Prayer can be an appealing concept to us humans. It’s an idea that there’s a Higher Power out there who we can talk with and make requests to. An entity more powerful than the President, who loves us more than our own parents, and who doesn’t charge us an hourly rate to sit on a couch and unload our problems. Who wouldn’t want to believe in that? But it’s not always that simple, as most of us have already figured out.
My views over the years have evolved when it comes to prayer. When I was young I knew all about it. Like anyone coming through the Christian tradition I was heavily influenced by The Lord’s Prayer. Therefore, God was my Father, he was in heaven, he was to be respected, he was endeavoring to implement his heavenly kingdom on earth, he was the giver of sustenance, he could forgive us and remove our guilt, and he could prevent us from temptation (or lead us into it if he wanted). And oh yeah, He was definitely a He! He had big muscles, a white beard, and he may as well have been popping out of a genie bottle to grant my every wish.
But just like the overall narrative of the Jews as recorded within the Hebrew Scriptures, my view of prayer morphed over time as I collected more experiences with it. In Genesis we see God very much as a “quid pro quo” granter of prayer requests, and that’s how I saw God as a child. If we were good and obedient, and we did the right things, we would live a good life and get what we asked for (e.g., Abraham). But as the Biblical timeline expands, and the Semitic people endure major hardships, their corporate understanding of prayer reorients toward a God who still loves us, but who will also do whatever he well pleases no matter how hard we try to be good (but still most often the story ends happily for us here on earth … e.g., Job). And this is how I believed in college. But then later we find that we can pray all we want, and be the best we can be, but nothing can be guaranteed in this lifetime (e.g., Jesus, Peter, Paul, and countless others).
This leaves the very open question of what value prayer can offer beyond self-soothing, increasing our focus, and the occasional placebo effect (and maybe more of course, but even if it was just that, those aren’t bad things). But what good is praying for other people, or even our world in general, if there’s no proof of real power in it? Why should churches and communities continue to pray at all?
To that last point I do have something to consider, and it’s that maybe prayers are answered through other people. Maybe there’s still a mystical side to it, but less interventionist and more logical. For example, a starving kid in Africa prays “Please God send me food.” And that prayer can only be answered by someone who is inspired and loving enough to feed the hungry (because we know that God won’t drop manna out of the sky). Or maybe we pray for something more personal… What that answerer of prayer “believes” may not matter at all, but it’s how open they are to inspiration that enables the spirit of love to guide them. Maybe the simple act of praying helps open us to that inspiration?
Maybe the numinous happens when people are open enough to be led and influenced by the Spirit to sacrificially meet others needs? Maybe it’s all supply and demand? Maybe to understand prayer, the first thing we should do is become someone’s answer to prayer? And that simple act, if it became widespread, would answer many many prayers, including more of our own. Maybe that’s prayer, simply being open to the possibilities and the energy within it. Maybe there are also miracles that can result from prayer. Maybe?
So I still pray, and I believe that there’s power in it. And I think we should continue to pray in churches and progressive Christian communities. How about you?