Monday, March 23, 2015

What is prayer anyway?

Most days, we all assume we know what prayer is. We often promise to pray for each other. We pray in worship. Some of us pray before meals or bed. Prayer are words or intentions directed towards God, much like words in a conversation.

Once we start to think about prayer, we start to realize prayer is a bit more mysterious than the other ways we converse. Take, as one example, the prayer we offer in public worship. We pray out loud to God and act as if God would respond. It's like a large role-playing event. We speak to God and act as if God will hear us. 

Prayer is, in this sense, real pretend.

Consider prayer some more, and we bump into other mysterious things in need of definition. Who is the God to whom we pray? What is God like? Who are we as prayers? And what is this thing "prayer" between us?

Because there is quite a long tradition in the church of emphasizing God's unchanging nature, theologians have struggled with what prayer does in God. Does prayer change God?

C.S. Lewis famously remarked, "I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me."

Okay, I understand that Lewis makes this statement with full sincerity, and out of deep faith. But I would offer that this is at least one way of understanding of prayer that I do not share.

If prayer doesn't change God, then it is nothing at all.

If prayer does something in God, then prayer is everything.

I tend to be of the persuasion that prayer does indeed do something in God, and so prayer really is everything.

I do not make this claim on metaphysical grounds. I imagine there are a variety of metaphysical considerations to work out here, important ones at that, and the traditional metaphysicians and the process philosophers will have to have their conversations and work out whether or not God is really unchanging, with the future all decided, or whether or not the future is open, mutually created by God and us in some fashion.

I'm more interested in the relationship, and the promise. Prayer is an invited relationship, encouraged by God and Christ, both of whom seek the words and petitions of the people with whom they have covenanted.

And prayer is promise... most clearly, Jesus promises that prayers will be heard, and they will change things.

Obviously, like any conversation, not everything we say in prayer will do the same thing in the one hearing the prayer. Prayer is not magic. Prayer is not command. Prayer is conversation, and all conversations have a give and take. There is a real person on both sides of the conversation.

So this is another thing, prayer assumes that God is a person.

And the kind of person God is is a person who keeps promises. God is faithful. So prayer is what we say to the one who we trust as completely faithful to us.

So I part ways with Lewis. Prayer obviously changes me. I can tell you stories of the ways meditation and prayer have changed me.

But if prayer is a relationship with a faithful other, a person available for our prayer, then prayer also changes God, not because God is in the abstract changeable or unchangeable, but precisely because God has promised to truly hear our prayers. Once you've heard something from outside yourself, you have already "changed." We are always made up of the network of our relationships. God is like this, we think.

So why is prayer everything? Well, if this is what prayer is like, then prayer is the substance of all things between us and God. Prayer is also already intrinsic to God in Godself. God is the kind of God who is always already interceding for us. Christians tend to say that it is Christ in the Spirit who is constantly interceding to the Father on our behalf. 

Our prayers simply join the prayers Christ is already lifting to the Father. Which makes them no less important... in fact it makes them all the more poignant, in the same way the sick or dying regularly report that the community that surrounds them in prayer has a powerful impact. Corporate prayer is a beautiful thing, and corporate prayer begins in God, and we join it.

It is great consolation indeed that even when we can't pray, the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words (Romans 8:26). Prayer changes God even when we cannot... pray.

So who are we as the ones who pray? Well, apparently we are praying people. There are a lot of things humans are, and often we have defined ourselves by those things. We are homo sapiens (thinking ones). We are homo ludens (ones who play). We are homo habilis (tool users). 

But if prayer is everything, and we are praying ones, then we are more than anything else, homo orans (praying beings). 

If we are created in the image of God, and Christ is the restoration of the image of God in the human, then we discover our model for prayer, the one who prayed, so frequently, so confidently, that there was little else as important or as central. If anyone modeled prayer as everything, it was Christ, who was so regularly found in it. And if Christ prayed words asking God to hear and respond, then we might trust that in Christ, our prayers, joined to his, really are everything.

Personally, I begin this "everything prayer" in the daily prayer offices and the liturgy. I find it to be the case that joining these prayers makes me "more sensible of conditions." There are of course many other ways to pray, and much more of what we do is prayer than we know. Just yesterday evening, I think I fell asleep praying Thelonius Monk. As an example. But I do join us Annie Dillard in her perspective, with which I end, as I attempt to open us outward to the everything of prayer. Dillard writes,
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return. 

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