But What About Prayer?

Art Fabian  —  October 21, 2012  —  North Riverdale Lutheran Church

[Over the past couple of years, I’ve heard people raise questions about prayer in progressive religious thinking.  As I struggled with the issue myself, I began to gather a lot of thoughts on the subject and when I got a chance to preach this fall, I chose “prayer” as my topic.  “A few notes” practically turned into a treatise on the subject.  However, I discovered that it’s hard to deliver a treatise in 20 minutes, so this is the condensed version of what I wanted to convey. If you’d like to discuss it further, feel free to contact me in person or by email – see the Contact-Us page.]

But What About Prayer?

May the Divine in me resonate with the Divine in you and may we both grow in the process. Amen


First off, I want to state the standard editorial disclaimer that the opinions expressed by me are not necessarily the beliefs of the owners or management or other participants in this organization.  Some of you may disagree with several of my comments.  If so, just consider the source, and put an asterisk by them. Feel free to think, “Oh, that’s just Art talking.”

I’m definitely not an expert on prayer, but I’ve done a lot of questioning. To learn more, I’ve been searching for comments on prayer in many of books that I’ve been reading recently. One in particular offered a number of insights. It’s called Amen: What prayer can mean in a world beyond belief by Pastor Gretta Vosper, of the United Church of Christ. Without citing her directly, a lot of today’s concepts will be based on her understanding of prayer.  [I’d love to have a discussion with you about her book.]

God doesn’t intervene

When we conducted a survey of the congregation at the beginning of this year, about 40% of you indicated that you believe that God intervenes in events in our world, in people’s daily lives. The other 60% responded with less assurance that that was true.

I’m one of those who believes that there is a creator of all that is and which is the source of our being, our wisdom, our humanity.  I like to describe God as Paul does in Acts, “as the one in whom we live and move and have our being.”  Beyond that, I can’t describe God.

Further, I don’t believe God chooses one team over another to win a game; he, she, or it, doesn’t chose who will die today and who will live.  I do feel that some occurrences are so magnificent that we might describe them as miracles, but that doesn’t mean that God has altered the laws of nature to make it happen.

In short, I don’t believe in a God that grants wishes to just some people at specific times. I don’t feel God is a grand puppeteer who manipulates our lives.

What good is prayer if God doesn’t intervene?

When I share the conclusion that God doesn’t intervene, one of the first questions that arises is, “But what about prayer?”  If God doesn’t answer prayers, then what good is praying?  Have we just been foolishly saying them for thousands of years?

As you might imagine, the answer is complex and I’m certainly not going to be able to adequately explain it here.  I will attempt to share just enough tidbits to pique your interest, but not so many that I put you to sleep.

While I believe prayer can and should be a major portion of our religious life, I feel some of its concepts and purposes need to be altered.  It can then become an even more powerful spiritual force for fulfilling God’s purposes.

What is prayer?

Gretta Vosper says that participating in prayer is the defining characteristic of people and organizations who call themselves religious.  I call prayer the language of religious and spiritual people.  Prayer is the heart, the centermost point of religion.

When we say “prayer” we probably mean something close to the dictionary definition: “a petition to God or a god in word or thought.”  What kind of petition?  Usually it’s asking for something for ourselves or others, but it’s also much broader than that.

What kinds of prayer are there?

Actually, our whole worship liturgy is a series of prayers and it’s a good way to illustrate the four types of prayers. We’ll quickly go through them by using our bulletin, which, you might note, has some lines for key words.  Together, they make the acronym ACTS.  [The bulletin had blank lines for filling-in the words in the appropriate places.]

Starting at the beginning of the liturgy: A is for Adoration.  We first look beyond ourselves by recognizing the power and natures of God. We express awe and wonder and humility.  Adoration helps us to reorient ourselves to the divine from the very beginning of worship.

Then, as we recognize our humble position in the world, we confess that we simply haven’t lived up to God’s expectations and, usually, not even our own.  So C is for Confession.  Some of you may have noticed the shift in the wording of the Confession over the past months away from how tragically bad we are by nature, to how we’ve fallen short of our better humanity.  How we’re broken in spirit in some way.

Confession provides the opportunity for us to become whole.  It’s an opportunity for us to unburden ourselves, to face the simple reality that we cannot do it all.  Confession doesn’t have to be degrading.  It can be good for the soul.  It’s healthy to not keep our fears and perceived shortcomings bound inside of us.

Paired with confession is Assurance of Forgiveness.  It’s especially important to both forgive yourself and accept the forgiveness of others…that’s the assurance of hope.

Then, after sharing of the word from scripture and the pulpit, we offer a prayer of Thanksgiving.  When we have communion, the Words of Institution are even called “The Great Thanksgiving.” So obviously, T is “Thanksgiving.”

The last letter, “S” stands for Supplication. In the Lutheran Church, this is usually a corporate prayer where we ask for help and compassion for ourselves and others. Some of the petitions may also express adoration, or thankfulness for blessings, like the birth of a child or a special anniversary.

I would like to single out a subcategory of Supplication: Intercessory Prayers.  When we make an intercession on behalf of someone else.  For example, when we pray for the healing of someone we don’t know, and have no contact with, we’re trying to intercede on their behalf with God.  This is one type of prayer that I personally don’t find effective.  While it’s a feel-good action, I don’t believe God intervenes in someone’s illness because we asked for the favor.  However, it’s perfectly OK to tell people that you or others are praying for them…and to do so.  That may give them encouragement and positive support, which I feel contributes to the healing process.

