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Why On Earth Do We Pray?

By Trish Patrick in All Sorts

thinking about prayer as a way of being in the world, being receptive to others and open to the presence of the divine..

The topic of 'Prayer' is a complex one.
We are exhorted to 'pray without ceasing, in everything give thanks for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you...' (1Thes.5 : 17,18 ). Having been raised in an intensely Baptist family for whom the scriptures were literally the word of god, prayer was something I heard lots about from my earliest days. In 'Junior Christian Endeavour' at the age of seven, we were taught how to pray in public extemporaneously. At prayer time, each of us had to say out loud, a sentence prayer (chain prayer). By the time one reached the lofty heights of Senior Christian Endeavour, one was expected to be proficient at extemporaneous prayer, and be able to pray aloud when asked. Prepared prayers/liturgies were considered ineffective and definitely inauthentic, while extemporaneous prayer was believed to be superior because the Holy Spirit was doing the prompting. This was all 'very anxious making' believe me ! The Wednesday night Prayer Meeting for me was fraught. Here were some highly experienced and expert pray-ers, mostly elderly christian gentlemen who had over the years developed a prayer style unique to themselves. They would use phrases which they would trot out with monotonous regularity. Some prayers were veritable sermons and a 'whose who' of the Baptist world. Each 'who' would be named and 'held up before the throne of grace', where they would be 'committed and commended' to the Lord. By the time I had plucked up courage to pray in the wake of these experts, everything that could possibly be prayed for had been. What was the point
of repeating the same stuff. If God was listening he/she must have been bored rigid... I was!
But this was genuine prayer.
However, I had many questions about prayer. How is prayer different from superstition?
Was this the only way to pray?
Did God listen only to extemporaneous prayer?... Did it really work? If so, how?
I didn't dare voice these questions or misgivings. One was expected to follow the example and the accepted wisdom of the group.
I could see the gaping holes in this theology of prayer with its questionable assumptions. The elements of prayer, praise, thanksgiving, confession, supplication were to be done in the right order, using prayer language such as thee, thou, because this was God we were talking to, not just anybody! Not only that, it seemed that the more inconvenient the time to pray, the more efficacious it was eg, some ridiculously early hour of the day.
My current thoughts on prayer differ vastly from those of my child and young adulthood. I started doing a lot of reading about prayer and a whole new perspective opened up to me. David and I attended
a Prayer workshop run by Spiritual Growth Ministries where we learned there are as many kinds of prayer as there are people. This was extremely liberating. Suddenly the 'how' wasn't important. Whoever or whatever we perceived the divine to be, a personal yet'(w)holy other' being, or 'something out there'...whatever our faith position, it was OK. Prayer could take many forms. It was not simply praying a particular formula in a church setting or at home. It's a way of being in the world, being receptive to others and open to the numinous.
Praying, or being prayerful happens when we are having a conversation with a friend over a meal, or coffee, when we are moved by beauty, sadness, or humour. Acknowledging and silently saying 'thank you' is prayer. Responding to someones need is prayer.
There is certainly a place for liturgical or formal prayer in which we may find great comfort. Some prayers are profoundly meaningful and beautiful, yet it can be difficult writing prayers which are inclusive, attending the needs of all. Thankfully prayer language has changed over the years but I sometimes wonder if we should include more humour, because, assumimg God is listening, wouldn't it make prayer more interesting? Does it have to be serious all the time? I love the T shirt Bev wears which says 'sudden prayers make god jump'.
Surely God delights in the prayers of children!
One of our little 'Grandies'(7yrs) was praying with Grandad and it included this confession.... 'God I have to say I used the 'f ' word twice today and I AM sorry but I can't promise I wont do it again'.. I loved his realism.
However we feel about prayer, it is part of our faith tradition and always will be, in some form or other.
We need to make space for it and listen to others thoughts about it. The saying ' confession is good for the soul' is true. This doesn't mean we have to grovel and squirm, but it does mean we need to own and take responsibility when we mess up. We speak of, and seek God's grace and forgiveness for our shortcomings, this too is healthy but often difficult to accept because sometimes we find it hard to forgive ourselves! As for requests and prayers of supplication...I still feel uncomfortable at the potential for manipulative and selfish motivations. I was intrigued to hear victims of 'Irma' claiming that God had answered their prayers and their lives had been spared. The very next news clip was about a family of six who had drowned in their van while trying to escape the flood waters. I still have many questions around this type of prayer. Intercessory prayer presents a challenge too. Maybe its simply a matter of naming the issue and holding it in our consciousness rather than suggesting to God ways people or situations might be fixed. Perhaps we ' over-think' prayer in some ways.
Despite all the mystery and the unanswered questions, I believe our human need to communicate with something totally 'other' is inherent . Even someone who has never uttered a prayer in their life, when life is threatened, will often invoke the name of god or maybe try bargaining with the divine.
Whatever our thoughts about prayer, and in spite of the fact we live in a chaotic and often frightening world, we still have much to be thankful for and we need to express this. One of the twentieth century's great mystics said ' if the only prayer we ever utter is 'thank you', that is enough'
Amen to that. Trish Patrick