I want to spend a little time reflecting on prayer. If you consider yourself a person of faith (or not) I'm hoping that you'll spend a few minutes with me as I pour out some of my thoughts and feelings about prayer. I remember having a friend ask me a few years ago to write a blog post about my "theology" of prayer. I was 19 at the time and didn't really give the post a whole lot of thought. My opinion was something to the affect of, "Yeah, prayer is good, but we needn't always rely so much on it/pray for dumb, unrealistic things." I've matured a lot since then, and now being in Divinity school and having to do a lot more praying to get me through the chaos that is the academy, coupled with other young adult troubles/worries, I want to revisit my thoughts on prayer.
I want to be clear from the start that I do believe in the power of prayer. Unexplainable and extraordinary things happen every day, which some folks credit to God answering their prayers. I'm not trying to take that spiritual comfort away from anyone. But I do think there is merit to probing our assumptions about prayer and why it's [supposedly] a key marker of what makes a "faithful" person. I also think that generally there's a lot of bad theology floating around out there and when our prayers don't get answered, people tend to get angry with God and take it out on the church. There are a lot of ways to pray, and many kinds of prayer, but I want to talk specifically about the kind that goes on in Christian churches/circles as it relates to assumptions about who God is and what God does. I'm not claiming to have an ultimate authority on the subject, but in my experience prayer isn't as simple as I once thought. So, let's unpack some things.
As a post-evangelical-ish person, one of the things I could never stand about being in that kind of environment was having people constantly say to me, "I'll be praying for you" whenever I wasn't 100%. It wasn't that I didn't like that people were thinking about me...but it was the way they said it that made me feel ashamed or in need of pity. I'm not a person who likes to admit I need help very often, so the last thing I want is a bunch of folks feeling sorry for me, fasting, and begging God to help me. It also doesn't actually do anything practical to help...
If I'm being honest here, prayer has become a cliche. Or rather, the PERCEPTION of prayer is cliche. It's become a way of saying, "I'm really sorry for what's happening, but instead of doing something about it, I'll just think optimistically that it will get better." That may or may not be the sentiment that all folks have when they talk about praying, but it's certainly how it sounds in my ears about 80% of the time.
I'm a firm believer that there's no one way to pray, but what if we change the way we think about prayer and what it means to pray?
What if the image of prayer that came to mind is not one of asking and receiving? What if our understanding of prayer was not of being a "warrior" on the defense against evil or standing on the battle fields? What would happen if we stop asking so much of God, or any other higher power, so to not set ourselves up for failure when the outcome of our wishes is not what we thought it would be?
Recently I was driving by a church that had a sign out front that read: "If you pray, you need not worry. If still worried, then pray."
Is this what having faith means? What does this imply about prayer, praying, and how we live our lives? Has our relationship with divine-creator God been reduced to a spiritual transaction? Is prayer a commodity for feeding God's ego, or maybe our own?
I understand this ideology often comes from a particular reading of Matthew 6:25-34, and to an extent, yes, we should not be consumed with worry to the point that we cannot live a full life. But this theological view of prayer and what it means to be a "faithful" person is precisely what I find troubling as I look at the prospect of a future in ministry. -- If I pray a little harder I won't have to worry about paying rent? Or being a statistic of the 1 in 4 women who are sexually assaulted in their lifetime? Or whether there will be justice given to my neighbors experiencing oppression at the hands of the government and/or society? Or for the health and well-being of those I love? ... Does worry mean lack of faithfulness?
I sincerely hope not.
What this comes down to is a question of God's sovereignty versus human free will and agency over our own actions. This debate has captivated Christian thought for centuries. However, I'm not about to dive into that in this post. I'll save it for a constructive theology paper.
What I will say is that for a lot of people, being worried about things can be a motivator. It can also be a stressor that can be disastrous to our health, which is what I think the passage in Matthew is getting at. I don't think it means a person who worries lacks faith. Surely prayer is important. But maybe the act of praying can have an influence on the way in which we see our worry. Maybe acknowledging our worry can compel us to act.
This summer I was feeling bored at work and decided to browse Craigslist. I know what you might be thinking... But for a poor grad student, Craigslist is a treasure trove of things I wouldn't normally be able to afford brand new in a retail store. So whatevs. On this particular day, I decided I was going to buy a guitar. I don't really know why, but I've always wanted to learn to play. And since I'm living in Nashville, it seemed like a good enough idea. I found a barely used Fender acoustic guitar with a chord book, unopened pack of strings, picks, tuner, capo and soft gig bag for $75. Jackpot.
I've been teaching myself to play that guitar, and damnit, I love it. I'm getting better at switching between chords and things, and can sort of play a number of praise band songs of which I happen to have the tabs for. I was getting nostalgic for my days on the worship music scene; judge me.
At the time I was thinking about my future and my calling to serve in ministry. As I experienced this moment, I felt God saying to me that it's ok to be unsure. My questions about ordination in the United Methodist Church would be answered in time, and my heart would lead me to a place where my gifts could be utilized and graciously received. I felt calm. I felt less anxious about my upcoming year in seminary and that, in time, I would find my way.
I tell that story because after that moment, my perspective about prayer changed forever.
I'm convinced prayer isn't always about sitting in church, saying things in unison, hoping things will change. Nor is prayer only when we're talking to God before bed, or in the shower, or when you're in desperate need of something. Prayer is not a transaction. Prayer is a mindset that carries action and a way of embodying the Spirit.
We have the ability to pray with our bodies, minds and hearts in ways that don't have to look like the static, linear ways we've always known. It's when we are in full communion with God and with others that prayer can take on a whole new life of its own with dynamic meaning and powerful resonance. Prayer, coupled with faith and not a lack thereof, is what motivates us to respond in times of uncertainty. What I felt was a physiological and spiritual release during and post-prayer that I can only attribute to being in a certain state or consciousness, which I hardly experience when I'm asked to pray over a meal or during the 'joys and concerns' portion of a church service.
Since that afternoon, instead of just sitting around hoping my anxiety would go away on its own, I've been reaching out to people, talking, and listening hard. I'm confident that I will "find my way", but I've been seeking the guidance of the professors, friends and mentors to help me discern my future. Sitting, playing and praying that afternoon as energized and motivated me to make decisions and take initiative in a way I probably wouldn't have done if I was just going through the motions of school, work, sleep, repeat.
I think it's time we see how prayer, as an activity and not simply an action, can open new doors and possibilities of how to be in fuller presence and relationship with God and neighbor. I know so many people who think prayer is useless because the way it has been conceived is of talking to thin air, or in stuffy pews, or as a condescending remark on a pass-by. Prayer should be opening our eyes to God's presence and vision of justice. Prayer should be illuminating paths for community and relationship building. Prayer should be full of dynamic energy that inspires us to act, for ourselves and with (not on behalf of) others.
Prayer in and of itself is not a marker of what makes the most faithful person. Rather, prayer helps us envision what faith means lived in the world.
Thanks for listening,