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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.
Thank you so much for this, and the story about you and your mom, and the insight on Peter and John, and the prayers you suggest. I think you’re so right, except I would say one thing; I don’t think it has to be an either-or. For me as a child to ask God to bless my food, and expect God to do it because I asked, is more than a transaction. Otherwise the prayer parables in St. Luke are hollow (the widow, the guest at night, snakes and eggs). Just that one demurral.
Daniel, thank you for your response. You are correct in saying it is neither one nor the other. That is rarely so in this life of faith. “Both and” is usually more accurate in terms of the way God works. Thank you for bringing that nuance to light.
Amen! Thank you, Megan. Well said. Prayer is transformational.
Good to hear from you, friend Megan!
I am still grateful for all you did for Kairos W. MI when you were on the Board. Thank you Megan!
Openness to God. Communion with our Lord. Being led by our Lord. Energized by our Lord to take action.
Question: I thought the passage for today’s lectionary was from Acts 1, not Acts 3.
O well. The emphasis on prayer is timely. Lord, help us through this time of global crisis. Through Jesus Christ our Lord.
John, thank you for your greeting. Just a quick note regarding the lectionary – I mentioned above that I was referencing the “narrative lectionary,” which is different than the Revised Common Lectionary. If you would like. to learn more about it, you can browse workingpreacher.org. Peace to you!
Thank you for this most magnificent blog. I completely understand this as I had similar prayers at my mother’s death bed. Thank you. God bless you. Stay well.
Megan, this is beautiful, thoughtful, and so wise. Thanks for your vulnerability about struggling with prayer while your mom was sick. Even though there is part of me that wants the transactional nature of prayer to be true (because then I’m in charge!), there is something so much more freeing and ultimately expansive about the transformational nature of prayer. As you say, it also calls us to responsibility. Thank you for this. It’s so good!
Megan, thanks for this wonderful blog. It’s so great to hear from you again. I appreciate your thoughts about the transformational nature of prayer, shaped in a time of pain and crisis. It’s helpful for today.
Ruth, it is so wonderful to connect with you again, as well! Peace to you!
Megan, thank you for this today. It is a blessing to learn with and from you!
Thanks, Megan, for your perspective on prayer. As I understand your position, it comes close to, or is the same as that of, Kierkegaard or Mother Teresa. Intercessory prayer is not us interceding to God (or to Jesus Christ) in behalf of those in need so that he would act in their behalf. Rather prayer heightens our awareness of God in a given situation and compels us to act in God’s behalf.
The Christian (even Reformed) suggestion that Christians should pray as though it all depends on God, but act as though it all depends on you, fits the perspective that you suggest in your article. So when we see good come through our efforts, we thank God for what he has done. But when we see little accomplished or slow progress being made (such as with Covid-19 or the Holocost), shouldn’t that also be laid at God’s feet?
The reality is that only the second half of that prayer suggestion is true, that what gets accomplished is through the choices and efforts of people (Christian or not). So prayer, in your view, has less to do with God and more with being a self motivator. We influence ourselves through prayer. Why not just remove God like those who don’t believe in God or prayer and out of concern for others, do good? Isn’t that really the bottom line?
No RLG that is not the real bottom line for those who’s pride comes from the love of themself that comes from the love others have given them! That love, I believe, you RLG can see in the articles and comments! and you desire to experience that love you see being shared! Which is why you are posting here! Maybe in the hope of a reply showing love for the pain you are in! I hope to show love with not trying to prove you wrong but I am asking why are you so critical of the love being talked about?
I am surprised that no one has commented on the graphic accompanying your post. It was a wonderful addition to your thought-provoking words and both my wife and I enjoyed it. For those of us practicing rather severe social distancing because of age and/or other health concerns, prayer remains as an important way to support our church community and our social community. Thanks for your encouragement.
Beautiful Meghan, and I hope I can remember that possibly at anytime I pray it may be that I need the change.