The Change of Prayer
At the heart of my own faith is a perspective about prayer,
wonderfully articulated by Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki. And here's the
whole sermon in one sentence -- Prof. Suchocki's sentence:*
"Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what
the world can be." Prayer changes the way the world is, and
therefore changes what the world can be. With God's participation.
About twenty years ago, there was a great deal of scientific anxiety
about prayer. There were a large number of scientific studies about the
effectiveness of prayer. I have some of them in my office because I
caught that anxiety. There were medical doctors like Bernie Siegel and
double-blind studies, funded by insurance companies, examining whether
prayer works. Magazines like Time had cover stories, and organizations
like the University of Tennessee conducted research. Depending upon who
you read, you could defend two conclusions: that it does and does not
work, to a scientist's eye.
In the months since last November, there has been another layer of
anxiety about prayer. This time it had to do with who would pray for
Obama's Presidency, and many people, including me, didn't like the
choice for inaugural prayer, so additional spokespeople for prayer were
added to additional public venues, like Bishop Gene Robinson at the
Lincoln Memorial, invited to settle the diversity issue, but then Home
Box Office didn't televise his inaugural prayer, and the loudspeakers
malfunctioned on the national mall during it, and another layer of
internet outrage evolved, all over prayer.
Now as someone who rather enjoyed the controversy over Rev. Jeremiah
Wright from a theological perspective, my heart was doubly warmed
recently as America debated who should pray and what should be allowed
and where was the power, all tipping the unconscious scales of
scientific observation with an at-large poll suggesting that a whole
lot of us do believe that prayer matters and that it does mean
something and is, indeed, effective!
Prayer changes the way the world is, and therefore changes what the
world can be.
When Suchocki wrote this it was not from a scientific perspective or
a political one but from a Christian theological perspective, theology
being faith seeking understanding. And I'm with her because all the
other anxiety and excitement only proves my perspective -- right out of
the gate: most of us do believe that prayer has a power, not completely
subject to scientific study.
I'd like to offer a few words of wisdom from several thinkers
reflecting sixteen hundred years of Christianity, and then I'd like to
pray. I'm doing this this morning because, while on the one hand it is
right to do on any given Sunday, on this particular Sunday we've heard
earnest prayers in the Psalms for several weeks in a row and seen this
recent national intrigue with prayer, and furthermore, I rather need
to. In the midst of this economy, these wars, this season of cold and
fear as well as optimism and hope, this week before our own annual
business takes center stage, I need to pray.
I'd rather not admit it like this, but I have spiritual dry spells
at times. I don't always pray as I might, although I took an ordination
vow to do so, and it is literally in my contract with you that I'll
keep it up, and it is literally in your contract with me that you will
pray "all proper prayer" to support me. But I have dry spells
where I perceive, discern, or sense less from God than I want. And I
don't want us to have a dry spell but, as we are doing in so many other
portions of our congregational life, to go deeper and farther.
To create common ground, I offer three longer-than-normal-for-me
expressions from Prof. Suchocki, which share her notion of God, her
sense of the dynamic of prayer, and her belief that it keeps us all
connected. I'll share these first before several others and before
praying, although I must say that I find Suchocki's style and
expression quite spiritual and powerful, prayerful even, on its own.
You might even want to listen with your eyes closed. Here are her
offerings to guide us, invoking God's presence, imagining the impact of
our prayer, and then its importance to God's creation:
God is omnipresent to
"If God's power is presence, think of the difference this makes
to the knowing of God. God's presence, like water, pervades the nooks
and crannies of existence -- what is the boundary of water? the
boundary of God? A stone marks the edge of the water and its own
existence; what marks the edge between our own and God's existence?
Would it be so strange to consider that the omnipresent God pervades us
without at all displacing us? (p. 9)"
(Now) "Suppose it is valid to say that recognition of God can
enhance our ability to lead lives of peace, justice, and beauty. Suppose
that prayer, regardless of our images and of our theologies,
constitutes this recognition, and that this recognition is not
necessarily limited to our intellects but goes to the depths of
ourselves. Suppose that prayer is our openness to the God, who pervades
the universe and therefore ourselves, and this prayer is also this
God's openness to us.
What if prayer increases the effectiveness of
God's work with the world? God's invitation to us to pray -- indeed,
God's gracious command to us to pray -- suggests the possibility that
our prayers make a difference to God, and therefore might possibly make
a difference to what God can do in the world. (p. 19)
"All things relate to all other things. In this interdependent
world, everything that exists experiences to some degree the effects of
everything else. We are so constituted that very, very little of all
this relationality makes it to our conscious awareness. But we are
connected, nonetheless; it is sure. Praying lifts these loose
connections to our conscious awareness in the context of God's
feel an echo of that divine meeting and weaving, no
matter how distant the one for whom we pray." (p. 47)
God is everywhere. Our prayers make a difference to God's
everywhere. We are connected everywhere as we pray.
