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Prayer or 'Voodoo' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter Johnston   
Wednesday, 23 September 2009 22:34

Woman in prayer

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...]

As with any huge topic within Christianity it would be pure hubris to say that in a blog posting I can pontificate on the nature of prayer in any way other than to give a small glimpse of my own thoughts.

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?

Why Pray?

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.

Prayer Partners

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.

PRAYER oneth the soul to God. For though the soul be ever like to God in kind and substance, restored by grace, it is often unlike in condition, by sin on man’s part. Then is prayer a witness that the soul willeth as God willeth; and it comforteth the conscience and enableth man to grace. And thus He teacheth us to pray, and mightily to trust that we shall have it. For He beholdeth us in love and would make us partners of His good deed, and therefore He stirreth us to pray for that which it pleaseth him to do.

Julian of Norwich (Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 43)

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:

May God bless you with discomfort
at easy answers, half-truths, and superficial relationships
so that you may live deep within your heart.

May God bless you with anger
at injustice, oppression, and exploitation of people,
so that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.

May God bless you with tears
to shed for those who suffer pain, rejection, hunger and war,
so that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and
to turn their pain into joy.

And may God bless you with enough foolishness
to believe that you can make a difference in the world,
so that you can do what others claim cannot be done
to bring justice and kindness to all our children and the poor.

(A Franciscan Benediction)

Comments (2)add comment

beth said:

Peter asks what prayer means to us...without sounding over the top - prayer to me is everything!

I sometimes think people get put off by thinking that as Ruairidh says they need to know the lingo, but also that it should be setting an alarm half an hour early to get up and sit in a dark room...

like anything its all about habits and for me i find myself praying without even realising - particularly when on the daily commute. it doesnt have to be a specific time place or format!

Although on the flip side i really miss praying with other followers - the power of prayer should never be underestimated, and its amazing when people realise that you dont have to be a speaker, musical or have memorised the entire bible to be able to contribute to the spirituality of our church group through active prayer- anyone and everyone can get involved theres no 'gift' required!

I was told as a child that God wants to be our best friend and and how can we have friendships without communication. Over simplification perhaps but a good starting point. I also think that its vital that we thank God for answering our prayers.

The aim should be (in my humble opinion!) that we pray without deserving an answer, but knowing that our God is all powerful enough to provide an answer - even if its not the one that we think is the right one...but then thats just another prayer to help us understand! smilies/grin.gif
October 01, 2009
Votes: +1

Ruairidh said:

Pray Constantly
Thanks for that Pete. It is a sad fact that while prayer is one of the most important parts of our spirituality - in fact our lives - it is so steeped in crass spirituality that we don't get it. At its most basic level, as you say, prayer is a conversation with our Father. There is no magic, no ritual, no necessary equipment, no phd in theology or an Elizabethan English dictionary. Yet, there is so much confusion about it. I think people struggle with it as a concept since they don't think they are 'religious' or 'holy' or 'godly' enough.

I struggle in prayer. Its not glamourous or easy. But I think while set aside prayer time is crucial (both individually and corporately - is this something for St. Andrew's to think about?) I think we too easily underestimate the 'atmosphere' of prayer in our lives as Christians. We are to "pray constantly" and I wonder if our sitting worrying, thinking through things, chatting to ourselves - that internal monologue etc. is that not also as Christians a form/sense of prayer? If not, shouldn't it be?

I totally agree that prayer isn't just a 'shopping list'. In fact, I think one of the most important lessons on prayer is taught well by the fabulous(!) Garth Brooks in his song: "Some of God's greatest gifts, are unanswered prayers" - the idea that at times we ask/desire for something that isn't good for us and God with-holds ut and gives us something even better. Of course, that doesn't touch on the mystery of suffering and evil in the world that God allows; although perhaps the seed of an answer resides therein.

What do you think of prayer acrostic like ACTS - Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving and Supplication?

September 30, 2009 | url
Votes: +0

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