Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd Nov. 3, 2019
Why do we pray? What is the purpose of prayer? These questions relate to our image of God. Is God like this aloof judge in this parable, needing to be hounded before finally relenting and changing the natural laws to work miracles? If so, why does God answer the prayers of some while ignoring other prayers that are just as earnest and impassioned?
For me, the purpose of prayer is not to change God or God’s mind. Rather, it is to change us, the ones offering prayer, and to change the world. Let’s first look at how prayer changes us.
God does not need to be persuaded to bring healing and love to individuals and to the world. Process theology teaches us that God is already hard at work, sending each person on earth constant impulses of love. When we pray, we are opening ourselves to these impulses. Prayer is like a little window to an alternate reality. When we pause in our life and open the window, we can be refreshed and enlightened. The key word here is “pause”. I sometimes put my nose to the grindstone and push on through to get everything done. But I’ve found that if I immerse myself in doing and don’t make space for being, my busyness—even if it’s good—may block God’s impulses of love. Psalm 46:10 reads “Be still and know that I am God.” We have lost sight of our Jewish roots of Sabbath rest, to our soul’s detriment.
Often the most powerful type of prayer is not based on speaking but on listening. When we meditate and still our minds, we can enter deeply into God’s peace. If our prayers are only full of words, we may miss God’s still, small voice. But when we quiet our souls, we can more easily access God’s guidance, strength, comfort, wisdom, compassion, and forgiveness.
Our attitude can also affect our ability to receive God’s impulses of love. Anger, resentment or bitterness can close us to these impulses. When this happens, it is more difficult to pray, but that’s when we need prayer more than ever. Slowly, prayer can help us release our grip on these negative emotions and open us to God’s love. We may also find ourselves nudged by the Spirit to work on the root cause of these emotions, for they may be our best teachers.
It is very difficult to be still before God. Our monkey minds bounce all over the place. But with persistence in prayer and meditation, we will learn how to still our minds and welcome God’s impulses of love. Our confirmation class is practicing this and I was amazed last week when almost every one of them was able to sit silently and meditate for 5 minutes. Some of them have said that this is their favourite form of prayer. If this active group of youth can do this, there is hope for all of us.
To conclude this first part on how prayer changes us, I would like to lead us in a 1-minute meditation on Psalm 46:10, which I led for our Council last week. I will read various parts of this verse and intersperse them with 10 seconds of silence. Listen to the words and in the following silence, listen to the Spirit.
Be still and know that I am God. (10 sec. of silence)
Be still and know that I am. (10 sec. of silence)
Be still and know. (10 sec. of silence)
Be still. (10 sec. of silence)
Be. (10 sec. of silence)
Now let us look at how prayer changes the world. To offer intercessory prayer, which means prayers for others, does not mean to beg God to perform miracles. Rather, it means to offer ourselves as conduits of God’s healing impulses of love and join our compassion with God’s. Intercessory prayer means to focus and channel love towards the recipient of our prayer.
God does not force love on anyone. God is constantly streaming this love towards us, but it is never forced. When we join our compassion with God’s, there is a strengthening intensity of love, but not a conquering force. Yet, a perseverance of compassion can slowly melt an impenetrable fortress.
There is a chorus written by Meg Christian that assures us of the power of love:
Can we be like drops of water
Falling on the stone
Splashing, breaking, dispersing in air
Weaker than the stone by far but be aware
That, as time goes by,
The rock will wear away.
This is the power of persistent prayer. There have been many studies of people praying and meditating for others. In some studies, one group of patients was prayed for while another group was not. The groups themselves did not know which group was the recipient of prayer. The result was that the patients to whom prayer was directed had a higher percentage of improvement than did those who did not receive prayer.
How could this be so? I don’t believe that God chose only to heal those for whom prayer was directed. God’s impulses of healing love are sent continuously to everyone. But when others add their compassion to God’s and become conduits for an increased focus, energy is created and has a material effect.
Another thing that happens as we pray for others, for the environment, for peace in the world is that our own conscience is raised and we may find the Spirit nudging us to become part of the answer to our prayers. We are moved to become the hands and feet of Christ. Our persistence in prayer leads us to resistance to injustice.
Prayer opens us to a deep, underground wellspring of wisdom that guides us, heals us and frees us to receive God’s impulses of love and pass them on to others.