Why Pray?


Genesis 32:22-31

Psalm 121

2 Timothy 3:14—4:5

Luke 18:1-8

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, tireless guardian of your people, you are always ready to hear our cries. Teach us to rely day and night on your care. Inspire us to seek your enduring justice for all this suffering world, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart.” Luke 18:1.

Why pray? Is it really the case that God is largely disinterested in our little lives and loath to get involved with them? And is it also true that, if sufficiently needled with enough prayer, God can be goaded into action? That seems to be the message of the parable at first blush. It seems to be an interpretation that many of us buy into. “Don’t worry Dad,” I overheard a woman say to an elderly man in the ICU where I have spent more time than lately than I care to recount. “Everybody in church is praying for you.” I think that was meant to be comforting and it probably was. It means a lot to know that you are surrounded by the love and prayers of a caring community. But I wonder about the underlying assumption. Is God really more likely to intervene on behalf of this man, who is the object of numerous prayers by numerous people, than to act for the man in the next room who has no family, friends or church to pray for him?

Does prayer influence God? Should it? If God knows infinitely more than we do about every situation, what is needed and what should be done, what can our prayers add? If God can be trusted to know and to do what is right, what is the point of prayer? How do we know that we are praying for the right things? I might want a sunny day for the church picnic, but the local farmers desperately need rain. My prayers can be selfish, misguided and uninformed. I will always be missing the “big picture” only God can see. So why pester God with information God already has, advice God doesn’t need and desires that may be altogether wrong? Why not just let God be God and go confidently about our human affairs knowing that what lies beyond them is in capable hands?

Some argue that prayer is more about the transformation of the one who prays than about swaying God’s opinion. There is something to be said for this outlook. I can vouch for the fact that, through the exercise of prayer over time, I have come to understand the selfishness of my requests, the limits of my understanding and a greater dependance on and faith in God. But while I recognize the importance of this aspect of prayer, I am not prepared to reduce prayer to nothing more than a spiritual exercise for personal edification. If that were the case, we wouldn’t need to involve God at all.

Plagued with these questions during my high school years, I turned to Dietrich Bonhoeffer at my brother’s suggestion. Brother Steve, then a seminary student, was a good listener and a ready source of information on questions like these. He gave me a copy of Bonhoeffer’s book Meditations on the Psalms, wherein Bonhoeffer writes: “The only way to understand the Psalms is on your knees, the whole congregation praying the words of the Psalms with all its strength.” So, I put aside all of my metaphysical troubles with prayer and began praying though the psalms on a daily basis-a practice I continue to maintain to this day. I learned a few things from this daily ritual and life long immersion in the psalms.

Praise is the first lesson I learned from the psalms. There are numerous prayers that ask God for nothing; complain to God about nothing and expect from God absolutely nothing. They simply praise God for God’s mighty deeds, for God’s love and compassion and the beauty of God’s creation. While much of our church teaching and preaching focuses on goodness and truth, beauty is often neglected. Much of our public proclamation and preaching is infected with anger or delivered in language that is abstract, theoretical and sterile. The psalms are filled with metaphors, similies and imagery taken from the natural world and the great stories of God’s salvation. They challenge us to fill our prayers with this same rich and powerful language.

Related to praise is thanksgiving. Gratitude is a mainstay of the psalms. Israel never forgot that it was a community formed by God’s many mighty acts of salvation. When offering praise, God’s goodness is lifted up. When crying out for deliverance, God’s past works of salvation are invoked to inspire confidence in facing present threats. God was acknowledged and thanked for the rains nurturing rich harvests, for times of peace and prosperity and for the promise of Israel’s future destiny. It sounds corny to say that one ought to count one’s blessings, but that old saw is true.   

