October 10, 2010
Once upon a time an elderly gentleman, passing his granddaughter’s room one night, overheard her repeating the alphabet in an oddly reverential way. “What on earth are you up to?” he asked.
“I’m saying my prayers,” explained the little girl. “But I can’t think of exactly the right words tonight, so I’m just saying all the letters. God will put them together for me because He knows what I’m thinking.”
Speaking in another context to some Pharisees, Jesus once said, “God knoweth your hearts,” a statement which some see as a reference to Psalm 7, verse 9. Moffatt translates that verse, “The God of justice reads the inmost heart.”
This common Christian conviction, which we conveniently forget most of the time lest we severely limit the range of our thoughts, is a significant hindrance to prayer for some people. For if God always knows what we are thinking and what we want, what is the point of prayer? We certainly can’t be supplying Him with any new information. And why should verbalizing our wishes make a loving God any more anxious to satisfy them?
There are those Christians who have taken the position that all desire is prayer, sometimes warning us of the danger inherent in desiring the wrong things. A poem by James Montgomery begins, “Prayers are the soul’s sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed.” Ralph Waldo Emerson‘s first sermon was on I Thessalonians 5:17, “Pray without ceasing.” In summing up his first point he writes, “Since, then, we are thus, by the inevitable law of our being, surrendered unreservedly to the unsleeping observation of the Divinity, we cannot shut our eyes to the conclusion that every desire of the human mind is a prayer uttered to God and registered in heaven.”
For Emerson at least the matter does not end with desire, however. “For is it not clear,” he writes, “that what we strongly and earnestly desire we shall make every effort to obtain… Unceasing endeavors always attend true prayers, and, by the law of the universe, unceasing endeavors do not fail of their end.” As an old Russian proverb says, “Pray to God but row to the shore.”
It may be that desire is a form of prayer. It may even be that rightly directed effort is a form of prayer. But that is certainly not all there is to prayer. There can be forms of prayer that result in changes in us. There may even be forms of prayer that can change God’s actions towards us or on our behalf, which in no way means that we can manipulate the Deity. But more about that in a moment.
Prayer can change us, though I deny that prayer has only subjective value. Prayer can change us in at least two ways.
In his psychological study of the young Martin Luther, Erik Erikson makes the point that Luther often did not know what he thought or felt about something until he spoke or preached. It was as if what was inside him was projected outside by verbalization, providing him an opportunity to look at it. In a similar way prayer can be a kind of soul searching and self-revelation, often leading to clarification. Or perhaps another way to look at it is that the presence of others can be a stimulation, helping us to thoughts we might otherwise not come to. We all know the value of talking something over with another person. Centuries ago Clement of Alexandria said that prayer was conversation with God. In an age nearer our own Swedenborg said that prayer is talking with God. How often is the outcome of prayer a new insight, a new determination, a new start? In the words of the psalmist, “…with thee is the fountain of life: in thy light shall we see light.”
The Swedenborgian believes that God is personal, that in some sense we can actually interact with Him, and that prayer is a form of such interaction. And God has input into that interaction.
Prayer can help us to change in another way. Gerald Heard has written that “prayer is not asking for things—not even the best things; it is going where they are.” In true prayer we go from whatever natural state we are in to a higher level of reality, to the level where love and truth are all-important. We change our spiritual environment, so to speak. So much of our willing and thinking and doing are from an exclusively this-world point of view. In prayer we seek to “go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths,” as we read in the second chapter of Isaiah. Certainly it is true that we cannot live all of our life on the mountaintop, but it is perilous to live all of our life on the plains or in the valleys. God’s establishment of the Sabbath symbolizes our real need for times of connection with the source—whether we find the keeping of the Sabbath the best way to accomplish that or not.
Earlier I mentioned that prayer may have more than subjective value; prayer may even change God. Well, I don’t quite believe that. At least I’m certain that God’s goodwill towards us cannot be increased by our prayers or diminished by the absence of them. We certainly cannot play on God’s emotions. But prayer can change the situation with which and in which God is working. I think we would all agree that God can do for a repentant sinner what he can’t do for an unrepentant one. I think the principle involved here works in other areas. If through prayer I come to a better knowledge of myself and my motivations, God does not have to work with the same person I was before I prayed. If through prayer I come to new insights about relationships, God has a different person to work with.
This same principle might also apply when there are many praying for the same thing. New insights may come. New energy may be generated. A new situation may be created. But there is a danger involved. Let me tell you the story about a wagonload of prayers.
It seems that a poor man who lived in the country had an accident and broke his leg. His family was large, he could not work, and he had no savings. Someone thought it would be a good idea to hold a prayer meeting at the church to pray for the family. When the prayer meeting came, one after another the people asked God to help the family, to send them food and otherwise care for their needs. Suddenly there was a loud knock on the door. When it was opened, all could see a young farm boy standing there. He said, “My dad couldn’t attend tonight, so he just sent his prayers in a wagon.” And there was the wagon, loaded with canned goods and the products of the farm.
Prayer is never a substitute for action, when the form of action required is clear. I doubt that God is going to do for us that which we should and could do for ourselves. But both individual and group prayer may be a means by which we come to understand what we can and should do.
I will not pretend that I have done more than scratch the surface of the subject of prayer this morning. But I hope I have enhanced your feeling that prayer is important. This is not to say that I believe all prayer is important. Prayer that is mere words is not important. Prayer that substitutes for action is not important. But prayer that brings us into communication with God at some depth has saving potential. Amen.
Gracious God, I put everything into your hands;
I lay everything on your altar;
I take nothing back
and I yield all things to your glory;
now and forever.
- Mary Slessor (1848-1918)
Across the years she comes to me -
I see her standing by my knee.
She lives within my memory,
The little girl who used to be.
She wandered far away from me,
Her way was dark, she could not see.
Lord, bring her back to me, to Thee.
~ At last she comes,
Oh, glory be!
- Alice Sloneker Clemens, “Little Girl Lost,” in From the Heart
Rev. Edwin G. Capon