Several years ago, I was part of a seminar led by a well-known theologian considering the impact of postmodern thought on Christian faith and life. At some point, in the midst of all the heady debate and discussion, the subject of prayer arose. I don’t recall the comment that set him off, but before we knew it, the conversation was running fast and furious down a rabbit trail about the form and substance of effective prayer.
Clearly, this conversation touched a nerve in the good professor. With increasing urgency and irritation, he attempted to convince the skeptical class that there is but one genuinely faithful way to pray. Basically, he argued that for those seeking to pray in a theologically appropriate manner, prayer is to be offered to the Father, through the Holy Spirit, and in the name of the Son. Using this proper formula and only this formula, he was convinced, mattered.
But what seemed so clear to him was lost on the mix of charismatic, evangelical, mainline and Quaker students sitting round the table. His neat and tidy pattern of prayer simply did not jive with the day-to-day experience of our group. We were living proof God listens and speaks — even to dunderheads who can’t keep their members of the trinity properly ordered.
What was so shocking was just how shocked this (otherwise brilliant) fellow was by our negative response. Surprisingly, he kept after us, trying to restate his point in various ways, as if our problem was we didn’t understand his point. Eventually, we convinced him we understood but disagreed. Thankfully, lunch time was approaching and it happened to be our day to go out to eat together. Bringing the meeting to a close, the professor absentmindedly asked, “Would someone like to pray for the meal before we go?”
As he closed his eyes, the dozen or so of us looked around the room at each another. One person silently mouthed, “Not me!” Several heads shook side-to-side. I sat there wondering, “Is this going to be on the test?!?” Finally, after a moment of awkward silence, an older member of the class and Bible professor from another school cleared his throat and said, “I’ll pray.” When he began, “To whom it may concern,” laughter erupted from the class. As I recall, even the good professor smiled. Someone’s uncontrolled giggling meant an end to the prayer. Thankfully, none of us suffered food poisoning from an inadequately or improperly prayed-over-meal.
I confess I do not fully understand the mechanics of prayer. Unlike the stiff formalism my instructor found so useful, my experience of prayer has mainly been expressed in groans of gratitude, long stretches of listening, and an increased recognition that genuinely effective prayer is less an event and more an ongoing and necessary way of life.
What I shared with my professor was a sincere conviction about the serious nature of prayer. It is, indeed, serious business. I expect God takes us at our word and so I am cautious about making casual commitments to Christ. I hesitate to bring a long list of demands…I mean, requests to God…as if I am dropping off a load of laundry for someone else to clean, mend and neatly fold. Praying for God to intervene in the affairs of human history, in my experience, often comes with an opportunity to remain involved in what will become the response. Am I willing, therefore, to allow my earnest concern to be morphed into God-directed action?
I believe there is One who is concerned, who hears us as we pray and responds in loving power. Though I cannot diagram how it works, I have seen people healed, hearts mended, relationships restored, miracles wrought. Through the stillness, I have heard the Word which still speaks in time — one which reorients and renews, which shakes our souls out of our self-absorbed slumber, alters the trajectory of our lives and, in doing so, the very course of human history. However you happen to do it, prayer matters and it makes a difference. Just be sure to buckle up.
Shall we pray, Friends?