|Prayer or 'Voodoo'|
|Written by Peter Johnston|
|Wednesday, 23 September 2009 22:34|
This afternoon I was picking up some posters for Down to Earth, the concert with Fischy Music I'm involved in organising, when I overheard a fascinating conversation over the phone. What most interested me was a brief interchange about prayer at the end of the conversation.
The conversation was not one in which there was ever going to be whole agreement between the two parties involved, with at best an agreement to disagree mutually accepted. The conversation ended with one person, both of these folks, bear in mind, are followers of Christ, saying that they would include the other person in their prayers. To which the response was something along the lines of, "NO! Please don't! If you do that I will have to rebuke those prayers!" What a fascinating response which raises all sorts of questions about what that person thought of the nature of prayer.
On Sunday evening I was chatting with someone else about prayer within St Andrew's and how we can encourage others to develop prayer in their own lives. That conversation and today's overheard conversation led me to thinking about prayer. [There's more...]
What fascinated me so much about the overheard conversation this afternoon was that there seemed an almost manic assumption that a prayer by the other party in the conversation would somehow lead to some curse upon them because they did not agree with the pray-er about a completely unrelated issue. It had an almost 'voodoo-like' feel to it (though I confess I don't know a whole lot about the pantheistic religion of West Africa from which Voodoo has its roots, so I put that name in apostrophes as I am referring to the common understanding of voodoo as depicted in countless films, etc with its curses and dolls and so on).
The idea that you would need to rebuke a prayer from a fellow Christian because you have a disagreement with that person seems to put God in the place of a prayer clearing-house simply shuffling around the blessings and curses. Hence to counteract the prayer of one, you zap up a counter-prayer so that it cancels out. Or if you are worried about what a person will pray for you, you rebuke that prayer so that God doesn't act on it. To which my huge question is: where is God in this process? What role does his grace and love play in this seeming game?
Some might say, "aye right so what is the purpose of prayer, why even do it?" And I confess that sometimes I have felt that same despair when confronted with some atrocity or disaster. With the children I met at Calderside Academy yesterday, this was a real issue - what about all the bad things that happen in the world? Yet I remember too that Jesus prayed. He knew the value of prayer. To be perfectly blunt, if Jesus did it, and if I trust him, then so should I.
My understanding of prayer, however, has undoubtedly changed over the years. From using prayer as a means of exploring my wish list or as a bargaining tool with God (which I still remember darkly from the days around when my father fell into a coma and two weeks later died), I undoubtedly see my own prayers in a different way today.
That is not to say that sharing with God the wishes and desires of our hearts is bad, it is entirely natural to do so; neither is it to say that our prayers shouldn't be filled with wrestling over difficult issues (in the tradition of Abraham or Moses or Isaac) because sometimes all we can do is to scream and cling on when our own understanding fails us.
Thinking about my own prayer life, however, I think more and more I understand it as a means through which to connect to God and to allow my relationship with God to grow.
When you think back to the times when God is described in the Hebrew Bible as most dramatically intervening it is usually combined with the development of a new partnership with someone through whom God acts. Think of the story of Noah or Moses among many others. Ultimately we see this partnership fulfilled in the God-Man, Jesus, but note too that Jesus also builds partnerships with his disciples, frail though they are, and entrusts his kingdom into their and our hands, empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The language is archaic (from the fourteenth century), but I like the way Julian of Norwich puts it as she identifies prayer as the primary way by which God develops partnership today.
In essence this is prayer for me at the moment (I admit this may change further as my own journey continues): it is the forming partnership and friendship between Jesus and me as a member in his kingdom, it is working with God, and understanding his patience at dealing with my pathetic attempts to live as a disciple. It is about realising God's grace and love.
In accepting that grace, prayer extends out to others as they are included in my prayers - not so much because I am expecting God to make some miraculous cure happen just because I ask for it (as if he had never thought about it before) - but because in prayer, guided by the Holy Spirit, I begin to prioritise what should then guide my own actions as a disciple. Prayer and action are intertwined.
Does prayer work?
I have read a number of studies that have been carried out about prayer to try to statistically determine the effectiveness of prayer for, say, patients suffering from a heart condition. The purpose of these has been to try to show that prayer works, and each time the results are inconclusive. And no wonder! It is a nonsense to treat prayer as though it is a drug or placebo in a double-blind trial.
Am I saying prayer doesn't work? Not at all. I know it has worked for me: it has deepened my understanding of God and has given me more conviction to make a difference with my life as a result.
But what does prayer mean for you? What difference does it make in your life? I'd be interested to hear any comments.
And so to end these rambling thoughts as the hour becomes late, a prayer: