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The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.
These words are attributed to Soren Kierkegaard, but the sentiment flavors the reflections of other theologians and writers, as well. I believe Mother Teresa was leaning toward a similar idea when she said, “Prayer is not asking. Prayer is putting oneself in the hands of God, at His disposition, and listening to His voice in the depth of our hearts.”
Prayer is not an attempt to plead with God or persuade God to give us what we want or what we think we need. To pray is to choose a posture that makes us available to God and receptive to God’s influence on us.
This idea was lost on me as a child. I was more in the habit of engaging prayer as a transaction – I give God something (my time and attention) and God gives me something. Of course, it never turned out the way I hoped so I just assumed I was bad at it. Until my mom got sick.
First it was breast cancer, followed by the celebration of remission. Then the cancer returned when I was a freshman in college. A couple more years and many treatments later, she was admitted to the hospital for the last time. My dad called to tell me that there may not be much time left and I packed a bag as quickly as I could. I informed my professors that I would be leaving campus, and I made my way down I-29 from northwest Iowa to northwest Missouri, praying the whole way. I prayed that my mom would recover, that she would not be in pain, that God would give her strength.
I continued rehearsing the same prayers as I entered her hospital room around noon. In the evening, when her body started showing signs of distress, my prayers changed. “Lord, please help her pass in peace.”
That was a prayer I never expected to pray. Years later, as I have continued to process my grief over her death, I have come to understand that the practice of prayer changed me that day. My desperation to hold onto my mother had evolved into something else. Courage, maybe? Peace? Trust that she belongs to God. Whatever it was, it was something I certainly did not possess on my own. It had to be given to me.
The more I have reflected on this experience, the more I have embraced a new understanding of prayer. It has come to be less about a transaction, and more about experiencing transformation by dwelling in the presence of God.
Last Sunday, in the narrative lectionary, we encountered the ascension of Christ in Acts 1. And how did the disciples respond to this astonishing event? They devoted themselves to prayer (v. 14). Today, in Acts 3, we see Peter and John heal a man who was lame, a man they met on their way to the temple to pray.
I wonder, if the disciples had not been so committed to prayer, would Peter and John have noticed the man at all? If they were not going to the time of prayer at the temple, would they have even passed by that gate that day? Surely many others had gone through the gate without taking much notice of the man asking for alms, and others had noticed enough to share a few coins and then continue on. So, what was it that caused Peter and John to stop and engage this man? Could it be the practice of prayer?
If prayer helps make us available to God and receptive to God’s influence, then perhaps it helps us see the world the way God sees it. If prayer is less about changing God and more about changing us, then perhaps when we pray that all would be made right in the world, we can expect that God may use us to address the world’s needs.
In the midst of the tragedy that is the COVID-19 pandemic, promising to pray can feel passive. Unless we look at prayer through a new lens. If prayer changes us, then to pray for the healing of the nations and the protection of loved ones and strangers is an act of courage — courage to obey when God commissions us as partners in answering the very prayers we’ve prayed.
So, how do we pray…
…for all “frontline” workers?
…for all of those currently fighting the virus?
…for all who have lost jobs, financial stability, and who are at risk of losing housing?
…for all who are especially vulnerable: senior adults, those with preexisting conditions, those without easy access to healthcare, refugees living in unsanitary and densely populated camps, and more?
How we pray – the exact words we choose – need not be the priority. The power is in choosing to pray and to dwell in the presence of God.
So, church, come. Let us pray.