Thoughts for the Soul

Why Pray?

Posted on: Mar 25, 2019

Lent is the time during the church year when Christians historically have subjected themselves to more rigorous spiritual discipline. As a youngster, I recall attending Wednesday evening services year after year. (I had no idea then how much extra work those services required of the minister.) While midweek services are much less common today, one can find all manner of devotional materials for Lent—the idea being, I suppose, that if we can’t get them to church, folks will at least read and reflect on something spiritual.

Prayer is prominent in whatever Lenten discipline we might pursue. (I will preach a sermon series on prayer during Lent.) Many of us, however, aren’t comfortable saying prayers. We don’t feel we know what to say, perhaps. Or we wonder if God will answer our prayers—or anyone’s prayers, in light of the dramatic natural disasters and constant wars of recent years.

Many people think about prayer in transactional terms: if I ask God for something the right way, I will get it. And if I don’t get it, I have to keep praying.

Lutheran theologian and pastor David Lose connects this transactional praying with Luke 11:9-10 [CEB]:

Ask and you will receive. Seek and you will find. Knock and the door will be opened to you. Everyone who asks, receives. Whoever seeks, finds. To everyone who knocks, the door is opened.

Persistence, Lose observes, would seem to count. Given how we typically understand these words, it’s not surprising that most folks focus on the mechanics of prayer: how, when, and why.

Lose goes on to suggest, though, that Jesus’ instructions regarding prayer are less about how/when/why than they are about who. “Jesus invites us,” Lose says, “into relationship with God through prayer, offering us the opportunity to approach the God whose name [for the ancients] is too holy to speak and whose countenance too terrible to behold. . . .

“Prayer, according to both this passage and Luke’s larger portrait of Jesus, is not primarily about getting things from God but rather about the relationship we have with God. In other words, do we truly trust that God is with us, no matter what life brings?”

When we trust God, prayer becomes a conversation with God. We may kneel to pray, or we not. We may say something aloud, or not. We may say a prayer in unison with others, or alone. A classic portrayal of conversation with God is Tevye’s prayer (in Fiddler on the Roof) who several times addresses God: “I realize, Lord, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor, either.” There are no right or wrong ways to say a prayer.

John Buchanan is a prominent Presbyterian pastor and preacher, who also served as publisher of The Christian Century magazine (now retired from all those roles). Almost 20 years ago, he wrote: “One of the theological puzzles with which I have struggled over the years is . . . God’s miraculous intercession in human affairs in response to prayer.”

He tells how he might accompany parents beside the hospital bedside of a child with leukemia, offering prayers for healing. And then observes, “. . . there are so many children for whom no one is praying specifically.” And he relates is own experience of having a hundred say they were praying for him as he recovered quickly from hip surgery, when his hospital buddy across the hall proceeded with more difficulty—because only two people are praying for him?

Buchanan doesn’t try to answer such questions. But he does assert that “strength and courage and hope and wholeness are imparted in the knowledge that others are holding you up to God in prayer [emphasis added]. And I do know that God’s healing love somehow uses the love and concern and prayers of others in the work of restoring, comforting, and creating wholeness.”

Such mysteries we may ponder. Such trust and faith we may practice. Such wonders we may behold.

— Pastor Fogal

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