If any activity is universally prescribed
by Christian churches it is prayer. Many sermons are preached about
it. A growing practice of spiritual guidance aims to assist people in
prayer. But thinking about the subject turns up some intractable
difficulties as well as valuable opportunities. Here
Rick debate some aspects of prayer.
Mick: Paul Walker elsewhere on this site describes how he once
thought of prayer as "the oxygen of faith". It was touted to him as "a two-way
conversation with the Almighty, a massive privilege". The trouble was, he
writes, "I could never really manage it myself".
My experience over 40 years of being a Christian has been similar. I have
spent many, many hours dutifully praying to God and Jesus. But all the while I
wondered why I heard only my own voice. If God and Jesus did speak to me in
response, why couldn't I hear them?
Similarly, a mentor once advised me to practice what he called an "arrow
prayer". "When you see a tramp or alcoholic on the street, or meet someone who
looks ill or troubled, just aim a quick thought - like an arrow - to God," he
said. I found that this helped me. But it appeared to have zero effect on the
people prayed for.
Perhaps, Rick, you can advise me. I'm not so cocksure as to suppose that many
before me have not had similar experiences.
Rick: The following remarks are predicated on my belief in a
non-material reality and God.
I like the simple definition of prayer found in Webster�s dictionary: "To
address God with adoration, confession, supplication or thanksgiving." To
address God is an act of faith that there is a God, that he (or she: I�d prefer
not to get into that tortuous argument of gender so I will continue in the
masculine) is receptive to us and is disposed to respond to our prayers.
Furthermore, prayer is essentially a conscious act wherein we are
aware of what we are saying to God. Is it possible our unconscious minds pray? I
don�t know how we can apprehend this possibility so it must remain moot. Quite
likely our subconscious mind continually processes thoughts and feeds them
upward into consciousness; but it is the conscious state that is the final
arbiter of the content. In the conscious state we weigh choices deliberately.
Consciousness enables free will or choice. Consciousness is required for moral
Prayer is a conscious recognition of the primacy of God in our lives. It
defines a relationship and solidarity similar to children and parents
maintaining their affection for one another. The most important element is our
striving to have a relationship with God. Having established this relationship
it is hard for me to imagine how considerations of quantity or quality of prayer
have any meaning. God can�t be bribed. He will not suspend the natural law He
created simply to relieve our suffering. If we stand in awe of the creator and
have trust in him we must view everything as gift, even the bad.
I am reminded of the physician who comes into the hospital room of a severely
ill patient. The air is filled with alarm and dread. The patient and onlookers
are in anguish. The physician calms the air and stills the alarm with coolness,
authority and compassion. Perhaps the final outcome is not affected by his words
or actions but the anxiety and mental pain have been calmed. In our prayers we
ought to seek the coolness and grace of God. We may wish for different outcomes
of our dilemmas; that may or may not be realized but we should always ask for
courage to withstand all of life�s challenges. The most important petition is
for the maintenance of our faith in God.
How does God intervene in the world? Does he use magic tricks? I don�t think
so. There is obviously much mystery in the manner in which God could intercede
in our affairs. God could use us to effect the petitions of our prayers. In this
context it is appropriate to break down prayer into private and public.
In our private prayers, God can help us clarify our thoughts to find
solutions achievable with our own resources. He can serve as counselor infusing
us with knowledge and insights yielding positive conscious action.
In public prayer a broad spectrum of people are exposed to petitions and may
be galvanized to respond to them. We, the people, are the major reservoir of
agents for action on prayer. I think God knows our thoughts and desires so that
any verbalization of prayer must be for the attention of the hearers. When we
petition out loud we are hoping others will hear and be energized to action.
Mick: Your exposition raises many queries. One is to ask what
makes you think that God is interested in our adoration, confession,
supplication and thanksgiving?
I for one have long since ceased relating to anyone either as parent or as
the sort of physician you describe. Yes, life is full of blessings and joys. But
it's also crammed with real terrors which no physician, divine or otherwise, can
Anyway, what mature, balanced person would either ask or require that others
relate to him or her in the manner you describe? In my book such a person would
be pathologically egotistical.
I grant that public prayer is another kettle of fish. Yes, it energises us to
action. But if that's its function, if it works as a corporate sign and
covenant, why is so much of it framed in such self-demeaning, sycophantic terms?
Rick: I agree that prayers can be
framed in self-demeaning and sycophantic terms. I also agree that there are such
things as pathologic egotists. These realities are consistent with the flawed
nature of mankind that could well use some guidance and correction.
