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What Happens in Prayer?

What God do you pray to? I do not pray to the God of supernatural theism. This is the God in the sky, the God of antiquity–the three-tiered universe–with heaven above, hell down below, and the earth in between. This is the God who is external to the universe and independent of human beings. This God is thought to be an actual being who orchestrates events here on earth and who intervenes only on occasions of God’s own choosing. While this remains the God most traditional Christians pray to, for most of us in progressive Christianity, this God is no longer adequate to our modern experience.

Personally, the God I pray to is close to the God of panentheism, the God who is both immanent and transcendent of the universe (and more) at the same time. Conceptually, I think of God as the great MORE of the universe–more than anything we can say, think, imagine, or conceive about God. While conceptions of God are always evolving, I think of God mostly as Spirit, as infinite love and energy, abiding presence, and endless mystery.

Does God answer prayer? My answer to this question is an unequivocal YES; God answers prayer, but the answer comes through the loving and compassionate actions of human beings. God (the Spirit) does not work independently of people. Rather, God works in us and through us (and other forms of life), doing what God can to bring wholeness and harmony to the world.

Therefore, in the face of evil in the world, such as warfare, terrorism, or–to cite a recent example–the cruel, inhumane separation of Mexican children from their parents at our southern border, we human beings cannot sit back, waiting for God to act independently from us. That is not how God works. Rather, we have to stand up and assume responsibility. With courage and conviction, we have to act and open ourselves to God and the Spirit working in us and through us.

When people infused with love and with passion for God reach out to another human being, or to a noble cause or purpose, it makes a difference. The recipient of the prayer cannot help but be uplifted and renewed by the love. On a feeling level (and in terms of energy), it makes a difference. Often times, it brings about some level of healing and renewal.

On a bodily level, we human beings respond to love and to the Spirit. Although we cannot measure the healing or renewal, often, we can feel it. It is in this sense that prayer, indeed, is so impacting on our lives.

What happens in prayer? (For more on prayer, see the chapter on “God and Prayer” in my new book, “The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In.”) To begin with–in thinking about God–there is no human heart-break or personal loss that God does not feel and for which God does not have compassion. In our darkest hour and in our most painful moments, God (the Spirit) is there, working in us and through us. This is part of the meaning of Jesus’ suffering and crucifixion. God is there–doing what God can to give life. This is who God is; this is what God does.

What I think happens when we pray is that, whatever happens, happens mostly to us–to
the person or persons who are praying. For example, when we pray for a loved one with cancer, what happens through our prayer happens mostly to us. Assuming we are sincere and that we are focused on a feeling level, we are the one mostly affected. When we pray for a loved one (or anyone), through our compassion, feelings, and love, we enter into the life of their suffering and struggle. This is the critical factor, to repeat: we enter into the life of their human situation.

If we think about it, this is a powerful reality. We are not just uttering words of prayer; we are actually, in a metaphorical way–with all the feeling and compassion we can muster–entering into the other person’s suffering or deprivation or whatever it is. It is a deeply relational experience. It takes energy, focus, and love. There is an intentionality to such prayer. There is a total giving of our deeper self to this process.

Our feelings and those of other persons–in relation to the person for whom we are praying–make a difference. When we visit this person, for example–the person for whom we have been praying–the person can feel the difference. In the process, the spirit of the situation is tangibly affected. Prayers bring healing to people because the energy of love has healing power. Simply put, always, love makes a difference.

The Rev. Dr. Jeffrey Frantz is a retired United Church of Christ minister.  He had long term pastorates in San Diego County and in Miami Lakes, Florida.  His service as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Panama in the late sixties spurred his commitment to social-justice ministries and to a spirit of ecumenism as a local church pastor.  He holds a Doctor of Ministry degree from Pacific School of Religion. He is the author of The Bible You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In and his just published book: The God You Didn’t Know You Could Believe In. Dr. Frantz and his wife, Yvette, are now retired and living in Boynton Beach, Florida.

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