Thursday, May 09, 2013


I received a question about prayer this week. The age-old conundrum - if I pray for something and it doesn't happen do I lack faith? If God is going to do what's best all the time anyway, why pray at all? These seem like the core of our ponderings about prayer. Honestly, I'm hesitant to say anything because prayer is not something I've got figured out very well. What I will say is that I'm not very convinced that prayer has much to do with asking for things. Prayer is more about God shaping us than the other way around.

Questions about faith and answered prayer often operate on the assumption that God just pulls strings in the world - that God would just up and make cancer disappear. Now I don't think we can say God doesn't do that. God does intervene very specifically in the world and God does change God's mind, sometimes based on our input. Like everything else in the world, prayer is more complicated than we want it to be.

I believe God created the world to work a certain way, but God also gave imperfect creatures like us some say in how things work. Another way of saying that is to say God limited God's own options by allowing the creation to make some decisions for itself. That's a pretty awesome gift - and if God were to just intervene every time something went wrong, it would be disrespectful to us and the value God puts on us and the part we play in the world. God doesn't give us power and then take it away every time we use it poorly. God works to restore and resolve things through love and sacrifice, not might and force.

Of course, if God gives us power to determine some things and God respects our choices, that makes prayer almost scary - what if I ask for the wrong thing and mess up the world even more? That, I think, is when God's larger plan becomes evident. Christians, especially in the US, have done a very good job of making our faith individualistic. God is not at work saving individual people, God is at work restoring and perfecting the whole world. While we have individual parts to play and individual relationships with God, they only matter in the context of God's mission to redeem all of creation.

The problems in our world are a result of us ignoring God, not God ignoring us. Jesus said the man born blind was not being punished for sin, but it happened so God may be glorified. Our world is messed up, deep down inside. Our generations of sin have had a negative impact on God's creation and it results in pain and suffering. They're not directly correlated, but they're related. God is not out to punish anyone - judgment comes at the end of time - God is constantly calling and healing and fixing and redeeming.

I do think we should express to God our honest feelings. I was moved by the words of a father whose daughter lay dying. He was a learned man and knew to pray "God, your will be done," so as not to impose on God. His daughter said to him, "Dad, I want to live; and if God can do that, I'm going to ask." It changed his whole perspective.

We know intellectually that we want God calling the shots, not us, but we can still trust God to do what's best, even if we tell God what we want. I suspect many times God's mission will work well in any number of ways - why not let us have a say in the details when possible - we do it with our kids all the time. We don't give them whatever they want all the time, but we do it when it's not going to violate our dreams and desires for their lives.

Expressing our feelings is also important, because it helps to illustrate the distance between the world as it is and the world as it should be - which is also the distance between heaven and earth. Heaven really just means "the place where things are as God wants them to be." In prayer, we can, for a few moments, experience a little bit of heaven. We can mourn the pain and loss of our world, but also affirm our hope of redemption.

That last part is really where I find value in prayer. If we move beyond the idea of prayer as asking and hearing and more a state of focus on God, it becomes a means by which God shapes us into people who look more like Christ. We can say, "God, I'm not very happy with you right now, my friend is dying of cancer," but even our act of prayer shows that we believe God to be listening and caring.

I'm not an intercessor - some people are, they can pray for hours about specific people and requests and be refreshed by the process - I usually fall asleep after 20 seconds. I do find great communion with God in nature - there's something about looking out from a mountain or over an ocean that comforts me. It reminds me that despite the size of the world and its problems, there is a big God out there working for the good of all things.

I also find myself in prayer as I empathize with friends who are hurting - when I think or verbalize my frustration with the world. Most of the Psalms are laments - a naming of the problems around us.

I see prayer much more as being aware of my surroundings and conscious of my actions and thinking about how God's mission and love for the world is present or lacking in a given situation. Saying what we believe to be true both helps us believe it and helps us embody it.

In the end, we have to trust that God is loving and is constantly working for the redemption of the whole world. We have to remember that God's mission is much bigger than our individual life and the relationships around us.

I doubt that's a satisfying answer, but it's what I got. I find my most satisfying prayers are when I pray an historic prayer (something many people have prayed before) or when I'm praying on behalf of a congregation or group of people. In those times I am agreeing together with other people - we are affirming our beliefs and our hurts - and the humility to pray and pray together opens us up to be changed and transformed by God.

No comments: