There are no required norms or forms, formats or formulae for meaningful, effective prayer. And by “effective,” let me be very quick to say, I do not mean that I get what I state as my desire in the prayer automatically or at all. Back to the no required format thing.
So I was raised in a free-form prayer tradition. It was considered in the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads inappropriate at best and faithless at worst to prepare a prayer. If the prayer were prepared, the common thinking was, it could contain no sincerity, could not be from the heart–which was the expectation of all prayer. Even if not eloquent or necessarily clear, as long as it was from the heart that was all that mattered. That was such a prevailing prayer practice in my growing up years that I never saw anyone pray a prayer that had been written out until I went with Mom and Dad to a Masonic graveside service.
I suppose I must have been a young teen by that time. Dad was a Mason, and we were attending the service of one of his lodge brothers, as I recall. The Masonic group did their part of the graveside service to close it out, and we were done. The minute we got in the car my Mother was saying, “Well, that was a waste of time, that so-called prayer part.” Dad, being a little protective of his Masonic life, said he really didn’t think so. Written prayers weren’t all bad, he reckoned. They argued a bit about it then, and afterwards nothing more was said, but I continued to believe for many years that the best kind of prayer was off the cuff, even in public.
I was one afternoon standing on the sidewalk in front of my church in New Orleans, St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church, admiring some new landscaping, and someone walked up to me on right in front of the church. He said, “Father, give me a prayer.” It took me a second to figure out why he was calling me “Father,” though I eventually got accustomed to being called Father in such a Roman Catholic town, and it continues into the present.
I signed up for new gym membership recently, and as the person activating my membership was getting information about me we came to the place of employment. I said, of course, Silverside Church. He said “Are you a priest, Father?”
I said, no, not a priest. I didn’t debate with him because I’ve always found discussion on that subject a waste of time.
Then, he said, “I’m going to give you five dollars off each month because of your ministry vocation.”
I said, no. Please don’t do that. I really appreciate it, but my ministerial code of ethics with the Ministers’ Council of the denomination that has ordained me discourage discounts and freebies and such on the basis of my professional identity.
He said, “Well, I’m the one with the computer, and I’m giving you a five dollar discount. This way I can go home tonight knowing that all is right between me and God.” I went home laughing. If that’s all it took to get in good with God, assuming God were that kind of God, five bucks to help a preacher get a better gym rate would be kind of a small price to pay. Anyway, the person was very nice, and I really appreciated him as well as the sentiment that is in my code of ethics as a an ordained clergyperson in my particular tradition.
The guy on the sidewalk wanted a prayer. I said, ” Of course. Come in to my study.” I asked him what his concern was. He told me, and I prayed off the cuff with him.
As soon as I said, “Amen,” the guy thanked me and asked for the “real prayer.” I said, “Sorry, Pal. Based on what I know, that’s the best I knew.”
My secretary stepped in to bail me out. She came in and took charge of the situation. Caroline handed the man a little funeral home card with a picture of Jesus on one side and the Lord’s Prayer on the other. Though “real clergy” had several prayer cards for several occasions, the card Caroline gave him made him a happy camper.
I looked at her when he’d gone I suppose with a look of gratitude combined with confusion. She smiled and said, “You’ll learn.”
Everything called prayer isn’t prayer. Just because someone says that she or he is praying to God does not mean that what comes out of her or his mouth or passes through her or his consciousness is a prayer by any stretch of the imagination. Jesus talked about some of the most renowned pray-ers in his day and time–namely, the Pharisees. The Pharisees dressed up in their finest eye-catching religious finery probably six days maybe seven days every week. All dolled up, they went to the Temple to pray. When they arrived they stood in a prominent place in the designated prayer areas, and spoke out their prayers in loud and boisterous voices so that people could hear them and see them and be impressed and be shamed in comparing their pitiful prayers to the masterpiece-prayers of these most pious of Jews. Jesus, FYI, was unimpressed. How could he too not be impressed?
Commenting on Pharisaical prayers one day, Jesus said, “Those lines surely are pretty, and the theatrics put stage professionals to shame. They’re getting exactly what they want too–people giving them their undivided attention. But what they call prayer isn’t prayer at all. They may be dressed up. They may be seen regularly at the Temple; they may have their eyes focussed upward and their hands raised heavenward. But there’s no prayer going on, no praying at all.
There’s some question about whether or not prayers that are lists of requests or demands made of God are actually prayers either. In other words, it’s possible that whatever prayer might be it’s not asking for anything from God. Maybe it’s thanking God or communing with God in some kind of meditation. But it is not a list of what I want today.
Now, some of you immediately think of the so called “model prayer” as proof that I’m incorrect in what I just said. In the model prayer, after all, Jesus says, “Our Father who art in heaven hallowed be thy name. Thy empire come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread….” What’s up with all these imperatives? “Give us this day our daily bread.” It isn’t even a question or a request.
If someone is going to try to pray according to the model prayer, how about at least a please-tweak? “Please, God, give us this day our daily bread, and please forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” I’m a polite southern boy, most of the time. I was taught to say “please” and “thank you” (not “please” and “yup” or “no problem”). Lead us not into temptation, or please lead us not into temptation? Deliver us from evil, or please deliver us from evil?
The model prayer huh? Not a great model as far as I’m concerned, sorry to say. It was one example of how Jesus taught some people to pray.
I grew up in a tradition in which people prayed exactly that way. I even thought I was SUPPOSED to ask God for certain things. After all, in another place, Jesus teaches, “You have not because you ask not.”
It was not until well into my post-seminary-study days in the practice of ministry that I began to feel something was wrong here. Many will disagree with me including many of you, perhaps. (That would be a shocking experience for me!) I’m not trying to get a following here; I’m just trying to be honest about what I think. It seems wrong to me to give God lists of things to do: get me what I need, what I want, make the experiences I long to have happen happen, toss my way those honors I want to achieve, give my baseball team the win they deserve–or not, make the weather behave in my favor!
I can’t help remembering the bride who arrived at her outdoor wedding a few summer ago in a foul mood. She jumped out of the limo, marched up to me and said, “You’d better pray for sunshine.” If I don’t like commands, how could God?
I thought she was kidding at first, although I must admit she didn’t look like she was kidding. It’s just that I couldn’t imagine anybody saying that and being serious so I came back and said, “Yeah, I don’t do weather prayers; that’s the guy down the street.” Then she said to me, and I’m not embellishing in the slightest, “This is no joke! For what you’re getting paid for this wedding, you’d better cough up a prayer for sunshine.” I gave her a pass because it was her wedding day.
I say, however, “Dearly beloved, it doesn’t matter how much I might get paid to perform your wedding I still don’t do whether prayers, and for your information I’m not making a penny on the wedding because I’m performing your wedding as a favor to your parents. So instead of worrying about prayer for a dry bride today, you should’ve been willing to work out with the wedding coordinator a backup plan in the event of rain since sometimes in Delaware it rains.”
I don’t know how many examples there are in Judeo-Christian scripture of unanswered prayer. I suspect if I were to do a concerted investigation I would find very few of those. But one that stands out in my mind because of its sheer poingnance is Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane just ahead of that last set of Domino events that would get him to his cruel Roman crucifixion. If you know much about the Jesus story then you probably know about the prayer in Gethsemane.
The oldest of the three versions of that story passed down to us in Christian scripture is in the Gospel of Mark:
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
While Jesus OF ALL PEOPLE asked God to excuse him from death duty, God remained silent. I guess one could say that the fact Jesus had to endure his horrid execution WAS God’s answer. A no. But the fact that God didn’t speak aloud or send a messenger with a response I believe puts this episode under the category of unanswered prayer. This is a biggie too.
My imagination is already breathing in that fine Tennessee mountain air, I guess, because Garth Brooks comes to mind. Do you know his song, “Unanswered Prayers”?:
Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.
Remember when you’re talkin’ to the man upstairs
That just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care.
Some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers.
What leads up to this chorus is Mr. Brooks’s reflections on how good it is that God didn’t answer all the prayers he’d ever prayed.
Some of our prayers reflect an understanding of God as petty and selfish, easily moved by flattery, and open to human demands if couched in the proper language. How small such a god becomes.
My professor and prayer mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, taught me that long before I ask or even if I don’t ask at all, God is already directing God’s “love energies” toward healing and wholeness, toward loving resolution in every situation. God’s love energies are potentially efficacious depending on the person or persons or circumstances toward which those energies are directed. You may know the story of the physically disabled man of whom Jesus asked, “Do you want to be well?” Almost everyone who hears or reads this story initially, scratches their head. Jesus was a smart guy. Not everyone who is ill wants to be well. If so, her or his own will is struggling against the healing power of God’s love energies.
When I pray or direct positive thoughts toward a person or situation, Dr. Hinson says that I am adding my love energies to God’s. I really like that image even though neither God’s love energies nor ours can cause a person who rejects healing or resolution to receive them. And we can’t possibly ponder the effects of prayer without keeping in mind the reality of randomness in human experience.
TRU DEE has taught me a lot about prayer by how she practices it–namely, by seeing negative circumstances as already resolved. The vision of health or wholeness is the foundation of her prayer.
When I can be objective, and I’m not pretending that I can be objective frequently, I thank God for what I already believe to be happening instead of telling God what I thought ought to happen. Instead of praying, “God, will you please heal our sister- or brother-seeker?” I assume that God desires healing and wholeness as much or more than I could, so my prayer is, “Thank you, God, for your loving presence with our brother- or sister-seeker who prepares for this surgery or this treatment. Thank you for medical professionals dedicated to health preservation and improvement.” And so on. With that kind of prayer, there is no such thing as unanswered prayer.
Glenn Hinson says that even if you have finely polished theology and know better than to give God to-do lists, the prayer of your heart may well be–no matter what–”Please, God, heal my loved one.” God is not offended by Gethsemane prayers even though God is doing all God can in a given situation before I ask. I love the way Paul describes God in his letter to the Christians at Ephesus, as the One “who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or imagine.”
As God doesn’t likely join us in our God-could-fix-it-if-God-wanted-to presuppositions, I’m not sure there’s any such thing as answered or unanswered prayers. There is the reality of healthful communion with God and the reality of love energies at work where they can work. Garth Brooks’s fine country singing notwithstanding, I don’t think God kicked Garth’s first love to the curb so he’d be freed up to fall in love with the woman he married just as I do not think if your loved one remains ill God has decided not to grant your wish–i.e., answer your prayer.
His unparalleled compassion notwithstanding, Jesus tired of crowds who dogged him only to see God work a miracle through him. Maybe there’s a lesson there most of us haven’t noticed.