As a pastor I get to talk with a lot of people. The issue of prayer comes up more often than any other topic. I think I understand why but when any pattern is this consistent it piques my attention and compels me to dig a little deeper.
The problem, of course, isn’t for those for whom prayer is an automatic and assumed activity–nor for those who see no point in it. The problem, and thus the need for conversation, resides in those who are thoughtfully attempting to address how exactly a real God really works in the world.
To use a bowling analogy, there seems to be an illusive sweet spot we want to aim at between two proverbial gutters on either side.
The gutter to the left is a mechanistic view that too easily degenerates into prescriptive and formulaic constructs. The universe is not a machine and is not fueled by an individual’s personal piety, sincerity of prayer, amount of prayer, particular words and phrases, or purity of beliefs/doctrine.
The problem with many popular approaches to prayer is exposed when prayer appears not to work because certain outcomes were not achieved or no tangible evidence was produced. The difficulty then is the amount of time and energy one needs to invest to explain why prayer doesn’t always work. The explanations always seem to fall into the same worn ruts involving God’s sovereignty, will and power. In the end these will always fail because God, after all, is not a machine and faith is not the product of an assembly line or factory.
The gutter to the right might be called ‘cosmic coincidence’. One of the difficulties to being a person of faith is that it can be impossible to convince someone who wants to be cynical with enough persuasion as to disavow them of their skepticism. Somehow the concept of belief itself is elusive enough and just abstract enough to not provide the traction it takes to overcome the unqualified need for proof.
It is the narrow ground between these two gutters that I am attempting to navigate. I want to throw out a theory and get your feedback on.
My theory is that both the beauty and the power of prayer–and subsequently God’s work in the world– resides in the fact that God’s power is a low-level signal being broadcast in the world on a weak enough frequency that two things happen:
- the transmission is subtle enough that those who wish to tune it out are capable of doing so. God’s work is not so obvious or overpowering that one is accosted by its blatant effects and thus would have to be in denial not to see it. The work of God in his gentle, subtle, hidden, elusive at times and, as Jack Caputo says ‘weak’.
- at the same time, however, the work of God in the world is just consistent enough as to allow some to codify it and become prescriptive as to the optimal way to pray. Prayer works just enough of the time for just enough of the population for people to come up with formulas as to its power and how to tap into that.
Prayer is like poetry in this sense. Neither is so predictable as to allow themselves to be reduced down to a formula that can be perfected with simple repetition.
but at the same time–both poetry and prayer carry enough consistency to allow for them to be thought of as persuasive.
This is the beauty of prayer for me. I am not praying to an interventionist God behind some supernatural veil asking for that Almighty but temperamental being to puncture the membrane of the natural world and act in a coercive way. The ancient images of God as warrior, puppet master or unseen mover don’t stand up to any level of scrutiny after the 20th century.
We know then what prayer isn’t… So what is it?
Prayer is the partnering of an open heart to participate with a God who is broadcasting a weak signal in the world and which provides to every moment positive possibilities for every living thing to bring about a greater good and beautiful flourishing. As we participate in those positive possibilities we open up greater and more abundant possibilities in subsequent moments. As we resist the potential opportunities provided in the weak signal, we close down and crush possibilities for more abundant flourishing and beauty down the road.
In this way we acknowledge that prayer has just enough going on within it that those who prefer the formulaic or even mechanistic approaches of the past will continue to have just enough data to remain insistent. We also acknowledge that prayer will continue to be just elusive enough that those who wish to tune out the signal that is being broadcast by the divine to feel justified in doing so.
Prayer is the poetry of Spirit. It is not a math formula, a building blueprint, an assembly-line product or a battle plan. Nor is prayer a Christian form of meditation simply useful for aligning one’s heart and mind to the current running in the stream of the universe.
Prayer is a participation in an invitation to partnership that is being broadcast on a weak frequency in the world.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this … I just have two requests:
- Be careful using personal (private) experiences like speaking in tongues or being slain in the spirit as irrefutable evidence of the former ways of understanding that I am attempting to move us on from.
- Don’t talk to me about miracles in S. America, Africa or Asia unless you are from those regions please. I will explain why I make this request in a post next week.