What do I consider to be the nature of prayer? I’ve been asked many questions about prayer and people’s prayer lives, but this one caused me to really think about my answer. As it turns out, I’ve written twenty page essays on less involved topics, but will do my best to address the high spots of my thoughts.
Prayer, for me at least, fits into three categories: personal, communal and liturgical. Admittedly the last two are not neatly separated, but in my definition communal prayer is that which occurs between two or more people outside of a formal service or liturgy.
Personal prayer varies considerably but generally fits under an umbrella of “conversation with God”. Sometimes the conversation is joy-filled and thankful, while at other times it may verge on lament. Many times prayer is precipitated on a need for direction, wisdom or encouragement (my euphemism for requesting “a kick in the pants”). Location and time are of little consequence as I tend to converse with God, or to God depending on my mindset, quite spontaneously and frequently.
Communal prayer, whether with my wife, someone suffering or with a small group of people in any variety of situations, is also relatively informal. One pattern I generally follow, however, is that I prefer to pray for the other person and have the him/her pray for me if, indeed, the aim of the prayer includes lifting up personal cares. More often than not, I pray for help in discerning how to act or proceed in a given situation. My assumption is simply that, since God is active in the world and the message of Christ requires the same of me, I am to seek direction in the action I take.
Unfortunately, the majority of prayers I hear in church fall into one of two types: (1) prayers that affirm the vertical relationship between God and people, which many times seems to rest on validating roles of superiority, or at least some claim to special status, as Christians; and (2) petitions for God to respond, in an equally vertical manner, by acting to alleviate suffering somewhere in the world.
When social justice issues are raised, this latter seems to be the response of many ministers/congregations in order to participate in the solution – along with the possibility of some checkbook missionary work, of course. While I have seen this pattern far too many times in U.S. churches, I witnessed this modus operandi in virtually every British church I attended during a twelve month period. This was especially true in the seminary environment at Cambridge. Absent is any apparent recognition that we are to participate in some concrete manner in God’s resolution of the world’s ills.
While not universally applicable, of course, I prefer a somewhat different approach to prayer that seeks God’s actions in our lives. Even though showing my Presbyterian roots, I’m sure, I approach with love and thanksgiving, and then ask God to act in my life – to convict me of my sins and my complicity in the world’s ills, by acts of omission as well as commission. Knowing forgiveness is granted, I then pray for the courage to repent, and the guidance and wisdom to know how to act horizontally in that repentance as an agent of God in the world.
Righteousness comes into play when I recognize my part in God’s actions and operate accordingly to work towards the mitigation of social issues, keeping in mind my sphere of influence and the resources available to me. Not everyone is called to act in the big picture, but all of us are called to act in the areas and in the ways that are consistent with our abilities, gifts and wherewithal, no matter how limited. My righteous actions in the world, in turn, speak to God in concrete ways of my reverence for Creation. My concept of this flow – from God through us to world and back to God – also flows in reverse with God acting directly in the world at large, the world acting in our lives to support and encourage us, informing our personal, spiritual participation in discourse with God.
In my opinion, the type of prayer I have witnessed most often can rob congregations of the opportunities to recognize the added responsibilities that come with faith, as well as to experience God’s empowering action. If we are claiming the salvation of Christ, are we not also to claim our part as God’s agents in the world – the role Christ personified? If our prayers simply petition God to act in the world, doesn’t that mean that we suspect God of generally not being involved and, at the same time, serve to convince ourselves that the ills of the world are beyond our capacity to change them, requiring nothing less than the miraculous intervention of God?