer.  I have people regularly imploring me to pray for them.  And I do.  But it’s just, I don’t know.  Harder.

I’ve been rereading Richard Foster’s classic work, Prayer over the last few days and one thing that has struck me again and again about this mysterious discipline is the simplicity of it all.  We pray because we have need.  We pray because we are naked and poor and mostly clueless most of the time.  We pray because we are profoundly limited.  We pray because there is so much that we cannot do for ourselves.  We pray because we care about stuff.  A lot of stuff.  We pray because we have a hunger for love and for relationship.  And we pray to a God who is not a genie in a bottle who is bound to leap to our summons, but to the radically free Creator of the Universe who shapes us both by the experience of his presence and his absence.

I spent part of yesterday morning with a dear old man who now finds himself in his tenth decade on planet earth.  He has seen many things in these ten decades.  Grinding poverty, lack of educational opportunities, hard labour, and, of course, plenty of death.  He has a dry sense of humour and a ready smile.  He doesn’t hear very well, so I always feel like I’m yelling at him when I visit.  We talk about the weather, about his family, about the past.  We talk about road trips that he has taken, about what the farmers’ fields are like this year, about what he made back when he could still do wood work.  He asks about my kids.  Sometimes we’ll talk about “religious” things, but not very often.

But we always pray before I leave.  Yesterday, after I prayed, this dear old man looked at me and asked, “Is everything going ok for you?  Are you happy?”  I thought about this for a bit, and then offered my usual mixture of yes and no and this and that and “some days are better than others” and “I don’t always feel very ‘pastor-y’” and endless wordy qualifications.  Eventually I was starting to bore and frustrate even myself, so I just stopped talking.  He smiled and said, “You know, I pray for you every day.  I don’t always know what to say, but I pray for you and for your wife and your kids.”  And all of a sudden I had no more words.  Except “thank you.”  And then a big hug.

And so maybe at the end of it all, what else can we say about prayer?  We cling to God.  We cling to each other.  We cling to God on behalf of each other.  We don’t always know what we’re doing or what we’re supposed to say, but we know that whatever prayer is and whatever it might accomplish in this world, that it depends far more upon God than it does on us.  And that this is a very good thing.

19 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tanya #

    I had tears by the end. I love prayer but it fluctuates in my life. I don’t understand it, I don’t do it right, I am frequently embarrassed by what I say, but I know I need it and I think my neighbour and the world need it, so I try. Thanks for the post Ryan. I may have to borrow that book from you.

    July 12, 2013
    • Thank you, Tanya—for these kind words, and for praying.

      And yes, you can certainly borrow the book :).

      July 12, 2013
  2. mike #

    I think that because of your honesty and willingness to disclose possibly embarrassing personal details about yourself/your life,this Post attained to that elusive “resonating” quality that we all strive for in our communications. 10!

    July 12, 2013
  3. R.M #

    I appreciate your frustration with prayer. I too am frustrated but mostly by the perverse misuse of prayer in the personal and social sphere. While your anecdote is touching and reveals the strong social function that prayer can play in the cohesion of a group of believers, it does little to address the persistent transactional nature that prayer most commonly takes. If one’s true theology is revealed in the practice of faith, then prayer shows just how bizarre most theology really is.

    July 12, 2013
    • Yes, prayer can be (and is) misused, whether in the personal or social spheres. I’m a bit hesitant to write off transactional language entirely, though, if only for the simple reason that this would mean writing off many of the prayers found in Scripture.

      But perhaps I’m misunderstanding you? I’m not entirely sure what you’re getting at in your last statement.

      July 12, 2013
      • Larry S #

        In a very wierd way Ryan’s and RM’s post both deeply resonate with me.
        “The persistent transactional nature of prayer” reminds me of how Rodney Stark tracks the reasons he thinks people came to faith and xtianity grew (people somehow benefited by converting). I’m not sure i understand RM’s last sentence either. I’m curious about it. I also don’t understand prayer much either. I do get like the Roman’s text that has the Spirit groaning for us. Many of my prayers are groans …..

        July 12, 2013
      • R.M #

        If, as you have clearly reminded your readers, God is not a genie in a bottle (bank machine, catalogue order service, etc.), then petition (the request part of the transaction) is reduced to little more than the equivalent of a birthday wish before the candles are blown out. If prayer is this sort of unreliable tool to induce one’s luck (or good fortune), why would anyone get excited about prayer or even being prayed for. Yet petition persists
        If, “a bit hesitant to write off transactional language entirely” we must then place God at the mercy of human volition – at least in some measure. Perhaps the argument could that God has left himself open to be shaped by human desires. This raises questions like:which one’s does He choose to honor? What is the real character of a God who seems to allow the creation to dictate the course of action to the creator – when the creator has already established the fate of the world.
        So it would seem evident that the use of prayer reveals the theology that individuals find circumstantially convenient not a realistic measurement of the complexity of the nature of God

        July 12, 2013
      • There are many other forms that prayer takes besides petition. Praise, gratitude, lament, adoration.. I’m sure for some, prayer is reduced to little more than asking for stuff, but the Christian tradition (and others) is full of far more robust examples of the life of prayer than this. At its best, prayer is the language of relationship not “circumstantial convenience.” It’s hard to see why people would keep praying if prayer were little more than an unreliable mode of making a wish before the candles went out.

