Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Be Careful What You Pray For

My last few outings as a guest preacher have prompted me to think of prayer from a somewhat different perspective.

I suppose that any individual who puts a modicum of effort into a prayer life will understand that addressing the Almighty is not idle chatter. It all takes some careful thought. Quiet time in order to listen doesn’t hurt either. In all of prayer, the Spirit is our helper.

What is more, I don’t know about you, but I take care in my choice of words and specific petitions I may send off to God. Why? Because I know that I’m likely to be held accountable for my prayer.

For example, there’s no real validity to prayers for the hungry if I neglect supporting local food programs with my contribution. Prayers for peace are gross hypocrisy if one is not willing to give time and energy as a peacemaker. In personal prayers, one learns to go and do what has been prayed for. And if one doesn’t want to do, one had best rethink the prayers.

Pondering the prayers in which I would lead the congregation the last few times, has prompted me to wonder if the folks in the pews see it the same way. I would like to think so, really I would, but I’m not so sure.

So my suggestion is that pastors, presiders and worship planners need to be more blatant about pointing out the ethical and practical implications of every prayer. Prayers, as a friend of mine once said, are down payments on action—you are committed and accountable to do what your prayer requires.

After all, prayer is not magical incantation to coerce God into doing what we want. Prayer is a way of claiming the promises of God and the power of the Spirit to enable us to work for the fulfillment of our prayer. Our hands will get done what God wants done.

The Prayer of Confession, for example, is one that I fear many take for granted. Normally we confess before God and each other our failings. God’s forgiveness is quick in coming—but along with that is our resolution to not repeat what we did that we shouldn’t have done, and to do what we should have done but neglected. Announcing forgiveness is not a pat on the head so we can pat ourselves on the back and go out and do nothing. On the contrary, forgiveness is empowerment for righteous action.

The Prayer for Illumination is also worthy of our consideration as having implications for action. We pray that what we hear read and proclaimed will be for us no less than the Word, the Risen Lord present to us. The action-response required is to perk up and focus our attention to the max. And to take everything we hear personally.

The Prayers of the People, of course, have strong implications for ethical response. When prayers are offered for people we know, by name or by suggestion, the action response is easy to figure out. We know whom to help and how. When the subjects of the prayers are more generally named, such as the poor and outcast, the hungry and lonely, the sick and imprisoned, opportunities for action may include social and even political efforts.

The Presentation of the Offering is usually followed by a prayer, not just of thanksgiving to God for the goodness received and the gifts to share, but a commitment of what is offered, including our very selves, our lives, in Christ’s service. So we’re not talking about a few dollars in the plate here. The offertory prayer, if we dare to pray it, is a total response and recommitment of all that we have and are to God.

The Eucharistic Prayer picks up on this very same emphasis. Thanksgiving to God for creation, for claiming the People of God and sending prophets to lead them, for the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, culminates in an offering of ourselves as “a living and holy sacrifice,” dedicated to God’s service. The Holy Meal itself carries the same message, as the prayer says, “As this bread is Christ's body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.”

These central prayers of our Lord’s Day worship are there to praise God and push us out the door to be obedient servants, living lives worthy of God’s gracious love. So pay attention to what or whom you’re praying for—there’s a required action in the prayer, and you are accountable.

Does the language of prayers in your service include an emphasis on doing what it requires? Are there other prayers that imply actions?


  1. Some good thoughts on prayer and I will keep them in mind when I form my own. As I read the piece I was reminded of James Hopewell's adaptation of Northrup Frye's "Anatomy of Criticism" where Hopewell adapted the Frye's narrative world views into those of faith. It seems that your emphasizes reflect an empiric approach to faith, which stress the integrity of human experience over the more "supernatural" explanations of events. This is the somewhat opposite of what Hopewell deemed the "charismatic" view, which sees the Spirit as transforming believers. Certainly, most people are not purely one of the other, but tend to have leanings. So my initial question is, can we expect anything from God unless we are willing to make it happen ourselves? If someone is sick and I take care of them so that I can pray with integrity, why bother praying? This is a question I've been posed from an atheist I know challenging my assertion of the Spirit's role in healing. I'm interested in your thoughts on this.

  2. Prayers are not to be taken lightly. If only the people who request an invocation to "get things started" understood what they were asking for.

    My prayer petitions changed when I served as a hospital chaplain. I dared not pray with a family for their loved one to be "cured" and thereby risk them thinking that God was not listening or not present if a cure didn't happen. Rather, I lifted up in prayer the hopes and fears of the situation we found ourselves in.

    I have followed this practice in the invocations, pastoral prayers, and other service prayers I've composed since. Hesitating to name the outcome God WOULD bring, focusing more on the sacramental nature of laying our lives before God in prayer.

    Some might see my reticence as a lack of faith. I see it as trusting God's wisdom and goodness to bring about the result that is needed for everyone's highest good.

    On the positive side, lifting up "the situation as we find it" has also caused me to look more deeply into what our situation is. How distracted we keep ourselves running from one thing to the next. Our fears that sharing the benefits we have might "rob" our children of some lifesaving necessity in the future. Our fatigue that steals our desire to even look at another problem much less do something about it.

    Not claiming what God WILL do has left a lot of room to name what we already do and, perhaps, what we might do instead.

  3. Some good things to consider. I've tried, over the years, to get the community I serve to consider the notion that prayer is the effort to conform our lives to God's will and not the other way around.

  4. "Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz..."
    I remember when that song came out in the 1960s and you and I would sing it at the top of our lungs laughing at the idiocy of it all.

    I get very frustrated at all the 'asky' prayers - I always understood to pray for what I needed to get the job done - strength to work at a problem, wisdom to make a good decision, words to share that would turn hearts and make a difference. Always it was understood that the actual change was to be effected by myself, with the tools provided by the Almighty. I must have learned this intuitively from the type of worship I participated in, and expressly from my early Christian education.

    Yet all I hear around me these days is prayers for GOD to do something, without ownership of the responsibility. That surely tests faith - I have a friend whose mother prays in earnest for a good parking place whenever she goes out. When she doesn't get one, musn't she feel abandoned by God?

  5. Oh, this is GOOD! Accountability and responsibility. It comes on the same day the NY Times has the article about the decline in Protestantism in the U.S.

    I cannot help but think if our prayers, our song (sung prayer) and our actions were linked, Protestantism would be much healthier. Our church-going makes sense then. Otherwise it is an exercise without a point. Our belief in God doesn't have much substance.

    Thank you, Don.

  6. I am grateful that the Good Lord Jesus prays for my access to His Father and our Father, taking up my prayers and giving them standing with Him in His Spirit.


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