One day I was sitting in a coffeehouse with some fellow pastors from the community. We were wrestling with some issues and failing to reach consensus. “Why not try prayer?” someone asked. I didn’t happen to be in a spirit of prayer and found it ironic that while one man prayed, everyone else in the coffeehouse that day was listening to a recording of Dave Matthews Band singing Where are you going? Here was a group of pastors praying earnestly (at least some were), and lofting above us were the words:
“I am no superman.
I have no answers for you..”
I wondered then as I wonder now: What is prayer? Does prayer really hold the cosmos together? Is prayer, as Thomas Merton believed, “a hidden, secret, unknown stabilizer and compass?” Or is prayer simply a form of talking to oneself? Are there answers “out there.”
“Who has not struggled with the puzzle of unanswered prayer?”, asks Richard Foster. “Who hasn’t wondered how a finite person can commune with the infinite Creator of the universe? Who hasn’t questioned whether prayer isn’t merely psychological manipulation after all? We do our best, of course, to answer these knotty questions but when all is said and done, there is a sense in which these mysteries remain unanswered and unanswerable…”
Prayer alone does not eliminate disease, accidents, or natural disasters. Prayer cannot and does not eliminate our mortality. If prayer doesn’t do these things, than what does it do, if anything?
Some people ask me to pray with/for them and others insist that I do not pray, at least not in their company. Or, as one person put it reluctantly, “You can pray, just please don’t use words.” Some people tell me that their favorite part of the worship service is the prayer of God’s people. Others tell me that prayer might be the one act of worship that makes them the most uncomfortable. I know that many people (sometimes myself included) squirm and get distracted during public prayer, perhaps wishing for a little more Dave Matthews Band.
Yet Sunday after Sunday we gather and some of us pray. Sometimes we use words and sometimes we sit in silence. Sometimes even the pray-ers get distracted and have their doubts about prayer.
Lately, when we pray as a church I imagine us focusing God’s radiant light and love on the places of woundedness, on our places of toxicity and pain. I imagine us focusing God’s radiant, healing light on communal pain as well–that vast mountain of racial, ethnic, gender, national and world suffering. Does prayer itself move those mountains? I don’t know, and I’m ok with not knowing for now. And perhaps it is really we who move as a result of prayer. For years, I carried around this prayer in my purse:
When I speak to you of my sorrow, it moves somehow
From its crouching place within.
Still I just don’t feel complete;
Life rarely seems to meet my dreams.
God of my hope, God of every birth,
Nurture in me, right spirit.
I tend to agree with those who think of intercessory prayer as “a place of meeting–” a weaving together of hearts, minds and desires. Prayer gives us an opportunity to become participants in each others lives and work. Perhaps prayer is best represented by these intertwining circles that continue to grace the front of our sanctuary.
This Sunday instead of preaching about prayer I’ve asked several people to share a prayer that has been significant to them. We will create our own chorus of pray(ers).
Who knows what we will sense, what new questions we will ask, how we might be moved as we listen, share and yes, pray together?
PS People who sit in the Wesley Room will be among the first to tell you that you never know what and who you will hear lofting above us at Rainbow! It could be God, it could be an organist from another dimension, it could be the preachers at Village Presbyterian, it could be Dave Matthews Band, or it could be…
See you Sunday I hope.