What Is Prayer?
We had a fantastic discussion about baptism a week or two ago, one from which I am still learning.
I’d like in this post to invite another conversation, this time about prayer. In recent years prayer has become more and more important to me. Not just in my own life, but as I think about the challenges and opportunities facing us as Christians and, indeed, as the Church.
But here’s my question. Or, really, questions: What is prayer? How does it work? What do we imagine we are doing when we engage in it? If we’re not praying, why not?
I’ve said before that I don’t believe we have to understand prayer to do it. But I would like to understand it better, and I’d love your help. So I’ll put a few thoughts below and look forward to the wisdom and experience you have to offer. (And, yes, this will also help me write the chapter on prayer that will be a part of Making Sense of the Christian Life. )
Okay, so I’ll start with a basic question and my gut reaction to it. Does praying a certain way or certain amount influence God’s disposition toward, or action in, the world? I don’t think so. But that raises another question: if it doesn’t, then why do we pray? I suspect a lot of folks ask that same question.
Here’s my hunch: I think prayer has more to do with relationship than “outcomes.” We pray, that is, because it is a vital way of remaining in relationship, just as we may pour out our hearts to a friend, lover, or family member not in the expectation that they are necessarily going to do something about it but because we need someone to share with. And as we share all these things the relationship grows stronger. I think that makes more sense to me. Prayer is about relationship.
Lately, though, I’ve been musing about prayer in another way. Perhaps prayer is also a way of attuning ourselves to God and our shared life. That is, among other things prayer is also a practice. It is a practice where we lift up to God our joys and concerns, dreams and fears, hopes and anxieties. And as we do so we are thinking about all these things in light of our relationship with God and our faith. That in turns means that every time we pray we bridge the gap between our “daily life” and our “faith life,” a gap that a lot of Christians I know – including myself at points – report as pretty significant and which has been named as one of the greatest contributors to people leaving church.
Let me share an example that has prompted this turn in my thinking. A year or two ago I was part of a retreat where we had regular times of devotion. During one of them, the leader invited us to go to a website that displayed the front pages of newspapers all over the United States. She invited us to find the paper of the town in which we grew up, to scan the front page, and to pray for the things we read about there. It was powerful. Why? Simply because I was being asked to think about everyday life and activities and people from the point of view of faith. Something I’d like to think I do regularly but that I was suddenly doing with more intentionality during this time of devotions and in a pattern that I could repeat.
There’s more that I’m wondering about, but I think this is probably enough to get things going. Now I’d love to hear from you. What do you wonder about prayer? What do you believe? What have you experienced? What questions do you have? If you’d be willing to put your musings, wisdom, and questions in the comments that would be fantastic. Thanks for sharing.