The problem with intercessory prayer occurs when we don’t provide some form of aid, some form of intervention.  For example, someone suffering abuse needs more than prayer.  She needs help.  Real change occurs when we recognize who can make things happen, and we realize it’s us.

While I suggest we can reduce intercessory prayer, for all other prayers I would like to both broaden the definition and make us more responsible for their outcomes. That is, if you ask for something, what action will you resolve to take to make it happen?

Prayer is powerful when it changes things, everything from our own hearts to all those whom we touch.  Prayer is worthwhile when it causes action.  Prayer is affirming when it strengthens the congregational community.  That’s the critical point of prayer. It has to touch us or someone else, otherwise, it’s just a passive recitation.

Effective prayer is action that changes things.

I believe that prayer changes things. It changes us, it changes those around us, and it can change the world.  But not in the traditional way we have imaged it, which is, that we speak or think of things that need to be changed.  Then God, sitting up in his phone booth, listens in and decides whether or not our request is a good one, and He pulls the necessary levers to make it happen — or not — on earth.

But prayer can have a mighty impact.  Think about our corporate Prayer of the Church which we do each Sunday.  When Betsy asks for prayers for Steve and Joanne hears that request and the next week asks how Steve is doing, the community has been drawn together. When Susan asks for help with socks for the homeless and Julie brings in some big warm ones, a prayer has been fulfilled.  When Traci asks for prayers for a family who has just experienced a death, I believe she is lifted up because she has shared her sorrow and released it to a caring community. When Minott reminds us to remember those serving in the military, we might make a mental note to ask EJ or Joe how Terry is doing, and this community connects through prayer.  If Monte tells us about Claudia’s health problem and Louise takes food out to her, then that casserole is a prayer of compassion.

I’ll bet you could come up with hundreds of other illustrations of how simply requesting prayers leads to some action, thoughts, or feelings that resonate within this community.  When we live out those actions, thoughts, or feelings we are literally living our prayers.

We should pray for things that we can affect.  Personally, while I think it’s nice to pray for the alleviation of world hunger, we really should be praying for … and doing … things that will affect hunger in our neighborhood, in our neighbor’s heart.  That’s moving us to God’s plan for wellness and wholeness.

It’s better to pray for actionable items.  For example, instead of asking God to do away with hunger, we could inspire people to reach over and put five bucks in one those yellow envelopes in the pew.

If we begin to alter our description of who God is, and how we should pray, some people get concerned about using correct terminology.  We don’t necessarily have to worry about what the words are, if we know what we mean.  For example, in the prayer from the Psalms that Louise and I shared [in this morning’s children’s sermon], we still use the pronoun “He,” although we don’t know if the creator of the universe is a he, she, or it.  We simply accept that the word “he” doesn’t refer to refer to some guy in sky, but it’s a metaphor for a Divine Mystery.

Any brief statement from the heart is a prayer.  Any action you take to comfort another is a prayer.  Any thought that comes to mind that leads to healing brokenness in yourself or others is a prayer.

Some people even bake prayers in their kitchens.  They deliver cookies for all kinds of events.  And here at North Riverdale we’re blessed with people who can play instruments and sing.  Every hymn and anthem is a prayer.

One issue is particularly important to me.  I do believe that prayer carries with it responsibility.  If we pray to God and then wash our hands of the issue, then that’s just a passive prayer.  For example, if we say, “Ok, God, I’m asking you to take care of this matter, because I can’t deal with it,” we are not accepting responsibility as co-creators of this precious world.

Since I no longer believe in an intervening god, do I still pray the way I prayed in the past?  No.  Do I still pray?  Yes, but in different ways.  For example, reading has become a form of prayer for me, a time to experience God.  Many books – not just the Bible – but all those books that cause us to listen, to wonder, to pause, and to ponder, can lead us to hear the divine within us.

Why does prayer work?

Why does prayer work?  There are whole books full of reasons.  One is that we definitely have more human capacity than we can imagine.  None of us has come close to tapping our mind and body potential, which might include all kinds of amazing feats including healing and communications that we can’t fathom.

Our brains are interconnected in ways we are just discovering.  I certainly don’t think that it’s only through the five senses that our interconnectedness as a community occurs here in worship.

Here’s a typical way one shared idea may resonate with another.  Judi Lancaster asked Pastor about sending a banner to the Sikh Temple that lost several members in a recent shooting.  Romona and Chris collaborated at putting it together and, bingo, in about a week we sent a prayer of love to a place to Wisconsin.  We  turned empathy into action to add a touch of healing to a broken world.

And one my favorite ways that prayer works is to create a Thin Place.  A place where our humanness touches the divine and we respond accordingly.  But that’s a whole ‘nother sermon. [See our church website for my sermon on Thin Places.]

So our concepts of prayer may be shifting, but the need for and the power of prayer is still strong.

Philip Gulley, in his book, The Evolution of Faith, says that for him prayer is no longer a laundry list of requests but is instead a heightened awareness of God’s presence in creation, in others, and in himself.  He goes on to say, “For me, then, this is prayer: that I would in every circumstance be grateful, and in every moment be attentive to others, so that the Divine Presence in me might speak to the Divine Presence in others, and in the speaking, grace might flow and flower.”

So that’s it:  in the speaking, grace might flow and flower.