These are enormous claims. Yet not much different than saying
"For God alone my soul waits in silence, my hope is from God, On
God rests my deliverance and my honor; my mighty rock, my refuge, is
God. Trust in God at all times, O people; pour out your heart before
God," says the Psalmist. They're not so different from saying
"Our hearts are restless, God, until they find their rest in
thee," as did Augustine sixteen hundred years ago. Or from saying,
"Prayer ones the soul to God." Julian of Norwich said that in
1400. Or from saying "Holy Father, keep (thy disciples) in thy
that they may be one, even as we are one
That they may all
be one even as thou, father, art in me and I in thee, that they may
also be in us
" Jesus said that in his farewell prayer.
These are enormous claims, but they all say that prayer does matter,
that it reflects and reveals our created connection not only to the
Body of Christ but to the whole of the universe and the transcendence
and immanence of God. And they mean that what we do for a moment before
bed, or for an hour in the middle of the night, what we do every
morning reading scripture or every once in a while in airplanes and
hospital rooms has a power, a purpose, and a presence. God wants, the
world needs, our prayer. And if Suchocki is right, if Jesus is right,
it is worth our time and understanding and attention and practice.
It is worth our mature thought, too. For what prayer can offer is
reality based, not magic based. It is grounded in the goodness and
omnipresence of God and in the admission that we can't reverse the
irreversible but that we must pursue the possible. One author writes
that if every baseball player's prayers at bat were answered they would
all hit 1000, and the game would be ruined in 24 hours. But, again,
Suchocki says that prayer represents God's invitation to participate in
bringing the world closer to the fullness and reflection of God's
character. (p. 29) It's not about magic. It's about hope and joy in God.
Yet I go through dry spells, and the only comfort I find there is
that virtually every saint, even the modern ones like Mother Teresa, go
through dry spells. But something I never neglect is prayers with our
children. In some ways that's a huge jump from where we were just a
moment ago, but in another way it is the avenue for our approach and
the inspiration today. Because I've learned a lot about prayer from
practicing its simplest forms. When my daughter was three she made the
same point in one phrase that Suchocki makes in 127 pages. One evening
I asked her, as usual, for what she wanted to pray. This often meant
for mommy, for grandpa, for sunshine, and so forth. But one night she
added to the list, simply, "for God." She just wanted to pray
for God. She didn't know that for 5,000 years Jewish and then Christian
prayer form has begun with praise or blessing for God. She didn't know
about the fivefold Hebrew style
manual including thanksgiving for God.
She just wanted a friendly prayer, for God.
Just a few nights ago I asked her, as we do off and on, to lead the
prayer herself instead of having parental words. She's gotten pretty
articulate in her eighth year, and after a few minutes of thanksgiving
and petition she said, "and now we will conclude with the Lord's
Prayer," and we did, and I thought in the dark warmth of the
upstairs parsonage bedroom how this prayer and these words connect us
across language and time and economic condition and denominational
division not only to a common language of hope and love but somehow to
the words of Jesus, the words of God, and as often as I suggest this
myself when she suggested it, it caught me by surprise and opened the
prayer again for me, even further.
If we're having trouble in prayer we could just pray for God and
could just pray the Lord's Prayer. Books of a thousand pages make
points no more complex.
But we are not always having dry spells. Sometimes we can hardly
contain our thanksgiving and joy, our celebration and hope, our
optimism and irrational exuberance. Airplanes and hospital rooms are
not the only places for prayer. And if prayer connects us to all
creation, there is virtually nothing in creation that should not be
named in our expressions. So it is good and right to be as wide-ranging
and inclusive as we can, too. We can at times go on and on and on.
John Chapman, a contemporary writer, says "The only way to pray
is to pray; and the way to pray well is to pray much." It makes a
difference. To ourselves, to our God, to God's creation.
Prayer has many forms -- public, private, liturgical, petitionary,
intercessory, confessional, invocational, and more -- and they all come
down to this: prayer is God's gift, revealing the union that we have
with the divine and the creation and the cosmos -- even with one
another. When we pray it changes the way the world is and what the
world can be. It is simple, and complex, and it is less to be talked
about than practiced, so let us sing together, and then let us pray.
Copyright © 2009
Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.