        Re: whether or not God can be shaped by human desire… Even the most cursory glance at Scripture would seem to suggest that we could only answer in the affirmative. How does it work? I dunno. How does God decide? I dunno. God is free to act how God will act. Of course this can and lead to questions about God’s character—not least when we consider the amount and variety of suffering in our world. For me, I would simply say that the character of the God I see most clearly revealed in Jesus Christ gives me enough to to go on, enough to trust in the absence of complete understanding.

        July 13, 2013
      • @ Larry

        My prayers often feel like little more than elaborate groans, too :).

        July 13, 2013
    • mike #

      I agree, RM. I think it is our egoic self-centered disposition that informs this “give me-give me” Theology. Few in Christian circles practice, much less know, the lost art of simple Communion.

      There is nothing more irritating than to hear a preacher continue a sermon under the guise of prayer.

      July 12, 2013
      • There is nothing more irritating than to hear a preacher continue a sermon under the guise of prayer.

        So, preachers shouldn’t pray before sermons?

        July 13, 2013
  4. mike #

    I was referring to the all too common bogus “prayer” (usually after the sermon) where the preacher isn’t really addressing or talking to God but is actually speaking at the audience in a continuation of his theme. I think this manner of “prayer” indicates just how shallow Theology has become.

    “If one’s true theology is revealed in the practice of faith, THEN PRAYER SHOWS JUST HOW BIZARRE MOST THEOLOGY REALLY IS.” (RM)

    July 13, 2013
    • I have no use for the “prayer as extended sermon” time, either… Saying the same things you just said in the sermon to God doesn’t automatically make me take you more seriously, nor does it add any kind of spiritual gravitas to what you are saying.

      Whenever I am tempted to despair of the attempt to pray authentically, I gratefully recall the words of Jesus (loosely paraphrased): “Pray simply, pray often, pray humbly, and pray honestly. Oh yeah, and Avoid fancy words and endless repetition.”

      I can do that.

      July 13, 2013
      • mike #

        “And whenever you are praying, you shall not be verbose like the heathen, for they think that they are heard by speaking much 8Therefore you shall not be like them, FOR YOUR FATHER KNOWS WHAT YOU NEED BEFORE YOU ASK HIM.” (Matt:6:7-8 Aramaic bible in plain English)

        The next time you lead your congregation in prayer (before or after a sermon), Try having them close their eyes/bow their heads and then hold them there IN SILENCE for 60 seconds, suspended as it were, before their Creator. 🙂

        “Let us be silent,that we may hear the whisper of God” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

        July 13, 2013
  5. I love Foster’s book and your story–what a great gift to be prayed for every day even though we can’t understand it. And even when praying seems difficult, absurd, mysterious, even when we don’t get it “right,” God is still present.

    July 14, 2013
    • Thank you, April. So glad for the truth of what you say here.

      July 15, 2013
  6. Paul Johnston #

    Hi, Ryan…long time…too long :)….

    Life is very beautiful for me now and I’m rather busy living it. I remember when it wasn’t as joyful and will always be thankful for your, “being there”. You made a difference and you will always be dear to me.

    You posted this on my birthday. I like cake and I like prayer.

    Silence is a beautiful prayer posture. My very favourite. No pressure to “perform”, you just have to show up. Just be there in the moment, with Jesus…a lazy man’s “dream relationship” :)…Not always but often, I feel the Lord’s touch in these moments. Something so pure and true. An irrepressible smile. More than words could ever be.

    A joyful heart is all I need. The rest of the days events seem like blessing. Even the messed up moments, though they often require hindsight.

    I hope all is well with you and your family. May you share in His perpetual joy. 🙂

    August 6, 2013
    • Paul, it is good to hear from you. I’m glad to hear you are busy with beautiful things! And I of course appreciate your very kind words. It is very gratifying to hear that the “community” formed here, profoundly limited thought it may be, makes some kind of a difference in the lives of real human beings.

      Thanks also for your words about silence. Very true. I like the idea of just showing up, just being there.

      I like cake and I like prayer.

      Love this. Me too.

      August 6, 2013

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