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Posted: 10/17/2018
Does Anyone Understand Prayer?
Prayer: I have Questions
Woman Praying
Woman Kneeling in Prayer: George Henry Boughton
George Henry Boughton: Watercolor (c 1860)

Prayer is a major hallmark of the Christian faith. I cannot imagine any church pastor, or even one sitting in a pew who would not emphasize prayer as a critical Christian discipline.

The offer of prayers for others is quick on most people's lips whether they are religious or not: "I'll be praying for you tomorrow when you have surgery." Or, so often these days after an event like a mass shooting: "Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims."

I do believe in prayer. I pray nearly every day; prayer is a part of my morning devotional time, as well as in those daily, spur-of-the-moment times during a day when guidance, help, or understanding is needed. In addition to my extemporaneous prayers, I often pray more formal ones, many from The Book of Common Prayer. Like many others, often the Psalms become my prayers.

But, regardless my prayer life and strong belief in prayer (at least I think it a strong belief), I know have more questions — even doubts — about prayer than any other component of my Christian faith. I doubt I'm alone and the only Christian like this: Believe in prayer, pray, but have many questions — perhaps more questions than answers.

Frankly, realizing this, and confessing it, is difficult. I view myself as a usually rational person; understanding and making sense of the world around me and of my own life is important. The same with my faith. I want my faith to be something that makes sense; a faith that stands up to the challenges and difficulties of the real world. For me, the term blind faith seems just a cop-out: "I don't need to understand; I just believe." Maybe this approach works and is valid for some; it's not for me.

I seem wired to be a "seeker"; I search for meaning, try to find answers to my questions. Even an answer I think I have found doesn't always remain secure; my answers are often up for further questioning, for criticism, for better clarification. We all want answers: Why did this happen? Where was God in this disaster? Why do I do what it is I do not want to do? This is a topic for perhaps another Reflection, but I think we are so searching for answers that often we will latch onto a "bad" answer rather than live with "no" answer.

So, this whole topic of prayer, while being full of questions, is a tough one for me. As I've said, I do believe in prayer. Prayer is an important part of my life ... of my faith. But, I have questions. And, I have few, if any, answers to my questions. I've heard many answers folks would give to questions like mine; however, many of these strike me as simply latching onto a bad answer rather than live with no answer.

In this Reflection, I will list a few of my prayer questions. Some might be minor; but, others, for me at least, have major theological implications. I'm guessing that readers will have their own questions. I realize that by asking my questions, I may give the impression that I'm making light of many people's beliefs about prayer, or that I'm belittling the whole idea of prayer. But, I am not. As I said: I pray and I believe in prayer. I just have questions!

Here are a few of my questions — I wish the full list were this short! Interspersed, I include some quotes or thoughts that others have said about prayer. These do not necessarily address my questions, but they may provide more food for thought. (Besides, I'm a fan of good quotes!)

I Believe in Prayer: But, I have Questions:
This June, I was in charge of our church's annual Fair Days, a two-day, outdoor fundraising affair that provides a significant portion of funds to support our many missions programs. The success of any such outdoor event depends on good weather. Lurking thunderstorms can make for apprehension and sparse crowds; a downpour can totally wipe out a day. Obviously, I prayed a lot: no rain, please! In church the Sunday before, we prayed together for good Fair Day's weather. We even had a prayer team with their objective to pray for good weather: i.e.: No rain!

I wouldn't be surprised if many farmers in our area were also praying about weather. But, probably theirs were for rain! Did our Fair Days' prayers mean we don't like the struggling farmers who depend on rain? Fortunately, for us at least, the weather was beautiful and dry! Does that mean we had more folks, or more devout ones praying than the farmers did? Should we put God in a bind like this!

Mother Theresa was once asked about her prayer life. The interviewer asked, "When you pray, what do you say to God?"
Mother Teresa replied, "I don't talk, I simply listen."
Believing he understood what she had just said, the interviewer next asked, "Ah, then what is it that God says to you when you pray?"
Mother Teresa replied, "He also doesn't talk. He also simply listens."
There was a long silence, the interviewer was left a bit confused and didn't know what to ask next.
Finally Mother Teresa broke the silence by saying, "If you can't understand the meaning of what I've just said, I'm sorry but there's no way I can explain it any better."

I Believe in Prayer: But, I have Questions:
As individual Christians and as churches, prayer for healing is critical component of our personal and communal life. Such prayer is a certainty in a serious accident or battling a life-threatening disease. We quickly activate prayer teams, send urgent emails for prayer to the entire congregation: pray for strength and healing. "Make her threatening tumor go away." "Restore him to perfect health."

Whether it's after only a few days or many months, the person prayed for recovers. We all give thanks. "God is great! The Divine Healer! How Great is the God we worship!"

But, often the person does not recover, may even get worse. Does this mean God is not so powerful? The Divine Healer couldn't do it this time? Just how great is our God? Did we not pray enough; didn't we have sufficient numbers praying? (Do we dare even think such thoughts?) But, we shift gears, give thanks anyway and pray for support for those who grieve.

"I pray because I can't help myself. I pray because I'm helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time, waking and sleeping. It doesn't change God. It changes me."Quote about prayer is attributed to C.S. Lewis. Although its meaning and tone seem to be of Lewis, it is more likely that it came from the movie Shadowland, where Anthony Hopkins plays a fictional C.S. Lewis.

"Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at his disposition, and listening to his voice in the depths of our hearts."Attributed to Mother Teresa.

I Believe in Prayer: But, I have Questions:
This is related to the previous question. For the person in the hospital, we had all types of prayer groups praying. What about the guy in the hospital who has no one to pray for him? Does God require a critical number of prayers before Divine Ears are turned to hear and perhaps respond to prayer?

At our church's recent Vacation Bible School, there was a box where parents could submit their child's name to receive ongoing prayers from a prayer team during the morning's activities. Does God also keep an eye on those kids whose parents didn't submit prayer requests? Or is a written request required?

I Believe in Prayer: But, I have Questions:
Frequently, I pray fervently for some need and it seems that God does address it. Too often, I fail to give thanks to God for hearing and helping me. Does this mean that next time, God won't be as eager to help me? Might God be like I would be: "You didn't even give me a simple 'thanks'; I'm not going to be so eager to help next time." Does God simply overlook our lack of expressed gratitude?

From Mary Oliver, an American, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet on prayingMary Oliver is an American poet. She has won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. A collection of poems, Thirst (Beacon Press; October 15, 2006. Thirst, is a collection of forty-three new poems by Oliver, In this collection, she grapples with grief at the death of her beloved partner of over forty years, and she strives to experience sorrow as a path to spiritual progress, grief as part of loving and not its end.:

It doesn't have to be the blue iris,
it could be weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones;
just pay attention,
then patch a few words together
and don't try to make them elaborate,
this isn't a contest but the doorway into thanks,
and a silence in which another voice may speak."

I Believe in Prayer: But, I have Questions:
Do some people's prayers "count" more than when offered by others? Our church has several lay persons available as trained Prayer Ministers. If I have a need I'd like prayed for, am I better off taking my prayer to one of these prayer ministers, or simply asking those around me in the pews to pray for me? Are there specialists in prayer?

At my fitness center one morning, a colleague called me aside, saying, "I know you're a church person and that you pray: would you pray for my sister?" Obviously, I said I would; but, I felt humbled, a bit special, and confused: That she would seek me out for this important request, not saying anything to others; that I felt no "special gifts" for prayers to God; appreciative that she viewed me as someone she could ask for something important like praying for a loved one. Should it feel good that someone asked me to pray? Does God care who does the praying? Do some people's prayers "work" better than those of others?

From a French saint Jeanne JuganJeanne Jugan (1792-1879), also known as Sister Mary of the Cross, L.S.P., was a French woman who became known for the dedication of her life to the neediest of the elderly poor. She was beatified in 1982 and is buried in St. Peter's Basilica, Vatican City. Jugan was instrumental in starting The Little Sisters of the Poor, a Roman Catholic religious institute for women founded in 1839, as an order to care for the elderly and impoverished who lined the streets of French towns and cities., (also known as Sister Mary of the Cross):
"Go and find Jesus when your patience and strength run out and you feel alone and helpless.
Jesus is waiting for you in the chapel.
Say to him, 'Jesus, you know exactly what is going on.
You are all I have, and you know all things. Come to my help.'
And then go, and don't worry about how you are going to manage.
That you have told God about it is enough.
He has a good memory."

I could go on with questions: Does God tire of us asking over and over for the same thing? Is it a more authentic, acceptable prayer if we bow our heads, close our eyes, even kneel? And, the one we often ask: Why pray to God for something to go away (or other such request), if God is all-knowing and the result has already been determined? But, the list could be endless. Also, you probably have other questions of your own, so I won't monopolize the time.

This wrestling with prayer: believing in and trusting prayer, but still harboring many doubts and questions about it has taught me an important lesson about faith itself. My belief in and trust of prayer is stronger and perhaps even more meaningful because it is surrounded by doubt and questions. Perhaps that is the nature of all faith. We have faith in spite of our questions and doubts. And, maybe, just maybe faith is strengthened in this messy crucible of doubt and questioning.

I'll close with a thought about prayer from a pastor years ago that has stayed with me. I sometimes, only partially in humor, say that this pastor seriously curtailed my prayer life. Willard Ballard came to our American Baptist church in Wyoming as an interim minister. Rev. Ballard had homespun sermons and guidance, which came from his many years serving congregations from Illinois to Colorado and many places in-between. He had a grandfatherly image and I always thought of him as someone with the "Wisdom of the Ages," which came through in his oft-repeated stories. By the time he left us, most of us could finish the story after the first or second lines. Many stores came from his longest pastorate, that in Broken Bow, Nebraska. (You can imagine that a lot of good stories could come out of a place called Broken Bow, Nebraska!)

Rev. Ballard often talked about prayer — and this wisdom-of-the-ages guy also admitted he had many questions. But, what has stayed with me now for decades was a thought he shared about prayer, especially the petition-type prayer: "You know, I wonder whether we should even pray IF we aren't willing to be part of God's answer to the prayer."

C.S. Lewis said: "Prayer is as necessary as the air, as the blood in our bodies, as anything to keep us alive — to keep us alive to the grace of God." Even with all the questions we might have about prayer, let us keep praying. And, while we pray to our God, let us keep in mind the wisdom of my old pastor, Willard Ballad.


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