I have encountered many persons whom I considered mature and balanced who
sought counsel and strength in times of adversity. As a "pathologic egotist" I
felt constrained by empathy to be of assistance.
Despite all the pitfalls and problems with prayer that you cite, I do not see
how any of them disqualify it as a valuable and effective instrument for many
I have great respect for those who face all problems solely with their own
resources. Such total command of life I have not yet achieved nor do I think
total self-reliance would make my life better. Self-sufficiency can deprive one
of rewarding interpersonal relationships. Interdependence with individuals and
communities is not a bad thing. In fact, I see it as a necessary feature of
Is God interested in our adoration, confession, supplication and
thanksgiving? Answers to this question hinge on one�s conception of God. If he
does not exist, the question is irrelevant. If he is indifferent to creation,
the question is moot. The answer is yes if you believe God not only exists but
has, as well, a personal dimension.
I do not consider prayer as placation of God but, rather, as a natural human
impulse to make contact with the holy and to consciously create a relationship
with transcendent power.
Mick: Fair enough. I'd like you now to try the following on for
size. It's another way of approaching prayer which may fit you - or anyway, may
find a place in your wardrobe.
Prayer for me consists of two streams. These streams are unusual in that they
mix and separate, each constantly enriching the other yet retaining its own
The first stream is my prayer as an individual. Prayer flows through my whole
being. There is no spiritual tributary and the flow never ceases. I am
constantly immersed in life. As I live I pray and I pray while I live. Currents
of prayer fertilise my life. They help me grow into specific life-creating
activities in my tiny part of the world. At the same time, I note and stay aware
of aspects of life in stretches of the stream beyond my reach.
The second stream is public prayer. I pray as an individual during public
prayer. But I also take part in a corporate affirmation of life. I join with
like-minded people in a mighty river of celebration. These waters potentially
nurture everyone, without exception. They include sorrow for personal and
corporate failings, best expressed publicly because of their intertwined nature.
The place of a community in the greater river is celebrated and mutual concerns
expressed. But it is in the main a celebration in many differing forms of the
creation in all its glory.
Anyone can pray like this, though as a Christian I pray personally and
corporately with Jesus of Nazareth in the forefront of my consciousness.
Rick: One of the most important faculties of the human mind is
propositional speech. We communicate with each other with language to share
ideas and feelings. We can literally open our minds to our fellow beings. This
stands in bold contrast to other species who merely signal each other in
rudimentary matters of survival.
Our communications, or better, our conversations imply the presence of an
interlocutor, one with whom we are trying to share our ideas and feelings.
Talking with self is thinking, not conversation. There must be someone outside
of self with whom to speak.
In prayer the interlocutor is God. We do not pray to our fellow humans. We
might admonish them but we do not pray to them.
When we affirm life and celebrate life-creating activities we are not
praying. We are taking conscious note, marking them as positive and fulfilling
events or qualities. Celebration alone has no interlocutor. There is a vast
difference between thinking about something and entering into a conversation
about it. Prayer is a conversation with someone or some power beyond the human.
Our discussion of prayer has once again highlighted our different views of
reality. If there is no God or higher being then, I submit, there can be no
prayer; instead, there are only discussions, speculations, commiserations, etc.
about the nature of the human experience. For some this is sufficient. For
countless others prayer is a vital life-sustaining act that gives purpose and
meaning to their lives.
How each person arrives at either side of the divide is a complex matter as
we have already discussed. What I consider most important is for each individual
to be aware of the choices involved and to take the path that will lead to the
best outcome in this short lifetime.
Mick: Yes, our discussion of prayer illustrates beautifully the
gulf between traditional Christianity and Christianity in exile. There seems no
way of bridging the chasm.
The old picture portrays a world foreign to me. I must take it out of the
frame and store it with due reverence. Into the frame goes the world I know.
The new picture is spoilt if I brush in God as a person. So what I paint is
God in-between everything - between the insubstantial strings of energy which
make up atomic particles, between the weakest whiffs of interstellar gas in the
vast reaches of space/time, between the very neurons of our brains.
This is not a person, but personality itself - indescribably intimate, yet
encompassing all. I trust that this in-between God knows and intimately shares
the world in my picture frame.
The picture I create can't converse with me. But it does in a strange way
communicate with me as I look at it.
So what is important is that I constantly affirm the life which animates the
canvass - my life, the life of others, the life of the universe. I conflict with
elements which seek to paint life out of the image. On my part there is a
constant refocusing, a constant envisioning, and a constant readjustment of the
brush strokes. This process I call prayer.