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Sunday, November 09, 2008


I got into a discussion with a friend about prayer.

It started when I noted how extraordinarily lucky Obama had been in past elections, and ended with this:

"But it's clear we'll all be better off if his good fortune continues. A little prayer can't hurt."

Which my friend objected to:
"I believe prayer coming from that standpoint doesn't help or hurt. So I guess from my perspective, that makes it a waste of time.

"Prayer requires faith. If you're just praying because it might work and it can't hurt, I don't think that meets the Bible's definition of true prayer."

This gave me an opportunity to think through the issues a bit.

What do I believe about prayer?

We agree that prayer requires faith.

Where I would respectfully disagree with my friend is what the outcome of prayer is likely to be.

Say I pray for a sick person several states away. That prayer may be helpful to me in several ways, including the purely natural ways of focusing my thoughts on that person, focusing on someone else's needs rather than my own, and perhaps motivating me to do what might be in my power to do. It's in that sense that I meant a little prayer can't hurt, and might help.

Whether prayer affects the actions of God -- meaning that God somehow would deal with sick person A who's prayed for differently than sick person B who's not prayed for -- that's problematic for me. I'm more comfortable with the idea that there's Providence ordering the universe, and there is a spiritual ordering of things, but we are almost completely ignorant to understand it. At our best, we have a few truths and can live our lives in charity as best we can. Someday we will know more.

I'm a practicing Swedenborgian. Swedenborgians are split on the issue. My wife prayed that Obama would become president; I didn't. I feel more comfortable with New Testament prayers such as the publican's ("Lord be merciful to me, as sinner") or the Garden of Gethsemane ("Let not my will, but thine be done.") It seems presumptuous to me now to pray for specific things. [I was raised Catholic, though, so I have a couple decades praying for highly specific things.]

Given this disagreement, when we took the new Theology School deacon who's interning here out to supper, we asked him about this [*]. The young man did well. He noted that there were some specific ministers who agreed with my wife's position, but the larger number of ministers would agree with me, and he did as well. Since religious belief isn't decided by ballot, this answer satisfied both of us.

I've noticed that an extraordinary number of my co-religionists are in the landscaping business, and have been for a long time --at least as far back as John Chapman (Johnny Appleseed). As such, trees are pruned or chopped down, berms are ripped out and put somewhere else, grass is cut, weeds are killed -- all in the greater service of a more beautiful landscape or a more productive orchard. How much more do we understand of the pattern of the universe than a grove of volunteer sugar maples, about to be thinned, understands the goal of the landscape architect? Only a little, and that is like looking in a bad mirror [citing Paul].

Far from taking any offense at my friend's reply I welcomed the chance to once again think through these issues.

If you want to contend that while my attitude toward prayer may have some biblical citations, the bulk of the biblical citations go the other way (toward my wife's position), I can't argue with you. Certainly one could pull many citations from Psalms alone asking God for something specific, for example to smite enemies.

My friend replied, in part:
I fall somewhere between the two, maybe a little more toward your side. I note that the Garden of Gethsemane prayer you quote was prefaced by "If possible, let this cup pass from me." So I'm comfortable cautiously offering my own hopes to God in prayer, especially in extreme circumstances, before explicitly submitting to the Divine will, whatever that may be.

I'm comfortable praying explicitly for things that I know God has declared to be good. Hence, I pray vigorously to know the love of Christ and to be enabled to cast aside the sins that entangle me and more and more freed to live in a manner that reflects the sacrificial love of Jesus.

On the other hand, my prayers to be relieved from chronic fatigue are almost as vigorous, but with that element of caution we're talking about. I know that my ultimate health has been secured in forgiveness of sins and in the certain hope of the resurrection of the body. But
I also know that God may have different plans for my immediate health and may be perfecting his strength in my weakness. So prayers about my health tend to get the "not my will but thine" treatment.

[*] beyond the usual pressure in such situations, his younger
brother and our daughter have just started dating.

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