Yet I also had my share of problems with the psalms. First of all, many of the psalms cry out for help against enemies. I had a difficult time relating to these petitions as I cannot say I have any enemies. There are of course, people who don’t like me and people who have hurt and disappointed me at times. But as far as I know, nobody is out to kill me, take my home or injure my family. Frankly, I would be shocked to learn that there were such people. I would like to think that is because I am so even tempered and amiable. But I suspect it has more to do with the fact that, as a straight, white upper middle class male, I have managed to navigate life without worries about whether my dress is too provocative, how my accent or skin color is being perceived or what my interviewer would think if he or she knew who I loved and what my family was like. I never had any problem getting credit or applying for a mortgage. When I say that I am “privileged,” I don’t mean to say that I didn’t work hard to achieve all that I have accomplished. But I understand now that I had a huge head start in life that many folks do not.

So perhaps my lack of enemies demonstrates that I am standing on the wrong side of the gap between rich and poor, oppressed and oppressors. The psalms were written in part by a people who know conquest, occupation and colonization. Lately, I have quarried my church leaders about taking up the call for reparations to Black Americans for centuries of slavery, segregation and discrimination that continues to this day. See Open Letter to the ELCA Presiding Bishop and Synodical Bishops: A Modest Proposal for Reparational Tithe. With one notable exception, this letter met with a resounding silence.[1] Perhaps if more of us put our privilege toward pushing our church leaders, and if our churches take serious steps toward compensating those whose oppression helped to enrich us, we will discover that we have some formidable enemies. Then the psalms crying out for justice against oppression will come more naturally from our lips.

Another problem I had with the psalms is their frequent calls for vengeance. That seems to run contrary to everything Jesus teaches us in the Sermon on the Mount. But the truth is, I have harbored secret desires to see vengeance against people who hurt me. I know that is not what I have been taught, but it is how I sometimes feel. As one wise colleague told me years ago, “feelings are not right or wrong. They just are.” While it might grate on me to pray that my enemies “little ones” have their brains bashed our against the rock (Psalm 137:9), I can understand how victims of war, occupation and genocide might feel that way. The important thing, though, is that the psalmists leave the business of actually carrying out punishment of the wicked in the hands of the God to whom they pray. They do not take that task upon themselves. Thus, prayer is a place to which we can bring our whole selves-even the bad and the ugly.

One question the psalms do not answer is the question with which I began? What exactly does prayer do? The stories of Abraham’s plea for the righteous citizens within the evil cities of Sodom and Gommorah and God’s response to the repentance of Assyria indicate that God’s mind can be changed. What neither of these stories tell us is when, where and how God’s mind is changed and how God responds to our prayers. I have often found comfort in the belief that every transaction in the Universe, from grand historical events to the revolutions of the most minute subatomic particles, has a “God factor” built into it nudging the world closer to the new heaven and earth God envisions for us. That leaves plenty of room for creation’s freedom and human agency. It also leaves room for robust prayer and for God to surprise us with outcomes we could never have anticipated.

Here is a poem/prayer by Anna Kamienska capturing what a mature prayer might look like.  

A Prayer That Will Be Answered

Lord let me suffer much
and then die

Let me walk through silence
and leave nothing behind not even fear

Make the world continue
let the ocean kiss the sand just as before

Let the grass stay green
so that the frogs can hide in it

so that someone can bury his face in it
and sob out his love

Make the day rise brightly
as if there were no more pain

And let my poem stand clear as a windowpane
bumped by a bumblebee’s head.

Source: Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamienska, (c.. 2007 byParaclete Press; translated from the Polish by Grazyna Drabik and David Curzon). Anna Kamienska (1920-1986) was the member of a distinguished generation of Polish writers who experienced the Second World War as young people. Many of her colleagues died at the hands of the Nazis. During the war she taught in underground schools in the Lublin region, having studied Education in Warsaw. She continued her studies after the War and subsequently became deeply involved in the literary life of the Polish capital, working on the important monthly magazine Creativity. You can find out more about Anna Kamienska and sample more of her work at the Poetry Foundation website.

[1] A notable exception is the New Jersey Synod of the ELCA which has launched project raising funds for deepening education regarding reparations and the role of leaders of color in our church. The program will further address structural barriers to persons of color seeking to serve the ELCA and has raised substantial funds for scholarships for the education, training and participation of these leaders. Most importantly, the program was formed and is being implemented in partnership with the ELCA’s leaders of color. Kudos to Bishop Bartholomew and her staff for their prophetic leadership!

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